by I.M. Sidroni (Sendrowicz)
Translated by Alex Weingarten
I have called this chapter, which describes the economic and security conditions of the Jews of Sierpc in the last years before the Second World War, before the horrible days of the Holocaust, In the Valley of Tears. This is because before the evil, wild and cruel Germans turned Poland into a hell for the Jews of Europe in general and the Jews of Poland in particular, their Polish neighbors turned the country into a valley of tears for them, a place of troubles and calamity, of poverty and neediness, of threats and fear.
I have before me a bundle of letters that includes correspondence between the Aid Committee in Sierpc and the Relief Committee of Sierpc townspeople in America. They are about sending monetary assistance, both in the form of support and in the form of constructive help to the poor Jews of Sierpc. (Those that became poor recently, and those that were already poor; those whose poverty was well known and those who tried to keep it a secret.) These letters were written near the outbreak of the Second World War, that is, in the good days before the wild animals came out of their lairs, and before they burst into the dwellings of Israel and destroyed and tortured and killed men, women, and children, six million Jews, one third of our people. I do not have the complete correspondence before me. Many of the letters from the Aid Committee in Sierpc to the Relief Committee in America are missing, and only two that were written from America have survived.
In spite of this, with just part of the correspondence still in existence, and written before the deluge, the picture of the lives of the Jews in Poland and in Sierpc in particular is desolate and depressing. The cries for help that are present in the lines and between the lines of these letters is proof of the state of the Jews in the Polish valley of tears before the Holocaust that uprooted all of Polish Jewry; the conditions worsened with time both in terms of personal safety and of economic circumstances.
A cold and dispirited odor emanates from the letters in front of me; all of them relate tales of sadness and poverty, depression and wretchedness. But some of them, the most interesting among them, excel in expressing these conditions. Some of them exhibit a chill that is enough to freeze the blood in one's veins and deprive the reader of any will to live. The most challenging of the letters are those that include a list of recipients of aid. One is shocked to read names, many names, of persons that are remembered as people of means, with secure positions. They were collectors of donations and contributors to charity, yet here their names appear as recipients of support. There are more interesting letters that describe in detail the security and economic state of the Jews of Sierpc as it degenerates and collapses with each passing day. You watch your brothers, the Jews of Sierpc, in the downward spiral of their living conditions, as their livelihoods disappear and their powerlessness when their personal safety is placed in the hands of hooligans, with no savior in sight.
The last letter is especially shocking. It was written on August 15, 1939, fifteen days before the outbreak of the Second World War, which brought the great and awful destruction, the almost absolute end of Polish Jewry and the extermination of the Jews of Sierpc. It uprooted them, dispersed them, and abandoned them to starvation, disease, and death. You can see the deep abyss opening beneath their feet, as they are troubled by their mundane problems, not feeling the coming catastrophe that will completely consume them and all their families, that is coming towards them so swiftly. The feeling while reading this letter is terrible, a letter written at the brink of disaster.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not have all the letters in this correspondence. I have 24 letters from the Aid Committee of Sierpc to the Relief Committee of Sierpc townspeople in America, with five lists of aid recipients including names enclosed, and one list without names (but with amounts and occupations listed). There are also two letters from the American Relief Committee to the Sierpc Aid Committee. The first of the letters from Sierpc was written on March 1, 1937, and the last on August 15, 1939. The letters from America were written on January 4 and March 17, 1938. The letters from Sierpc were written by the secretary of the Aid Committee, Dov Czerka (except for one letter written by the committee member Moshe Gutsztat and parts of two letters written by committee member Meir Zashutke). Mordecai Rzejsotko, the secretary of the Relief Committee, wrote the letters from America.
The Relief Committee was composed of representatives of four organizations of Sierpc townspeople in America: G'milut Hasadim [Beneficial Fund], Yung Mans (the young auxiliary), the Ladies' Auxiliary, and Agudat Poalim (branch 42 of the National Hebrew Workers' Union). The heads of the Aid Committee were appointed by the Relief Committee, and added the rest of the Sierpc members to the committee.
Among the letters that I have before me, there are also letters some that came from other institutions in Sierpc, and by individuals. Their content is similar to the other letters – requests for help from the brothers across the ocean. These also reflect the depressing state of Jewish life in Sierpc, forlorn and threatened, lives of poverty and waste. The two letters from individuals are especially shocking, detailing their private problems – which are typical of the troubles in general – where every line and word cries out to heaven about distress, helplessness, and impossibility of escape from the awful reality.
I have translated below [into Hebrew] short summaries of these letters. The more important letters are presented with almost a complete translation and sometimes fully translated,
A. Letters from the Aid Committee
I am presenting the full text of the first letter in this correspondence. It is the basis and the badge of honor for the institution that the townspeople of Sierpc in America built to help their poor brethren in Sierpc. These were suffering from the financial crisis and anti-Semitism, and had seen their livelihoods collapse as a result. Their numbers grew in Sierpc, as they did all over Poland. As can be understood from the letter, the initiative for an aid fund came from our brothers in America, and they named the first committee members in Sierpc. These members asked the rest to join them. Avrahamia Wluka was appointed chairman and Dov (Be'er) Czarka was the secretary.
This letter also contains a brief description of the anti-Semitic atmosphere and the beleaguered state of the Jews of Poland, including those of Sierpc. It was written by Czarka on March 1, 1937:
To the provisional committee for ‘The Relief of Sierpc Jews’ of America.
Very Honorable Gentlemen:
After we received your letter about the aid organization you want to establish for the distressed Jews of Sierpc, the persons named in your letter met. We discussed the importance of such an organization at this time, and expressed gratitude for your initiative. We want to convey our hope that this organization will be formed with our mutual agreement. We feel that the aid should be constructive, and with a shared will we can introduce new values into the help we will provide. The reputation of the people who want to establish your organization are the assurance that it will be successful, forward looking, and built on practical principles.
At this opportunity, we would like to inform you in brief on the situation in Poland in general, and in Sierpc in particular.
The influence of the reactionaries on the Polish people and political affairs is increasing. We are seeing an increasing collaboration between the Andatzia and government circles. They are easy to understand in their attitude towards the Jewish question: they all feel that the Jews are a foreign constituent, and should leave Poland as quickly as possible. They are constantly occupied by this problem, with the old formula of ‘Let's get the better of them,’ meaning how can we remove the Jews from their positions in the economy, that they gained over hundreds of years. The government ignores the terrible incitement against the Jews in the reactionary newspapers. A result of these constant provocations is that every day there are cruel attacks on Jews, and in many cases, Jewish blood is spilled. They cannot forgive our great sin that we are alive and exist. The boycott is applied very strictly, the economic situation of the Jews is becoming worse, and we, the Jews of Sierpc, are no exception. It is enough if we inform you that over 200 families are receiving the meager support that the community can allow itself. It is not an exaggeration to state that another 200 families are starving because they do not want to reveal the extent of their hardship. We all have an obligation to try and ease, even if only a little, their terrible distress. Let us hope that together we can do something about this matter.
We have decided to add five more people to our committee. The composition of the committee is now as follows:
- Avraham Wluka, 34 Warshawska Street
- Moshe Gutsztat, 6 Basharpian Place
- Hirsh Mottle, Lipnovska Street
- Ber Czarka, Wloky Male 7
- Eliyahu Meir Schleifer, Farska Street
- Yitzhak David Schnitzer, P.O.W. Street
- Pesach Skornik. 8 Warshawska Street
- Baruch Mendel Gotlibowski, Farska Street
- Baruch Atlas, Warshawska Street
We would like to ask you to send the money to Avraham Wluka and the correspondence to Ber Czarka. It is best to send Polish Zlotys from America.
We have no other news. We wish you well in your efforts.
In the name of the committee:
- Ber Czarka
- Hirsch Mottle
- Avraham Wluka
- Moshe Gutsztat
Apparently, the four signatories of this letter are the committee members appointed by the Relief Committee in America.
The letter from April 19, 1937 starts with an accounting of the money that was distributed. Two hundred and eleven families received a total of 1,574 Zlotys. These were:
|2 families each received 25 Zlotys||8 families each received 7 Zlotys|
|3 families each received 20 Zlotys||12 families each received 6 Zlotys|
|21 families each received 15 Zlotys||53 families each received 5 Zlotys;|
|41 families each received 10 Zlotys||31 families each received 4 Zlotys|
|4 families each received 12 Zlotys||18 families each received 3 Zlotys|
|18 families each received 8 Zlotys||4 families each received 2 Zlotys|
This letter is also worthwhile translating almost completely, because of its descriptions of the bitter life and hardships of the Jews of Sierpc that it contains. We present a translation below of large parts of the letter.
As you can see from our report, the committee distributed support to 211 families, that is, to 40% of the Jewish population of Sierpc. If we take into consideration that there are many people who do not want to reveal the extent of their poverty and distress, we come to the conclusion that half of the Jews in Sierpc are going hungry.
You are probably wondering about the great difference between the largest and smallest amounts of support. We want to inform you that in distributing the money, we had to consider the following factors.
