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Elymelakh Faynzilber

On the Ruins of my Home
(The Destruction of Siedlce)

 

This is book has been published by the organizational committee of former residents and friends:

Monish Ridel (chairman). Leon Gliksberg (treasurer),
Itzchak Arzshel, Abrahm Moisheh Zilbershtayn, Aryeh Liberman, Israel Tabakman,
Yehudeh Mayer Finkelshtayn, B.N. Shlifkeh, Dovid Lustik, Dov Levin, Shmuel Lev, Mendl Burshtin and the writers:
Yuel Mantboym, Dr. M. Dvarzhetsky, Gavril Vaisman, Mordche Yubdyhu (God's servant),
K. Shavtai, Eliezer Rubinshtayn, Layb Rabman and theatrical director, film maker Yakov Mansdorf.

 

Copyright by M. Fainzilber
Tel–Aviv, 1952

Illustrated By: Itschak Margolis

 

Printed in Israel
“Hacarmel”, Tel–Aviv

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This remembrance is dedicated (sanctified) to my beloved mother Tobeh, my brothers: Motl, Yakov, Shlomeh, Dovid and sister Esther along with their families, who were murdered in the death camp Majdanek; my wife, Chana–Rivkeh (of the heat: during the holiday), died on the road while wandering – in far off Uzbekistan and – my community that was cut short. The 25,000 victims of Siedlce and surrounding towns, who were murdered as martyrs at the hands of the German unclean (impure, contaminated) men.

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A Few Words

by Yoel Mastboym

Translated by Rita Ratson

Elymelech Fainzilber's book, “The Destruction of Siedlce” has, understandably, not been able to embrace and draw out all the precious fabric of the city of Siedlce. But it is a significant (important) and earnest work about the past and the present, where the precious threads of life are braided together after generations of people, who have fought stubbornly for a better and more beautiful life.

With great perfection (completion) this writer describes the ideas and people, who lived and fought in this particular city, which considers itself as one of the avenged cities in Jewish Poland. With enthusiasm and that fire of life of youth, the Jews of Siedlce threw themselves into the rows of the Zionist builders and fighters, exactly as the Jewish workers of Siedlce threw themselves with all of their fire of enthusiasm, into the Revolutionary lines in 1905, which had a very strong effect on the general environment.

In distinct colors it was successful for Feinzilber to show the character of people and personalities. We see people with peculiar characteristics, quite different from other cities. With this, Feinzilber successfully shows us the character (personality) and peculiarity (originality) of generations of Jews, who lived in Siedlce.

Understandably, it was possible to add to this book even more interesting episodes of Siedlce of the past. Feinzilber only heard about the past, and described it in a proper tone, but most importantly A. Feinzilber brings out the terrible Hitler years of destruction and devastation.

It is understandable that in this book, there are also merely – some descriptions which are simply long and some have been taken from people who do not say very much. But in general, this book has an important value, not only just for people who lived in the city, but also for the entire world, who will learn a great deal from the past of the spirited city Siedlce.


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A word from the author

Translated by Rita Ratson

It is difficult to write about the Holocaust (The Destruction) of one's own city, about one's own beloved people, families, friends, and neighbors, and those who are now gone, like a bit of scattered ash, thrown about, bones not having been burned up, grave stones broken into pieces, crumbled into small pieces in the streets, and with grass covered hills, like tombs (graves) in the places of their homes.

It is difficult to touch upon and immerse oneself (look into, investigate) into materials, which expose, how our own, close ones, beloved and dear ones, were tortured by hunger and crowdedness, by dirt and epidemics, how they choked in the gas chambers, were shot or were chopped up by dull blades, were buried alive: materials which tell the story of, how children were quartered or received bullets into their opened up mouths, in their eyes, or in the arms of their mothers.

But, when I wandered through the destruction of our destroyed home, on the grave diggers of our Jewish community which has been cut short, having seen and heard everything, which the very few survivors tell about, I thought and I came to the conclusion: if by blind chance, coincidence was the cause, that the sad lots did not divide the community and one survived accidentally, then this is obligated to something. We must pay a great and holy debt (duty), that we owe to our tragic, cut short community: to mark by virtue of proving and by this, which the survivors tell about, and with this to carry out, realize, fulfill, the law of memory and, from the Haggadah, narrating the tale: “the day you have a child you will tell him the story of what happened” – to tell the story to the generations to be delivered (yet unborn), the story of their struggle to survive and suffering as well as learning something from this.

I have begun to mark down, collect, to write, and in addition to this I was forced to fight various interruptions and difficulties: difficult illness, which interrupted my work for a long time: homelessness and the wonderful road to Israel, as well as to fight with the indifferent ice – cold respect, regard from our people who come from our own towns (landsmen), in the country and in other countries, who do not, did not only show any sort of aide to appear in the book, but were not even willing to respond to any letters, which were written in connection to this work. It seems that people want to forget…

Aiding in the appearance of this book, the organization committee, which was organized for this purpose, is extended a hearty thank you, as well as for their encouragement and deep thankfulness to the writers:

Yual Mastboym, Dr. M. Dvorzshetsky, Gavril Vaisman, Mordkheh Yubdyu, K. Shafty, Alyur Rubinshtayn, Layb Robman, Yakov Mansdorf, from Rezshis.