Among the recipients, there were people who were receiving support for the first time. These are people who are still known to the public as merchants who are making a living at their trade, who were reduced to such a state that their neighbors turned to us, without their knowledge, and asked us to provide for them. We gave these people large amounts, between 15 and 25 Zlotys. We gave 10 Zlotys to those not supported by other institutions such as the community or Beit Lehem. 5 to 8 Zlotys were given to those who receive aid from various charitable institutions, and do not hide their poverty anymore. People who do not pass up any opportunities to receive money were given 2 to 4 Zlotys. Some of them go from door to door in the town, and others beg in other towns. Of course, we took into consideration the size of the family, and their real conditions.
Mordecai Rzejsotko asks in his letter, ‘What do we mean by constructive aid? We must clarify this. All the people who received the aid, with few exceptions, had to spend the money on their Passover expenses. This means that the support was a temporary solution, for only a week…Otherwise, it would have been constructive aid that decreases the privation and reduces the number of recipients. There were a number of recipients who could have become independent if they were each given 100 Zlotys. Such an amount would have allowed a poverty stricken craftsman to renew his workshop, or a depressed merchant to revive his store or stall, or a peddler in the villages to renew his stock or rent a fruit orchard to earn some money. We should point our aid in this direction…But we will never accomplish this with gifts of ten Zlotys…We must be ready to support every economic undertaking that is apt to fail because of the boycott and the whims of the ant-Semites. That, we feel, should be the purpose of this committee.’
…We have not listed the recipients in our report because we did not want some of their names to become public. There is an apprehension that because of the sensational nature of the issue, that formerly wealthy people of Sierpc are now in need of support, their identities will become known through private letters sent from there to here. We hope that you agree with us in this matter. Please write and give us your opinion,
You have requested that we let you know the occupations of the recipients. The present status of Polish Jews is such that it is difficult to find the dividing line between the laborer and the craftsman, and the craftsman and the merchant, because many of them are willing to accept any work they can find, and they still do not have enough to feed their families. In spite of this, we can inform you that the situation is as follows: 75 merchants, 25 craftsmen, 10 peddlers, 60 laborers and unemployed, and 41 that are not capable of working,
The letter is signed by the members of the committee:
Apparently, the Relief Committee did not accept the explanation in the previous letter, that there is a fear that the names of the recipients will become public knowledge, and demanded to know their names. Of course the Aid Committee acceded to the request, and following the receipt and distribution of every dispatch of money, it sent the list of recipients. The first list in this correspondence is from May 30, 1937 (the accompanying letter is missing). The heart breaks looking at the names in this list. Many of the names are those of established bourgeoisie, known as good providers and generous contributors to charity. Some of them are remembered as the wealthy people in town, and here they have been reduced to begging for a few measly Zlotys. And even if we know that the troubles that came later were much worse, and ended with destruction and annihilation, we are still shocked today by the names of the recipients, and instinctively, a shriek bursts out, Woe to the eyes that are reading this.
The sum that was distributed according to this list was 1,574 Zlotys, which was divided among 212 families. The signatories of this list: Dov Czarka, Pesach Skornik, B. Atlas, B. M. Gotlibowski, Moshe Gutsztat, Eli Meir Schleifer, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, Avraham Wluka, and Hirsh Mottle.
In the letter dated August 9, 1937, the Aid Committee writes to the Relief Committee that they distributed the received money, between 1 and 40 Zlotys per family. Some families were given larger amounts than usual because they wanted to re-establish them, but there is a feeling that they may need more help. They could not carry out the Relief Committee recommendation to give ten families 50 Zlotys each because of the many needy families. In addition to the signers of the previous letters, this one had two more signatories: Meir Zashutke and Binyamin Eliezer Sabel.
According to the list of recipients enclosed with this letter, the sum of 1,581 Zlotys was divided between 177 families. (1,575 Zlotys had been received and 6 Zlotys were lent by committee members.)
Czarka, the only signer of a letter from November 11, 1937 states that the committee received 200 dollars and distributed them immediately, and will send the list of recipients in a few days.
The following is a translation of a long passage from this letter that describes the forlorn situation of all the Jews of Poland, including the Jews of Sierpc, in the Polish valley of tears:
You have probably read the latest news from Poland in the newspapers. Unfortunately, we have to tell you that the situation is becoming worse every day. The reactionaries in Poland are advancing in giant steps. We here in Sierpc can feel the anti-Semitic provocation in all of its brutality. Because you want to know what is happening to us in our daily lives, we can send you the following news.
The anti-Semitic hooligans have lately come up with a new innovation. This is called picketen (inspectors). Their method is very simple: They stand in front of the Jewish stores and do not let the Polish customers inside. This activity began in Sierpc on the day of the fair, on Wednesday, the third of this month. They stood outside some Jewish stores, and would not let buyers enter. On market day, Tuesday, the ninth of this month, some tens of hooligans came from out of town, and ‘inspected’ not only the stores, but also the pitiful stalls in the market, and dragged the buyers away. This had a shocking effect on us. Our fear is great, because we don't know what the next day will bring. We turned to the authorities without any success. They said that the ‘inspection’ activities are permitted. As is well known, this is the position of the central government in Warsaw, especially of the prime minister, that the economic struggle against the Jews is welcome. This is our situation in Poland in the twentieth year of its independence. We are searching for ways to deal with this vulgar hooliganism. Safety on the roads has disappeared a long time ago, and the peddlers in the villages who travel to fairs suffer insults and beatings. The situation is getting worse, there is complete lawlessness. The anti-Semitic craze has infected everyone, from the rectors at the universities to the pupils at the elementary schools. If this anti-Semitic war of eradication continues, the poorer classes face total financial ruin.
Signed, Ber Czarka.
In a letter from December 13, 1937, which has a list of recipients enclosed, the Aid Committee informs the Relief Committee that it is sending a list of the people who received parts of the 200 dollars that were received six weeks earlier. The list was not sent promptly because some of the committee members were involved with the activities of the self-defense committee set up for protection from the picketen. The past two weeks in Sierpc have been quiet.
They write that only small sums have been distributed, as can be seen from the list, the largest being 10 Zlotys. This is only a minor relief. The committee feels very uncomfortable about constantly asking for money, each time saying, Give! Give! but it has no choice. Money is being collected every day in Sierpc as well, but it is all only a drop in the ocean.
As mentioned, a list of recipients is attached to the letter. There is a summary at the end of the list which states that 202 families received 1050 Zlotys:
|17 families each received 10 Zlotys||37 families each received 5 Zlotys|
|6 families each received 9 Zlotys||31 families each received 4 Zlotys|
|23 families each received 8 Zlotys||48 families each received 3 Zlotys|
|14 families each received 7 Zlotys||15 families each received 2 Zlotys|
|10 families each received 12 Zlotys||1 families each received 1 Zlotys|
Signed were Dov Czarka, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, Pesach Skornik, Baruch Atlas, Avraham Wluka, Moshe Gutsztat, B. M. Gotlibowski, Eli Meir Schleifer, Binyamin Eliezer Sabel, and Meir Zashutke. A comment states that committee member Hirsch Motil was ill and thus is not among the signatories, but he had participated in distributing the money.
There are two letters sent by the Relief Committee in America among this correspondence. The letters were written by Mordecai Rzejsotko, the secretary of the Relief Committee, on January 4 and 17 March 1938. The gist of these letters is that the Relief Committee had decided to change the form of the aid – at least most of it – from donations to loans. The committee had contacted the Organization of Polish Jews in America (that also sent monetary aid to the Jews in Poland). They had agreed to set up a fund of 1000 dollars for no interest loans with easy terms to those Jews in Sierpc for whom a loan like this – not large but significant – would prevent total financial collapse. The two parties would be equal partners in this fund. The money would be sent to the agent of the organization in Warsaw who will send a representative to Sierpc to determine, together with the Aid Committee the procedures for granting loans. Because the Relief Committee knew that there is a similar charitable institution in Sierpc, Gmilat Hasadim [Beneficial Fund], it asked the Aid Committee in Sierpc to explain to the emissary as clearly as possible what is Gmilat Hasadim, its goals, activities, the kind of people to whom it lends money, on what terms, the size of the loans, etc.
We see the reverberations of this proposal in many letters written from Sierpc to America following these two letters from the Relief Committee. But we do not have a clear understanding of them, not only because we don't have more letters written from America to Sierpc, but because we do not have some of the letters written from Sierpc to America. The matter dragged on for some time, and in the end, the Relief Committee cut its ties to the Organization of Polish Jews in America and sent the money through the Cooperative Banking Union in Warsaw.
In the letter of January 12 1938, the Aid Committee writes to the Relief Committee:
The Gmilat Hasadim Fund received a letter today from Warsaw from the Committee for the Distribution of Funds Sent by Organizations of Polish Jews Abroad. They write that they have sent, through the People's Bank in Sierpc, the sum of 3,960 Zlotys, which is 750 dollars. The Gmilat Hasadim Fund is supposed to use this money to give loans, but has to consult with the Aid Committee. The Aid Committee is supposed to approve receipt of the money.
The committee convened a meeting, at which it was decided not to accept the money, for the following reasons: a) according to your correspondence, we were supposed to have receive 1500 dollars, not 750 dollars; b) they want promissory notes from Gmilat Hasadim for the money received; and c) the committee in Warsaw has not contacted us about the plans and conditions for granting loans. We await your instructions on whether to accept the 750 dollars. Till then, it will remain deposited in the People's Bank. We hope that you will respond to the fact that the ‘Organization of Polish Jews in America’ is not acting in accordance with the agreement you made with them.