A great job well done is extended to my friend, the writer Gavril Vaisman for his substantial and practical aide with helping to prepare this book to print, as well as to my cousin, Yehuda Mayer Finkleshtayn for his help with copying the manuscript on the typewriter – they all now say that the author is to receive a public and heartfelt thank you.

This book does not pretend to be the complete monument to our destroyed (devastated) home city and the destroyed, castrated community. Too great is the destruction, that a sole person, an individual, should be able to draw out, gather everything that is to be told. This particular book is a modest explanation, interpretation, contribution to a monument such as this.

I have just about touched upon this tragic chapter, which is called: Jewish council and Jewish police, but – having avoided to pass judgement, while keeping with the rule of: “do not judge until you walk in his shoes”…and I was not in their position.

Due to various reasons, a significant part of my noted work was not included in this edition, most importantly about various institutions, fraternal organizations, parties and figures of Siedlce. Only a few of them are included here. The others will be included in a second edition.


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1. Returning Home

Translated by Rita Ratson

During those bleak days of horror, terror, and disgrace, when the bloody exterminator (destroyer) spread his black wings across the greatest part of Europe, we were assaulted, to white middle – Asia – to where that war – storm had cast us (carried us) – the angry news, that our beloved homes have become utterly destroyed and the lives of our dearest ones, our closest ones have been cut off (destroyed).

This particular bad news, to our total depth, scattered our distressed (sick at heart) souls and filled us with a terrible, terrifying melancholy.

Even though we stubbornly braced ourselves, we clung to the smallest shadow of a hope, which each one of us took pains to maintain. This was expressed in the unspoken: maybe I will, at any rate, meet someone there yet? Even more strengthened did the hope become during those long, grey days and nights, which we found ourselves in, in those freight – trains of that long transport train, which snaked itself carrying us over the wide Steppes of Kazakstan and the comfort, ease, of Russian fields and carried us to the direction of our abandoned home. That rocking of the train cars, accompanied by that rhythmic wallop, striking, slamming of the wheel – music, which for several weeks always caressed our broken spirit, so it was, like a remedy to call out in our sleep and in half – awake slumber. Beautiful, sweet hallucinations and dreams about hot tears, which flow down the face about an old mother, whom we have left behind there, about hot, emotional kisses, which eat themselves up in a person, about a newly found brother, and about the aroma of warm arms, where you find yourself embraced by a saved, rescued sister.

But dreams, and still added to this, beautiful ones, sweet ones, cannot be held onto for long. They melted away, right away, as the train brought us to the ground of our tragic reality.

Much had aided the sobriety as well as to the “welcome reception”, which a gang of scoundrels (gentiles) gave us immediately at the boarder: as soon as the train reached the Polish soil, they pelted the cars of the freight trains with a hail of stones, and joyful – mocking (ridiculing) proclaiming, calling out:

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“a Jew, you vex, irritator, annoyer! Dirty Jew! Dirty Jew! (There is a Jew! Jews! Jews!).

And there was something symbolic to this, that our train cars were led to the “labored – over soil” and showed us, before we become acquainted with our own ruins, the ruins of the German cities: those large piles of stones, brick and scrap – iron, under which there are buried many of those murderers of our destroyed, murdered people. Our lips quietly murmured a prayer: may those hands, be blessed, which took revenge for our needlessly cut short lives…

Anywhere we were able to find a roof over our heads, and throw off of our tired backs (shoulders) those poor bundles, which have accompanied, our road of wandering for thousands of years already, so the first thought was: to travel to visit our parents' graves, before allowing a tear for the destroyed devastated home, and to tear kryeh: as the custom is observed, of tearing clothes as a sign of mourning for a close relative, over that scattered ash of our dear beloved ones, and also to search and find – maybe? maybe?…

Laden (burdened) by Ch. N. Bialik's lines:

Of steel and iron, cold and hard and silent,
forge a heart for yourself, you human being – and come!
Come, go to the city of slaughter, massacre, you should see with your eyes
you should touch with your own hands,
on fences, posts, gates and walls,
on stones in the street, on all the blocks of wood,
that blood that has dried to black with the brains
of your brother's heads and throats.