The demand for money by our suffering brethren is great; their distress has increased this winter because of the expansion of the boycott by the local anti-Semites.
Signed: Dov Czarka, Eli Meir Schleifer, Baruch Atlas, Moshe Gutsztat, and Yitzhak David Schnitzer.
In a letter dated March 24 1938, the Aid Committee writes to the Relief Committee:
We have not yet received the 250 dollars that the ‘Organization of Polish Jews in America’ was supposed to send us as per your last letter. Additionally, the emissary that the Organization was supposed to send here according to your arrangement has not come. In the meantime, Passover approaches, and the hardships of the Jews of Sierpc increase.
As for your question, about our plan if you would send us for instance 500 dollars, then our plan is: deposit part of the money, depending on the amount sent, with the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. Possibly enough money will accumulate there so that we can grant loans. We will distribute the rest of the money, a somewhat larger sum, as you requested, to the poorest people.
Please write about how everything is with you and your plans for the future. Let us know how the impression that the events in Austria made on American Jews. Tomorrow is Judgment Day for Kosher slaughtering. Tomorrow the Sejm (Polish parliament) will discuss the edict on prohibition of Jewish ritual slaughtering. The Jewish counter attack is very weak. The ‘Rabbinical Union’ has decreed the reading of Psalms tomorrow.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
The Aid Committee wrote to the Relief Committee on May 16, 1938:
The money was received on the last week before Passover, and we managed to distribute it among the needy. We will send the list of recipients in a second letter. The emissary of the Organization of Polish Jews who was supposed to visit us so that we could prepare a plan for future aid together has not come yet. Perhaps you can speed up his coming?
Signed: Dov Czarka, Meir Zashutke, and Yitzhak David Schnitzer.
In a letter from May 31, 1938, the Aid Committee of Sierpc writes that it is sending the list of recipients that received support before Passover. (The list is not among the correspondence that we have.) The committee takes note of the recommendation of the Relief Committee and will add the person recommended and invite him to the next committee meeting. (The name of the person is not given.) At the end of the letter, the committee mentions the increase in anti-Semitism as a result of what happened in Brześć. All the Polish newspapers justify the savage acts against the Jews, and government circles also exhort against the economic positions of the Jews. It is very difficult to live in this atmosphere saturated with hate.
Signed were Dov Czarka, Pesach Skornik, B. Atlas, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, B. M. Gotlibowski, Avraham Wluka, Moshe Gutsztat, Hirsch Mottle, and Eli Meir Schleifer.
In a letter dated June 23, 1938, the Aid Committee turns to the Relief Committee about a personal matter. This concerns a public figure that has lost most of his assets, and in addition he has (and not just him) a new problem. The cities and towns of Poland have been engaged in municipal improvements. Because of this, the authorities order that old houses that are in the center of town be torn down. These edicts usually affect Jews, and many families face the prospect of being without a roof over their heads. This Jew was affected by this edict. He may be able to defer the implementation for a year or two, but he needs money for this. He wrote to his brother in America about this, but did not receive a positive reply. Apparently they find it difficult to believe that their brother's situation has become so bad. Therefore the Aid Committee requests that the Relief Committee contact his brother about this urgent matter.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
A list of recipients is enclosed with the letter of August 20, 1938. This states that 2,023 Zlotys were shared by 233 people. In addition, 77 Zlotys were deposited with the Gmilat Hasadim Fund.
The committee apologizes for the delay in sending the list, and promises to select a more active secretariat in the next few days, that will take care of the correspondence more expediently. The committee writes:
This list will convince our brethren in America that the poverty and misery have grown among our brothers in Sierpc. In contrast with 211 recipients a year ago, there are now 233 recipients. If some of the Sierpc townspeople in America tend to believe that the aid is not very necessary, let us explain the gravity of the situation. At the end of the list, we state that we deposited 77 Zlotys in the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. But do not think that there was no one to whom to give the money. The actual case is that when you informed us that you are sending 400 dollars we thought we would put at least 300 Zlotys in the Gmilat Hasadim Fund, as a start to a project that would deal with constructive aid. This would be either by way of loans, or another way to be determined in consultation with the emissary of the ‘Organization of Polish Jews in America’ who is supposed to visit us. But the pressure of the needy was so great that we were able to deposit only 77 Zlotys in the fund, and that with great difficulty. We ask you to talk to the ‘Organization’ to expedite the emissary's visit.
We agree with you that there is a need to set up a credit institution for the very poor, but this arrangement must be based on feelings of compassion and not on legalities. This means that it must be clear that some of the debtors, in spite of the pressure from the institution, will not repay the loans, and your help for this institution will still be necessary in the future,
The anti-Semitic propaganda is increasing, and now the edict about municipal improvements and tearing down old houses has been added. This edict is a heavy blow to part of the Jewish population.
Signed were Meir Zashutke, Hirsch Mottle, Pesach Skornik, Binyamin Eliezer Sabel, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, Eli Meir Schleifer, Moshe Gutsztat, Atlas Baruch, Avraham Wluka, and Dov Czarka.
The Aid Committee wrote on September 24, 1938:
We have received your letter. We have not yet received the money. The emissary from Warsaw has not visited us yet. The Gmilat Hasadim Fund has received a letter from the Warsaw representatives of the ‘Organization of Polish Jews in America’ that they have 750 dollars for them.
The ‘Aid Committee’ requests that the ‘Relief Committee,’ if it has not already sent the money, to send 200 dollars to the enclosed address. If it has already been sent, perhaps you can send part of the 750 dollars to the same address.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
In a letter dated December 3, 1938, the Aid Committee writes to the Relief Committee:
We have not yet distributed the 200 dollars; so that in any case we are unable to send the list of recipients to you. We have written that the 200 dollars has been deposited in our name, but we will be able to use it only after we receive a letter from you that you want the money forwarded to the address that we sent you.
The visit of the emissary from Warsaw concerning the 1,500 dollars has still not taken place. This matter has been up in the air for over a year, with no sign of a conclusion. In the meantime, the poverty is getting worse and the distress is increasing and expanding. Please do something about this problem at the ‘Organization of Polish Jews in America’ so that they will hurry up and put an end to the affair.
About our correspondence, we are at fault for the delay in writing, but not purposefully or because of negligence of our duties. The few people who are active in the Aid Committee are occupied in various fields of public service. With the increase in misery, the efforts for rescue become greater. Secondly, we were in a state of anticipation: we were waiting every day for the 200 dollars and for the arrival of the emissary. And so, time passed.
If only we had enough talent to describe the hardship that is prevalent among our brethren in Sierpc, it would undoubtedly shock our brothers in America. But we do not have the talent for this. Therefore, we are writing in brief. The economic situation here gets worse every day: eviction from apartments and the hunger of families are an everyday occurrence. We collect charity every day to ease the lives of those in misery. But it is all a drop in the ocean. It is not an exaggeration to state that the number of recipients exceeds the number of donors.
Then the letter talks about the distress of the Jewish refugees from Germany who are floundering on the border between Poland and Germany. Over 10,000 Jews were ejected from their houses, naked and barefoot, rotting in horse stables and suffering from cold and hunger.
The letter ends: This is the life of the Jews in our country, and the example set by our neighbor to the west.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
An undated letter to the Relief Committee written by Aid Committee member Moshe Gutsztat belongs, in our opinion, in this place in this series of letters.
The author of the letter apologizes (as in previous letters) on the sluggishness in the exchange of correspondence, and promises to submit a proposal about this at the next committee meeting. He gives a reason for the scarcity of letters: because most of the other members are busy with other public service… A letter with a list of recipients was sent some time ago. The letter continues:
Concerning the complaint received by the ‘Relief Committee,’ please review the list of recipients, and give us your opinion of the distribution. In the view of almost all the members of the ‘Aid Committee,’ – the judgment of the people who are on the spot – the distribution is excellent. Certainly, there is no reason to doubt the integrity of the committee. It is unfortunate that someone feels that he needs to send complaints. The complaints are apparently due to the fact that the ability of the committee to help is less than the extent of the misery. Unfortunately, we do not have a solution for this problem.
Signed by Moshe Gutsztat.
We are translating the letter of January 22, 1939 almost in its entirety, because of its great value in describing the three financial institutions in Jewish Sierpc. These are the financial institutions that assisted the Jews of Sierpc – a lot, or a little – in the period between the two world wars. This was help in their struggle for existence with their Polish neighbors, who plotted to steal their daily bread from them. These were the financial institutions that helped the Jews – a lot or a little – to subsist, inadequate as it was.
To the Committee for ‘The Relief of Sierpc Jews’ of America.
Very Honorable Gentlemen:
We have received your letter of December 26, 1938. We want to inform you that the allotment of 1500 dollars between the three financial institutions will not result in any benefits. So that you can understand our opinion, we will explain the nature of these institutions.
There are two banking cooperatives in Sierpc. The first is Bank Ludowi (People's Bank), which was founded 25 years ago. This bank serves most of the Jewish population of Sierpc by giving loans. It has more than 300 members. The bank receives long term credit from the ‘Joint’ [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee]. It receives the rest of its money from the share holders' fees that members are obliged to pay, from savings, and from deposits. The bank went through a serious crisis ten years ago (caused by the severe economic depression). But because of the efforts of its members, who covered the deficit, the crisis was overcome. The bank does not have any profits because of debts caused by the present financial crisis - the number of victims of the crisis is increasing. But the bank is well managed and is also growing. The maximum credit has reached 1,200 Zlotys, depending of course, on the financial situation of the borrower. It is the largest bank in (Jewish) Sierpc.
The second cooperative bank was founded about ten years ago. This second bank was established because of disputes between different groups in the first bank. A group of the more affluent merchants left the first bank to start the second one, also a cooperative. This bank has about a hundred members. Its capital is composed of share holders' fees and deposits. It does not receive credit from the ‘Joint’ because the ‘Joint’ refuses to extend credit to two cooperative banks in the same town. About 70% of the members of the second bank are members of the first bank as well, and receive credit from both institutions. This leads to the conclusion that both banks are useful to the Jewish population.
When we write ‘Jewish population,’ our implication is people who can get credit and find good guarantors. But those affected by the economic crisis cannot get credit from the banks. You cannot find even five people among our list of recipients that have a credit line at the banks. About one hundred of our recipients never benefited from the banks at all. Another hundred or so were once members of the bank, but now can no longer receive credit. Some of them owed money to the bank and their guarantors paid off their debts (these are everyday occurrences) and some of them still owe money. In brief, these two banks do not serve these people. If each bank receives 2000 dollars, the poorest classes of the Jewish population will not benefit from it. None of them will receive credit and the list of recipients will not be any shorter. Even if they wanted to, the banks could not change their relationship with the poverty stricken population, since they are based on business principles… We have, therefore, decided to ask you not to send the money to these two banks. This is the opinion of all the Jewish population that is concerned with the fate of the poor and those that have become impoverished.
Now we will describe the nature and status of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. It was founded fifteen years ago, with very limited resources. In its early days, the fund would grant loans of 25 Zlotys. Only the most impoverished segment of the population benefited then, because the middle class had no need for such small loans. The capital of the fund is composed of monthly payments, fund-raising events (in the early days), bequests, and support from the ‘Joint.’ The loans officially are given at no interest, as is shown by its name, Gmilat Hasadim [‘Giving out of Loving Kindness’]. However, every borrower must participate in the administrative costs (secretary, office, office supplies). Over 400 borrowers now benefit from loans of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. The maximum loan is 200 Zlotys. The fund also has old loans that have not been repaid, and some of our recipients that had credit with the fund still owe money, and cannot get any more credit.
Because it is not possible to found a new credit institution, since then we would have to maintain a special administrative structure, we have decided that the best option is to send the full sum, 1500 dollars, to the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. It will be distributed as loans in consultation with our ‘Aid Committee.’ Then we will be able to extend credit to poor borrowers, taking each one's situation into consideration, without being unduly restrictive. Obviously, deficits must be expected under such conditions, since not all the money will be returned, and from time to time we will have to give additional money to the fund to cover the deficits. To make sure that the total amount available is not reduced, we will take the money from the remittances you send for distribution to the poorest. Of course, we will take only small amounts from this money, to make sure that we have not harmed the poorest, for whom the money was intended…
Signed by Ber Czarka, Pesach Skornik, Binyamin Eliezer Sabel, Moshe Gutsztat, Baruch Atlas, Eli Meir Schleifer, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, Meir Zashutke, Avraham Wluka, and Hirsch Mottle.
The letter of February 20, 1939 begins by tendering the sympathies of the Sierpc Aid Committee to the Relief Committee in America for the passing of its honorary chairman, Mordechai Hirsch Mintz of blessed memory. His former students had held a memorial service for him at the Tarbuth School. The speakers were Avraham Podskoc, Eliezer Rozinek, Fibush Lipka and others.
Next there came a loud and bitter cry, the likes of which had not been heard in previous letters, to their beloved brothers in America that starts with Out of my straits. It describes the terrible predicament of the Jews of Sierpc, the poverty and distress that scream for immediate help, for the sufferers and the tortured. The letter reads:
Out of My Straits…
In our previous letter we wrote about the wave of anti-Semitism that is spreading in our surroundings. We wrote that the peddlers cannot show themselves in the villages. Unfortunately, today we have more news for you. On Tuesday, the 14th of this month, a new anti-Semitic drive started here. The anti-Semites placed drunken men near the Jewish stores, and would not let customers enter. The situation in the market was worse: they surrounded the stalls, overturned them, and the merchants were forced to flee from the market. These acts were in broad daylight and in sight of the keepers of order. We have been assured that these acts will continue till the Passover holiday… This means that the stall owners and the travelers to fairs are facing complete financial ruin. Not only are they prevented from going to fairs, but they cannot make a living in town. Worse, we have nowhere to turn. The authorities promise us that there will be no ekscasijm (pogroms). That means that they will not beat or kill people. But in fact, there were many instances of assaults. The mood of the Jewish population is very dejected.
The acts described took place on Tuesday, February 14. When we woke up in the morning on the 17th, we found that all the Jewish signs had been defaced with tar. This ‘cleanup’ work was done by the hooligans at night, and the keepers of order did not see anything or hear anything… Today, Monday the 20th, the police ordered that all the signs are to be cleaned or replaced.
Today, Monday, all the Jews are worried about what to expect tomorrow. There are terrible rumors going around. This is the state we are in in the twentieth century. There is no one that is capable of describing the material, physical and spiritual situation that is such a torment at this terrible time. We must remind you that it is primarily the poorer classes that suffer from this, who face actual starvation.
Beloved brothers, it is possible that there are some unemployed among you as well. It is possible that every penny that you collect is collected with difficulty, both by those asking (we know how hard it is to collect money) and by the donors. But considering the deep misery of the Jewish population of Sierpc, nothing should be too difficult. We are doing everything we can here, and we turn to you, merciful brethren, to also do everything you can.
Beloved brothers, listen to the pleading of the tormented Jews of Sierpc, and answer it with the merciful and warm Jewish heart. Perhaps it was fate that at this time you would be far away, and could help your brethren in time of need. We hope that our supplication will reach you, and you will listen and reply as brothers. The Jews of Sierpc will be grateful for it.
The letter states that the Aid Committee has yet to receive the 200 dollars. The 750 dollars received by the Gmilat Hasadim Fund was distributed, in consultation with the Aid Committee as loans. The list of people who received the loans will be sent in two weeks.
The letter is signed by Ber Czarka and Meir Zashutke.
In a postcard from March 28, 1939, the Aid Committee states that the money sent by the Organization of Polish Jews in America was received and already distributed. The list of recipients will be sent during the intermediate days of Passover. Because of the bad situation, the list is not small, but has increased by about 20%. The money for the banks has not yet been received.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
The letter of May 4, 1939 contains a list of recipients. 245 families received a sum of 2588 Zlotys. These were distributed as follows:
|3 families each received 50 Zlotys||34 families each received 8 Zlotys|
|1 families each received 30 Zlotys||13 families each received 7 Zlotys|
|4 families each received 25 Zlotys||12 families each received 6 Zlotys|
|18 families each received 20 Zlotys||1 families each received 5.5 Zlotys|
|34 families each received 15 Zlotys||29 families each received 5 Zlotys|
|12 families each received 12 Zlotys||14 families each received 4 Zlotys|
|59 families each received 10 Zlotys||5 families each received 3 Zlotys|
|5 families each received 9 Zlotys||1 families each received 2.5 Zlotys|
The amount received was 2776 Zlotys. The amount distributed was 2588 Zlotys, so that 188 Zlotys remained.
In the letter, the Aid Committee apologizes that in spite of the fact that the loans were granted by the Gmilat Hasadim Fund, the number of recipients did not decrease, but grew by some tens of families. The reason for this is the bad state of affairs lately. Problems with the picktenikim began two weeks before Passover, and lasted until the panic caused by the international situation. The state of the bank cooperatives and the Gmilat Hasadim Fund has also become worse, because loan repayments have decreased due to the crisis. The money for the bank cooperatives has not yet been received; please find out about this matter at the Organization of Polish Jews in America.
The 188 Zlotys that were not distributed were deposited with the Gmilat Hasadim Fund on account of unpaid loans. The loan grants trial did not succeed because of the terrible crisis in Sierpc.
Signed by Dov Czarka, Hirsch Mottle, Baruch Atlas, Avraham Wluka, Meir Zashutke, Schleifer, Yitzhak David Schnitzer, Moshe Gutsztat, Binyamin Sabel, and Skornik.
The next letter has the date 5.IV.39. Its content however, indicates that is a reply to a letter written by the Relief Committee in answer to the letter above dated May 4. Apparently, there was an error in the Roman numeral of the month, and IV was written instead of VI. Therefore, the correct date of the letter is June 5, 1939.
The beginning of the letter contains significant materials on the nutrition of children in the Sierpc schools. Because of the importance of this information, the complete letter has been translated:
…About the feeding of poor children, we would like to send you some facts about conditions in the schools in Sierpc.
We have a Talmud Torah that is maintained by the community. There is a ‘Benefactors of the Talmud Torah Committee’ whose purpose is to support the children learning there. The chairman, Hirsch Mottle, who is a member of the committee, tells us that from time to time, the children receive clothes, winter shoes, etc. In addition, the children receive breakfast during the winter – rolls and milk.
The Tarbuth School also has a nutrition committee which serves breakfast for the children daily during the five winter months. The Tarbuth School is maintained by tuition fees. Of the 220 students in this school, sixty come from poor families who do not pay tuition. The committee serves them a daily breakfast as well.
In addition to the above committees, there is a similar committee attached to the ‘Government School for Jewish Children’ that serves breakfast in the winter months to the poorer children, comparable to what the Tarbuth School does. About fifty children receive breakfasts in this school.
As you can see, there are nutrition committees attached to each of these schools, but the activity takes place only during the winter months. It may be that the committees should extend their activities to the summer as well, because the poor children are hungry in school then also, but the fact is that it is done only in the winter.
The above committees are maintained by monthly payments made by the patrons of each of these schools. In addition, ‘Benefactors of the Talmud Torah Committee’ receives support from the community, and the other two committees receive assistance from TOZ. (An institution dedicated to the support of poor children, supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.)
Therefore, it is our opinion that we should keep the money you sent us in the Gmilat Hasadim Fund until the above committees resume their activities, and then we will divide it in accordance with the number of pupils in each school. We will send you a detailed report on the nutrition committees shortly: the status of their budgets, how many children they feed, what are the sources of their support, and also which activities are not carried out at all because of a lack of money. When we both have this report, we will be able to distribute the money with complete objectivity, for all the hungry school children. In the meantime, we have not yet received the 320 Zlotys.
The Aid Committee next asked the Relief Committee to thoroughly investigate the matter of the 750 dollars with the Organization of Polish Jews in America. This money, that the Organization states has already been transferred, has not reached the banks in Sierpc. Three or four Zlotys are given to people who are constantly asking for money and cannot be turned away empty handed. 188 Zlotys were not handed over to the Gmilat Hasadim Fund, but kept back to cover bad loans. 70 of these Zlotys have been spent in the meantime. 50 Zlotys were given to a sick person who had an operation and 20 Zlotys to two other sick people. The Aid Committee did not write that loans were not being returned, but that was a real possibility, since the loans were given to extremely poor people, and the situation is getting worse. People who yesterday stood on their own two feet are now collapsing. The reasons for this – pressure of the anti-Semites, the tense international situation, and the financial crisis. Last Friday the picktenikim again stood in front of Jewish stores. This made a disheartening impression on the Jews. Even when the foreign enemy wants to swallow the whole country, our neighbors think of how to wage war against peaceful Jewish citizens.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
The letter of July 2, 1939 was written by two members of the Aid Committee; the first half by Meir Zashutke, and the concluding portion by Dov Czarka. The writer of the first part of the letter again justifies the 180 Zlotys that were not distributed for upkeep (according to the previous letter, 188 Zlotys were left over) and the very small amounts used for support. The probable reason for the change in authorship was to placate the Relief Committee, and so that it would feel that the Aid Committee was trustworthy.
The writer states that the small amounts were given to persons who are constantly in need of money. The remaining 180 Zlotys have been almost completely spent already on very urgent cases: 50 Zlotys were given to a respected person who has always earned his own living, who needed an operation; 50 Zlotys were given to another respected person who has a very sick son; another 40 Zlotys were distributed to four people, ten Zlotys each. 320 Zlotys that were received for food for children have been deposited in the Gmilat Hasadim Fund until the month of Heshvon, when the children's nutritional activities begin. A telegram about the money for the cooperative banks was received on June 22. Representatives of the committee went to the bank and by chance met the emissary from Warsaw, the supervisor of cooperative banks, Dr. Salman. When he was asked about the money, he gave all sorts of excuses. When he was shown the telegram, he said to tell the Relief Committee that the money had been received. The emissary went back to Warsaw the same day, and one bank received part of the money the next day.
That was the first part of the letter, written as mentioned previously by committee member Meir Zashutke.
The second part of the letter states that one bank received 500 dollars and the other bank received 250 dollars. The allocation was made by the comptroller committee in Warsaw according to the size of the banks. The money was given to the banks as a loan with a 3% annual interest rate, to be returned in ten monthly payments. The first payment is to be made six months after receipt of the loan. If the Relief Committee has any objections to these terms, it should present them to the Organization of Polish Jews in America. The situation here is grave and the reasons for this cannot be described. Please continue your noble work for the Jews of Sierpc.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
The letter of July 17, 1939 again mentions the 320 Zlotys for children's food that was deposited with the Gmilat Hasadim Fund until winter, when nutritional activities for children begin.
Then, the letter discusses the matter of the 750 dollars. The committee states that the day before the letter was written, Dr. Shoskes stopped off in Sierpc on his way back from America. According to him, and also from the letter sent by the Relief Committee from America, the Relief Committee had broken off its relationship with the Organization of Polish Jews in America. It is not up to the Aid Committee to tell the Relief Committee which of the two institutions, the Organization of Polish Jews in America or the Joint it should link up with, and which one will be better. Both have good and bad points. According to Dr. Shoskes, the Union of Cooperative Banks is not responsible for the delay in receiving the money. The Organization of Polish Jews in America did not have money to send, and therefore the matter took almost a year. He says that recently, just a few days before he left for America, he received the money and informed the banks in Sierpc, but the Aid Committee did not know about it.
Dr. Shoskes consulted with the management of the banks. He advised them to ask the Relief Committee that all the money be sent to them. The Aid Committee wants the Relief Committee to note that all the people who benefit from the cooperative banks are well-to-do, people from whom payment is assured and whose guarantors are reliable. However, the poor people in town, who are suffering and miserable, do not benefit from the banks. The people will benefit from the aid only if it is sent to the Gmilat Hasadim Fund (apart from the support that needs to be sent from time to time before the holidays). This is stated with complete objectivity, because the Aid Committee is looking after the good of the banks; a number of committee members are also members of the bank and receive loans from them. The comrades Czarka, Schnitzer, and others are also part of the bank management.
In conclusion, the letter states that the chairman of Bank Ludowi is now Leib Usher; the chairman of Bank Udzialowi is Shmuel Tatz; and the chairman of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund is Menachem Baumel.
The letter dated 28 July 1939 contain the answer of the Aid Committee to the Relief Committee's question about the terms for the repayment of the money that the cooperative banks in Sierpc received from the Union of Cooperative Banks in Warsaw as a loan:
The ‘Union of Cooperative Banks’ states (Dr. Shoskes said the same thing) that it does not give money as support, but as loans. The loan was granted with an annual interest rate of 3% with the condition that it is returned in six consecutive equal monthly payments. The first payment will be ten months from the date of the loan, in May 1940. The ‘Union’ deducts the interest when giving the loan, which is not 750 dollars but 750 dollars less 3½ %. (The rate for each dollar was 5.20 Zloty.) In addition, another forty or so Zlotys were deducted (by Bank Ludowi, it is not yet known how much Bank Udzialowi will charge). We mentioned this to Dr. Shoskes and he promised to return the money as ‘miscellaneous expenses.’ The ‘Union’ says (and so does Dr. Shoskes) that after the banks have returned all the money, he will give them the same loans with the same conditions.
Signed by Dov Czarka.
The letter of August 15, 1939 – like the letter of July 2 – was written by two members of the Aid Committee - Meir Zashutke, and Dov Czarka. The end of the letter contains a note: the letter was written unintentionally by two secretaries, but it does not matter – they complement each other.
The Aid Committee member Meir Zashutke begins the letter by thanking the Relief Committee members for their efforts on behalf of their poor brothers in Sierpc and for their promise to send money for distribution to the needy before the holidays.
Next come the particulars of the 1500 dollars sent in the past few months. On February 28 of this year the Gmilat Hasadim Fund received 3,960 Zlotys, and signed promissory notes for this amount. Bank Ludowi received 2,600 Zlotys on June 28 of this year. After an interest deduction of 78 Zloty, the bank was left with 2,522 Zlotys. On the 24th of July of this year, Bank Udzialowi received 1,350 Zlotys; after deducting 48 Zlotys for interest the bank was left with 1,302 Zlotys. The two cooperative banks received in total 3,824 Zlotys. This money has to be returned over a period of eighteen months.
The letter writer adds that the money received by the Gmilat Hasadim Fund was distributed as loans with the participation of the Aid Committee. The committee takes part in all meetings of the fund's management, which are held once a week. It adds to the sum given to each borrower an amount equal to that received from the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. The Aid Committee does not participate in the activities of the cooperative banks. The people who receive loans from the banks are well off, and money that the Relief Committee wants to continue sending should go to the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. The impoverished of the town will benefit only from this fund. But first, please send money so that we can distribute support before the holidays.
The first writer ends his part of the letter with greetings for a good new year.
The second writer of this letter states that the cooperative banks received 5.27 Zlotys for each dollar. Then he writes that they are sending the letter five weeks before the holidays, and hopes that it will be received at the proper time. He then describes the financial situation, the crisis, and the distress in town.
The financial situation is very bad. The reasons for this are those of which it has been said Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon [Samuel 2, 1:20]… We do not know what will come next. The well to do can cope, even if the situation lasts a few more months. But the poor do not have enough to exist from day to day. They can anticipate famine. The pressure of the needy on the Aid Committee is great, but what can the committee do to help? People are going around town every day collecting charity but the scraps cannot satisfy the lion [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth]. The writer concludes I hope that you, beloved brothers, will understand us and reply to our desperate pleas.
Signed: Dov Czarka
The letter dated August 15, 1939 is the last in the correspondence that I have before me. It is also probably the last letter that was written by the Aid Committee of Sierpc to the Relief Committee in America. Very soon after it was written – just half a month later – the Second World War broke out. The war brought destruction and extinction to European Jewry in general, to Polish Jews in particular, and the Jews of Sierpc were among the first sacrifices to be burned at the stake. They felt that something sinister was coming, and there was a reason for them writing We don't know what the future will bring. But could anyone anticipate such a complete devastation, annihilation, eradication? Did anyone think that they were approaching – and very, very, soon – a Holocaust the likes of which, in its cruelty, extent, and planning, was unknown in the history of the world, and in the history of the Jewish people so well versed in disasters? No! Not even the most doom prophesying prophet could predict this devastation.
I was shocked while going through this correspondence when I reached this letter, the last one, as its date gives evidence that the Jews of Sierpc, on that date, already stood at the edge of the precipice. In my imagination, I saw them, obviously under impact of their daily distress and fear of the future, going about doing their regular chores with their everyday problems. Life, disturbed by the events of the day and the worries about tomorrow, nevertheless goes on as usual; the well to do here and the impoverished there, celebrations one day and troubles the next day. And beside the personal difficulties, there are communal problems. They turn to the brethren in America to hasten sending aid to the poor, and especially support for the upcoming holidays. Funds are collected in town for the same purpose – granting loans by the Gmilat Hasadim Fund and by the cooperative banks for merchants or craftsman; worrying that the promissory notes that the Gmilat Hasadim Fund had signed and the payments that the cooperative banks would have to make starting May, 1940. All of them together and each one separately do not realize that they are at the brink of the abyss. In another few days the ground will open up beneath them and swallow them and everything they have, without leaving almost any trace or survivor. What a terrible thing this is and what a horrible feeling!
B. A Letter from the Rescue Committee
As stated in the introduction, the bundle of letters that I have includes some from other institutions (other than the Aid Committee), and also two letters from individuals. All the letters contain requests for financial help from the townspeople of Sierpc in America. These letters, just like the previous ones, tell of the great misery of the Jews of Sierpc, their diminished position and their impoverished state.
The letter that I am looking at was sent by the Rescue Committee in Sierpc to the Sierpc immigrants in America on March 3, 1933. (The previous letters were sent by the Aid Committee on and following March 1, 1937.) The name Rescue Committee is mentioned at the beginning of the letter but the rubber stamp at the end of the letter contains the name Aid Committee. According to Zvi Malowanczyk, who was the chairman of the committee, the accepted name was Retungs-Comitat (Rescue Committee). This is the letter:
To our brothers from Sierpc in America:
Our town has a ‘Rescue Committee’ whose purpose is to provide substantial financial support to merchants and craftsmen that have lost their livelihoods and without immediate support face the possibility of complete ruin. We provide aid to these people so that they can hold out and not become a burden to the community. Because of the crisis in Poland in general and in Sierpc in particular, a crisis that undermines the status of affluent merchants and craftsmen, wage earners and donors to charity and transforms them into the recipients of charity. Our meager resources and small incomes are not enough to help all those that ask for and need aid.
Therefore we are turning to you, dear brethren, who have always remembered your comrades in Sierpc and helped them on various occasions. So please gird yourselves this time for an extra effort, and collect a substantial amount from the Sierpc immigrants in America, so that we can help all those that turn to us. All those that ask us for help are humble people, who only a year ago were people of status, earning a livelihood, and philanthropists. They do not want their economic problems and material distress known in public. They and their families may become hungry without our help. These families, who suffer from their hunger in private, are exposed to various diseases that can lead to great tragedies. We have an obligation to save them from their terrible misery and the disasters that lie in wait.
In the name of the many suffering families we ask you, our brothers, to do as much as possible to gather a significant sum of money and send it to us as quickly as possible, so that we can really help these families to stand on their own two feet, and to be able to earn their daily bread.
Please send the money to our chairman, Malowanczyk, in the name of the ‘Rescue Committee.’
Signed: Chairman - Zvi Malowanczyk; secretary – Yehoshua Tajtelbaum.
The rubber stamp imprinted at the end of the letter contains the address Localer Hilft-Comitet far Yuden in Sierpc (Local Aid Committee for the Jews of Sierpc).
At the end of the letter there is a letter of endorsement from Rabbi Goldschlak, the Rabbi of Sierpc. He writes:
Because of the terrible economic conditions in Sierpc, I cannot remain silent, and turn to you, the immigrants from Sierpc in America. I want to encourage the feeling of Jewish mercy that is in your hearts, and tells you that as fellow townsmen you have a sacred duty find ways and resources to ease the plight of your brothers and sisters. They hold out their hands in a cry for help in the misery in which they find themselves. By virtue of this, God will send salvation to all of Israel.
Following this, the Rabbi writes that if it were not for the strenuous labors of the Rescue Committee, many families would have collapsed. But there is a terrible heartache that because of a lack of resources, many families are turned away empty handed. The Rabbi concludes I hope that you will understand how great a mitzvah this is and send your help quickly and generously.
Signed with blessings of charity, the younger Yehoshua Hashil David, son of the Gaon Yaakov Chayim Zelig, here in the community of Sierpc.
The rubber stamp imprinted on the letter has the notation: Hashil David, son of the Gaon Yaakov Chayim Zelig Goldschlak, chief of the Rabbinical Court of Sierpc and the district.
The rubber stamp imprinted at the beginning of the letter contains the following notation in Polish: Rabin Gminy Wyznaniowej Zydowskiej w Sierpcu, Sierpc, dn. 5.III.1933 r. Nr. 30/33 (Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Sierpc, Sierpc, 5th day of the third month of the year 1933, no. 30/33)
C. A Letter from the Gmilat Hasadim Fund
Another letter from the same bundle of letters was written by the committee of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund to the Sierpc townspeople in America on August 4, 1938. The letter describes the worthy activities of the fund which help hundreds of families of poor small merchants and craftsmen. The letter also describes the intensive efforts of the fund to collect money locally so as not to require outside charity. But because of the economic crisis and the terrible anti-Semitism, the fund has been forced to ask for aid from Sierpc immigrants abroad. The following is an abbreviated version of the letter. We present the most important parts in full, those that present statistics on the activities of the fund.
To our brothers across the sea, greetings and a blessing.
The Gmilat Hasadim Fund has been in existence in Sierpc for over ten years, performing its tasks quietly and confidentially; helping tens of families to survive and earn their living. This is well known, and we are not revealing any secrets, but only reminding you of what is common knowledge in order to ask for your help. Thus this important institution will be able to continue its essential activities.
The fund committee is opposed to lifting the burden from itself and placing it on others, so we have never turned to you before for help.
We have increased our efforts in collecting money among ourselves for the fund. We have undertaken a number of projects: recruiting new members who pay a monthly fee; organizing pledges and contributions; opened a ‘Gold Book’ that contains a special page of ‘everlasting memory’ to memorialize whoever contributes 100 Zlotys to the fund. Thanks to these efforts we have managed to accumulate an equity of 13,000 Zlotys.
13,000 Zlotys is a significant sum. You can all understand that this amount was not gathered easily or quickly.
Together with the credit from the ‘Joint’ and the Cekabe – the center for Gmilat Hasadim Funds in Poland – we have a working capital of 26,000 Zlotys used by 450 families in our town for credit at no interest. Among them are tens of families whose existence depends on this money. For instance, about 30 gardeners receive loans of 100 or 150 Zlotys so they can rent an orchard, work hard and guard it day and night against robbers and other mishaps. In the end, they earn three or four times the amount they invested. There are peddlers in the villages that receive loans of 100 Zlotys, and return to the villages and buy everything they can and so earn their livelihood. There are about 35 owners of stalls in the market who receive loans of 150 or 200 Zlotys so that they can order goods from Warsaw or Lodz and sell them in the market in town or in another town on market day and earn their living. These groups' existences are dependent on the Gmilat Hasadim Fund.
The people who receive loans from us have various occupations: 57 tailors, 30 shoemakers, 2 carpenters, 4 butchers, 69 miscellaneous craftsmen, 13 haberdashers, 5 leather merchants, 35 grocery store owners, 39 market stall owners, 20 laborers, and 140 various types of occupations.
In previous years we gave loans for repayment over ten weeks; the borrower would have to return 10% of the loan each week. But experience has taught us that the loans have to be made for four, five, or even six months. This means that because of the lack of capital in the fund, it is often impossible to respond to requests of members waiting for a loan. In addition the number of people wanting to borrow money is increasing, and the sources of local income have shrunk because of the bad state of affairs.
The letter goes on: You must know of the conditions in the towns of Poland. Yesterday's ‘donors’ have become today's ‘recipients.’ That is the situation in Sierpc as well. Polish stores are opened, and they ruin the Jewish stores. The Polish stores are helped and supported by large long term loans given by government financial institutions and Polish society and by two Polish ‘Gmilat Hasadim Funds’ that have been established in our town. We, with our meager resources, are forced to compete with these forces.
Therefore we are forced against our will to ask you for help. You are the only asset we have that can help to maintain our important and very necessary institution. Call a meeting of the immigrants from Sierpc immediately, explain to our brothers the gloomy situation of the Jews of Sierpc, and collect a substantial sum of money and send it to us. Then we can distribute loans for seasonal undertakings before the holidays. Consider that we have distributed loans for leasing orchards in the amount of 1,500 Zlotys. The borrowers will start returning the loans only after the holidays when they begin returning to town from the orchards to sell the fruit. Meanwhile, there is no money in the fund for loans to other borrowers.
Brothers and dear friends! He who provides for the Gmilat Hasadim Fund provides for the existence of the Jews of Sierpc. Remember that for every Zloty that we collect, we receive a Zloty from the ‘Joint.’ Thus, any amount that you collect will be doubled. Remember also that your help, in addition to the material benefit that it brings, encourages us and strengthens our resolve in the bitter struggle for existence of our brothers and sisters.
Signed by the members of the committee of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund of Sierpc: Chairman – Menachem Baumel, Secretary – Hirsch Pianca, Treasurer – Matat Farshnitzki, Yaakov Edelshein, Alia (Eliyahu) Grosman, L. (Leib) Usher, A.H. (Avraham Hirsch) Yurkevitz, Ahron Yosef Pukacz, Moshe Aran (Ahron) Fetbrot, Moshe Grosman (son-in-law of Hanach Tzcernobroda).
The rubber stamp imprinted at the beginning of the letter contains the text: St. Dobr. Gmilus Chesed w Sierpcu Nr. 1133/38 (St. Dobre – Stowarzyszenie Dobroczynne - A Charitable Association).
The rubber stamp imprinted at the end of the letter contains the text Gmilut Hesed Sierpc – Stowarzyszenie Dobroczynne Gmilus Hesed Sierpc.
There were three letters of endorsement enclosed with the letter of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund that testify to the importance of the Fund to the poorest Jews of Sierpc, and recommend that it be urgently given aid. The letters are from the Jewish Community, the Craftsmen's Organization, and the Small Merchants Association.
The letter from the Jewish Community states: We hereby verify that the institution Gmilat Hasadim in our town is one of the most important Jewish social organizations we have. In its efforts for the support of tens of families and its practical and constructive activities it performs a vital task at this time for the impoverished Jewish population that is in distress. It deserves to be aided in an appropriate manner.
Signed by the chairman, Nahum Tatza.
The rubber stamp imprinted at the beginning of the letter contains the text: Fervaltung fun der Yiddisher Kehille in Sierpc. Sierpc dem 2 Sherpien 1938. No VIII/38 (Management Committee of the Jewish Community of Sierpc. Sierpc, August 2, 1938.) The rubber stamp at the end of the letter contains the text: Authority of the Jewish Community of Sierpc. Fervaltung fun der Yiddisher Kehille. Sierpc.
The letter of the Craftsmen's Organization states: We are also turning to you, our far away brothers, to ask that you pay attention to the request of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund and help it significantly. This is our most important financial institution, one that poor craftsman can depend upon, as well as the throng of destitute Jews.
Signed with greetings from the members of the Craftsmen's Organization, Ezra Frankel, Chairman.
The imprinted rubber stamp contains the text: Centralny Zwiazek Rzemieslnikow Zydow w Polsce. Oddzzial w Sierpcu. (Central Organization of Jewish Craftsmen in Poland, Sierpc Branch.)
The letter from the Small Merchants Association states: To our townsmen across the sea – a plea for help. We, the small merchants, ask you to heed the request of the Gmilat Hasadim Fund. Its task is to render help to the small merchants who are fighting for their lives. Urgent help from you in these times is the order of the day in order to strengthen the economic situation of the Jews.
Signed by the chairman of the Small Merchants Association, Zvi Koplowicz.
The imprinted rubber stamp at the beginning of the letter contains the text: Centrale fun Detalisten un Kleinhendler Farband in Poilin. Avteilung in Sierpc. (Center of the Association of Retailers and Small Merchants in Poland, Sierpc Branch.) The rubber stamp at the end of the letter contains the text: Centr. Detalicznych i Drobnych Kupcow w Polsce, Oddzzial w Sierpcu. (The Retailers and Small Merchants Center, Sierpc Branch.)
D. Letters from the Tarbuth School
The bundle of letters also contains two that were written by the committee of the Tarbuth School in Sierpc. These letters are similar but different from the other letters sent from The Valley of Tears to the Sierpc immigrants in America. Similar, because they also ask for financial help. But different because unlike the other letters quoted in this chapter, that ask for material aid for a material purpose, these two letters are requests for material help for spiritual needs.
Another difference between these two letters and the others: all the other letters are addressed to all the Sierpc immigrants in America, whereas the two letters of Tarbuth School are for only one ex-Sierpcer, Mordecai Rzejsotko. They ask him to become active in, and convince others to help the educational institution Tarbuth in Sierpc.
The two letters that I have are apparently part of a wider correspondence between the townspeople of Sierpc and the immigrants concerning aid to the Tarbuth School. In spite of the fact that both letters came from the same institution, the writers are different, the heads of the school are different, their dates are far apart (more than two years), and the purposes of the aid requested are different. In the first letter, help is asked for finishing construction of the school building, and in the second letter, aid in meeting the budget and the debts owed by the school.
The first letter was written using the official letterhead of Tarbuth, which contains the following text in Polish and Hebrew: Hebrajska Skola Powszechna Tarbut w Scierpcu, ul. Stodolna. The General Hebrew School Tarbuth in Sierpc, Stodolna Street.
The letter was written on September 13, 1935 (the number 335 appears erroneously instead of 935), Number 63.
We mentioned above that the two letters were not addressed to the immigrants from Sierpc in general, but to one of them in particular, Mordecai Rzejsotko. Even though the letter is directed to two recipients, To our Honorable Fellow Townsmen in America followed by To Our Honorable Comrade Mr. Rzejsotko, the body of the letter is meant for M. Rzejsotko.
The following is the content of the letter:
We turn to you, our honorable townsman, as someone who is tied to the town of his birth and feels its joys and its tragedies. You know of the repression and poverty in which the Jews of Sierpc are mired. The crisis has destroyed the economic status of the Jews. The ‘landlords’ are on the edge of financial ruin, and the chances for improvement in the situation are nil.
In spite of the terrible conditions, we have the opportunity to do something great and important that is our consolation, hope, and pride. We opened the Tarbuth School, with great efforts, four years ago. This is a school that gives its pupils a nationalistic education in their national language. This idea seemed like a dream, opening a school all of whose costs would be borne by the poor Jewish population. But the lofty goal of giving a new generation a nationalistic education inspired the committee and the teaching staff. After prodigious struggles we managed to build a wonderful school, where almost 200 pupils are being educated.
In the past two years, we have had many hardships finding a location for the school. It has been impossible to discover a location in town suitable for the school from the standpoint of pedagogy and hygiene that meets the requirements of the government. Therefore we were forced to erect a building for the school. This required great sacrifices from the parents, the committee, and the whole Jewish population. We were able to build this structure, which cost close to 25,000 Zlotys, in time for the beginning of this school year.
But this is not the end of the matter. We may have been able to finish a few classrooms for the children but the complete building is not finished, and the educational authorities are threatening to close the school if we do not finish construction this school year. We find ourselves in a desperate situation. We have a deficit of 10,000 Zlotys because of the construction. We do not have an income because we have already used all our resources. Now we find ourselves facing closure of the school by the court, and abandoning hundreds of children without Torah and without education.
Therefore, all our hopes are with you, honorable sir; through you, and with the help of our brothers, former townspeople of Sierpc, you can help us finish this building on time. We hope that you, as someone who was active in the cultural life of Sierpc, will understand our dire situation and do everything you can to help us complete this structure.
Remember, our honorable townsman, that the fate of hundreds of Jewish children, our only solace in our dark and severe lives, is in your hands. Help us finish our holy work!
In the name of the Construction Committee of the Tarbuth School in Sierpc
Chairman, Yesha Friedman
Secretary, Moshe Balt
Committee of the Tarbuth School in Sierpc
Chairman, Yisrael Smolinski
Administration of the Tarbuth School in Sierpc
Principal, Shaul Rozenblum
Our Address for correspondence: Bank Ludowy Sierpc dla szkoly ‘Tarbut’ Poland
The rubber stamp imprinted at the end of the letter bears the text: Stowarzsyszenie Kulturalno-oswiatowe: Tarbut w Polsce, Oddzial w Sierpcu Culture Organization in Poland, Sierpc Branch.
The second letter of the Tarbuth School contains, as mentioned, an appeal for financial help in lessening the burden of the budget and the load of debt weighing down the school committee. Its content shows that a similar letter had already been sent, and a reply had been received. The letter in front of us repeats the request, emphasizes the need for help and prods the recipient into activity.
This letter was written on November 11, 1937, and is directed to the comrade and friend, M. Rzejsotko. This is its content:
We have received your letter and thank you for starting the efforts for our school. Despite your statement that it is not possible to do great things, we still hope that with good will you will be able to do something significant. There are more than a few Sierpc townspeople in America, and if there will be just a few advocates who will understand the urgency of our appeal for help and apply themselves to it, donors will not be lacking. Therefore we reiterate and ask you to fully explain the importance and seriousness of the predicament that faces us, at a meeting of immigrants from Sierpc.
I must add that because of the hard-pressed conditions of the Jewish population, the situation of our cultural-educational institution worsens every day. The percentage of students that pay nothing and those that pay only a little is increasing, and we manage to balance our budget only with great effort. In addition we are faced with a large debt that threatens to force us to transfer ownership of the building to foreign hands. Therefore we again ask you to speak at a meeting of our townspeople about our serious problem and encourage them to extend substantial help. We are confident of the feelings of solidarity of our townsfolk in America.
In the name of the committee, Yitzhak David Schnitzer.
The rubber stamp imprinted at the end of the letter bears the text: Powszechna Szkola Hebrajska Tarbut w Sierpcu. The General Hebrew School Tarbuth in Sierpc.
The following two addresses appear at the end: I.D. Sznyzer Sierpc ul. Mr. Sz. Rydza 18; A, Dichter Sierpc ul. Narutowizca 17, Skola Tarbut.
E. Letters from Individuals
I mentioned earlier that the bundle of letters in front of me also contains letters written by individuals. I have three such private letters, written by two Jews from Sierpc, who sent their letters to their townsman, Mordecai Rzejsotko. They spread their troubles before him and ask him to convince the committee to send them financial help to get them out of their plight.
I do not know if Rzejsotko received other, similar personal letters. But reading the letters from institutions published here, it is certain that many Sierpc Jews were living in conditions comparable to those of the two letter writers – lives of despair and misery, poverty and want. These letters present an instructive example of their state and their lives.
These three letters are very depressing. A bleak plea cries out from the lines and from in between the lines of these letters.
In one letter dated November 9, 1937, a father asks and then repeats his request in an undated second letter, for money for a dowry for his eldest daughter, who had reached marriageable age some years ago. He reveals his many problems, opens up his heart, and says that two years ago, when his daughter became engaged, he had a dowry for her. But in the meantime he had become so seriously ill that he was not expected to recover. When he did recover, thanks to his daughters, his wife became ill, and had to be operated on and hospitalized. With the grace of God, his wife also recovered, but the dowry money was spent on doctors and medicine. Because of her anguish, his daughter, the bride, fell ill. She is now feeling a little better, and the doctors say that after the wedding she will mend. The bridegroom does not know about her sickness and wants to get married. He asked the rabbi in his town to tell the rabbi in Sierpc to notify the bride's father that he wants the wedding to take place soon; otherwise he will abandon the match. The father asks and begs the committee to have pity for him and his wife, and send him the money for the dowry, so that he will not be shamed and disgraced by the groom's desertion. His plea is shocking: Save me in my old age and save my daughter in her youth!
A second father states in a letter from December 12, 1938, that his daughter had married and he had promised her a dowry of 1,000 Zlotys in addition to linens, lingerie, and so forth. Around this time, his son became engaged, and he wants his father to pay for the wedding. His second son, who had spent six years in a training camp for Aliyah, had received permission [from the British mandate government] to immigrate to Palestine, and he asked his father to give him 500 Zlotys for travel expenses, because if he cannot go to the Land of Israel, his life won't be worth a penny. But the father does not have the resources to fulfill his promise to his daughter and satisfy the demands of his sons. He had written a number of times to his relatives in America, but they did not answer. He asked for help from his brothers in town and they said that they cannot help him. Therefore, in his desperation, he asks the committee members to be his brothers and help him and save him from his great suffering and distress. Because how can he watch the suffering of his sons and daughters? He ends his letter with the cry, My house is burning, save me!
The reader of these letters – those written by institutions (Aid Committee, Rescue Committee, Gmilat Hasadim Fund, Tarbuth School) and those written by individuals in Sierpc, and sent to former Sierpcer in America asking for financial help – does not need commentaries and singular clarifications. The letters speak for themselves and describe very well the situation of the Jews in The Valley of Tears of Poland in general and Sierpc in particular in the thirties before the coming of the great and horrible Holocaust. The anti-Semitic regime in Poland with the help of the whole Polish population and all of the political parties persecuted and oppressed Polish Jews. It robbed them of their bread, of their rights, and their freedom. Polish Jews were hounded to the brink and pushed into poverty, distress, and despair. Following the infamous statement of the Polish Prime Minister, Skladkowski to the Sejm, An economic boycott of the Jews – Ovsem! the central and local authorities issued various edicts against Jewish craftsmen, large and small merchants, and stall owners in the market. (The anti-Semitic movement put up competitors even for this lucky group.) The economic and safety situation of the Jews became worse every day. There was no one to complain to about the everyday attacks of hooligans and mischief makers and ask for protection. The life of a Jew and his property were forfeit to hoodlums and ruffians who could do anything they wanted. The situation went from bad to worse and they became second class citizens, without opportunities for livelihood and no rights to defend themselves. And worst of all – with no possibility of improvement in sight.
Thus the Jews lived in poverty and despair, fear and terror, until the Nazi predators came and finished what the Poles had started and turned The Valley of Tears into hell.
by Ephraim Talmi (Wluka)
Translated by Alex Weingarten
…I am at the railroad station in the town of my birth. I am on my way to my parents' home in a carriage. A tall, thin horse is harnessed to it, and an old Jewish man is driving it. The wheels clatter against the rickety stone pavement. Echoes and loud counter echoes reverberate in the spaces of the old town and draw the attention of the few passersby. The eyes of many Jews, standing in the entrances to their stores, follow me. The same old sights, the same hunched, rundown houses. Only their color has faded more, and it is as if they have shrunk and sunk further into the ground. Here is the ancient bridge, planted over the river, a river of the days of my childhood. As for the river, it's as if its waist has become narrower and its current has slowed down over time. There are scattered spots with green grass. Here is the special Jewish Street with its synagogues, all concentrated in one area. Here are the gloomy houses with the peaked roofs, sticking to one another. A dark fear comes over me in the middle of the day. My heart aches with a sharp pain, and my eyes silently fill with tears. I see it all as a bleak and dismal symphony. A town where the houses are piled one on top of the other, as if ready to collapse, but left standing by some miracle. The tops of the many trees planted on the bank of the river that divides the Jewish quarter jut out over the houses. They sway over them and glisten in the light of the sun, like a greeting from a foreign world, tranquil, blessed with ample fields and abundant trees that surround the narrow, dark Jewish street that helplessly awaits its slow and inevitable extinction… And here are the Jews! My God! Here are the Mark Chagall archetypes. Like then, but here and now. The unique round Jewish hat, with its pointed, faded visor and a crown full of many wrinkles. The sorrowful smile drenched in tears and the eyes - God! What depths of grief are perceived there! How great is the fear and powerlessness! But what is even more visible is the will to live that flashes through the veil of annihilation so vividly. Here in the same long coat, split from the back down to the ground, just more archaic and more faded, with a gait that has become more slipshod. But in spite of everything our Jewish brothers stubbornly maintain their peculiar life and characteristic dress. Grabbing on to any ray of light, any protrusion that seems to be an opportunity, just to carry on. The roots may be slowly rotting, but the branches in their vitality can still bear outstanding fruit. The lust for life is great and cannot be comprehended.
There was one question asked by all those who came to greet and visit with me after so many years: What is over there? How do you feel in the Land of Israel? The eyes implore with a silent prayer: please, a little reassurance! With simple words I talk about the Land of Israel, the hardships, the troubles and the suffering, and of the hopes and gratification we feel with the progress and the development. I can see the relief in the deep gloom of their eyes, the spark of life that is ignited beneath the mound of ashes that covers them…
by Shlomo Czarka, Kibbutz Dan
Translated by Alex Weingarten
In 1934, I went to the training camp of Hashomer Hatzair at Grodno, in Lithuania. Before I immigrated to the Land Of Israel, I went back to the town where I had lived and grown up. There I spent my evenings in conversations, in lectures, and in activities at the local ken.
When I left for training in 1934, I remembered the town as vibrant and full of life. When I came back after four years of training in order to arrange all the documents for my trip, I felt a huge change in the life of the town. The young people were almost all gone. Many had gone to Warsaw searching for jobs and livelihood. The girls became nannies in well-to-do families; the boys worked as tailors, clerks in merchant houses, or assistants in stores, etc. Public life in Sierpc was almost at a standstill. In the evenings, there were no Jews in the streets. I could not find even a minyan of young people on the promenade, in the part between Hiller and Grodka.
How different were the Sabbath and Friday from what I remembered before I left for training. Near the old beit midrash, on Saturday night, I saw just two people - the custodian and a bystander, talking to each other.
The Jews refrained from showing themselves in the streets. A heavy aura of concern, fear of the future, lay over the town. Every face looked worried.
In a conversation with some young people, I asked who put up the new and attractive stores that I saw. They told me that these belong to Gentiles. There are already Gentile watchmakers, and so forth.
The faces of these young people showed sadness and apathy about the future. No love of life and no hope.
by Ephraim Talmi (Wluka)
Translated by Alex Weingarten
|Do not forget the fury!||Of the blood that was splattered|
|Do not forgo the mutiny!||And flowed for nothing,|
|Reverberate like thunder,||Thickened and simmered,|
|Shatter like a gunshot,||They will not get my blood…|
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