So, I took to the road, to go to the city of slaughter. Entering the wagon car in the train station of the large main–city, we received that proper “reception, welcome”, as it was proper for guests which have not been seen for a long time: a wild laughter accompanied by whispering at my expense along with my other two journey mates who accompanied me. That whispering was accompanied by a fresh winking of the eyes of the well acquainted Polish non–righteous, who remind at every word, what they are meaning, from their observant lips, those holy young ladies, Maria and her son Jesus, and soon a clear commentary:

–To the devil! People say that Hitler murdered all those dirty Jews, and by the end – where did so many come from again? The preacher of these words was a middle–aged blonde man, with a satisfied, happy, satiated face, a pointy mustache and watery

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eyes, constantly in motion, which the presence of the three Jews on the train car (a thing, that he had not seen for several years already), irritated him, like a hungry wolf, who just catches the whiff of fresh roasted meat…

A long conversation passed about old acquainted themes. We were forced to listen all night long to the forever old–new songs, which we hear “from Egypt until here”, and the principal thing that we discussed was how we have sinned, for which there is completely no response, reply, repentance. For instance: for killing the creator of Christendom: for the killing (slaughter) of Christian children for ritual purposes; for poisoning water wells; for spreading epidemics; communism; socialism; heresy, and whatever more? And having accomplished, that Hitler was right, that the Jews should have been rooted out, exterminated, long ago already.

Understandably, that we, the three Jews in the traincar, have not been able to take part in such conversations, we only thought to ourselves: (a thing, that no one is able to hinder us with) it is a shame, that God had sworn, that there would be no floods brought to the world any longer. How useful would such a bath be now, as those in the times of Noah, which should wash this dirt away, which has collected, gathered in our dear world…

A hoarse proclamation by a sleepy train–watchman: “Warsaw Main” interrupted the conversations of our observant train neighbors, and that thinking by three Jewish wandering (homeless) souls, who discuss the Glory of God, while riding on the train, who are travelling to search for the ash of their destructed homes…

At the train station “Warsaw East–Station”, where we arrived to especially several hours earlier, before the train's departure for Siedlce, we buried our eyes, in vain, into every passerby's face, who was somewhat late for their train, searching for a familiar face in him, an acquaintance. There are none as such! Together with this cooled mild evening Spring a wind blows from everyone's eyes and from the entire train station's surroundings, there is a cold strangeness. If any passerby had slowed his pace and fixed his gaze at us, something, like an exotic wonder, we read this question from of his eyes: – what, there are Jews here again?

Gone are the Jews who lived outside of the towns and cities, who were mobile with their specific baskets and tins of their poverty–stricken trade, from their country cottages. Gone are the daily travelers of the past, those shipping agents and the commissioners of Minsk, Kalushin, Siedlce – the Zlatovskys, the Eizenbergs and Gutgolds,

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with their specifically – Jewish haste, hurry, urge, laden with variously colored and all sorts of packed packages, with which they used to honor every one of their acquainted fellow travelers, to help them carry their packages through the baggage check. If we had ever carried a grudge against these Jews, who on their own did not rest and did not allow another to rest, with their annoying insistence and mobility: with their long, black caftans and bearded faces, – –who now walks, in the evening's darkness, in the tight, narrow, train car in which a gnawing heart pines away for them.

And not only does one's own heart shrink from pining and from sorrow, grief: the outdoors, peers inside through the small train car–windows: the train cars, all the houses, like the ones who are shattered, broken into pieces: all those country homes outside of the towns and cities: by the whistle of the locomotive it seems like, one hears the sound of a crying child. Quite in wonder, admiration, one sees that mourning in that small train station: Rembertov–Milosneh–Minsk–Marazy. It seems to oneself, that they got shorter, grew closer to the ground, sitting in mourning (Shiva) for their disappeared Jewish passengers, who with them, these train stations brought ease and comfort and without them there reigns an air of hardened, curdled desert wasteland, which becomes disturbed, only at times, by a long net of a sleepy passenger. Also, that small bashful light, which falls lonely and embarrassed by the tall station lamps – it seems, like a NerTamid, (“continual light in the synagogue”) would have brought back the memory of the disappeared Jewish passengers.

After four hours of tiresome, boring, dragging oneself from Warsaw to Siedlce – instead of the hour and a half of the past – the train comes to a stop at eleven at night at the collapsed hovel, ruins and piles, heaps of grass: of the beautiful train–station of the past. The heart beats heavier: with heat, the blood pounds to the brain at treading on the threshold of one's home–town, which that bloody destroyer, that devil, forced you to leave, seven years ago, certainly half a destruction already, broken to pieces, but at any rate twenty thousand living people are travelling along, our own people, loving sisters and brothers. And now one thinks, ponders in worry: will I find a Jewish home, where to walk into, where to spend the night! And a wonder! While watching pensively at the very few passengers getting off the train, at the quiet embarrassed light of the station lamp (one wants to say a prayer from the continual light in the synagogue) I happened to meet a familiar Jewish face: Miss Sukenik, a member of the Pioneer Youth Organization from the past. She was also searching for the same, among the passengers, as I was,

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and quietly expressing her satisfaction, that she would not need to go on her own to that destroyed city in the darkness, at such a late–night hour.

We go together. I walk automatically behind my guide. Everything in our surroundings keeps the breath stubbornly at a halt and we try to keep our breath silent as well. There is a cemetery silence. We hear nothing, except for our own steps, which we try to keep treading more quietly as well. Everything is wrapped in a thick uncommon darkness, which takes a hold of us and impedes our gait, pace. The meaning of the old biblical expression runs through our thoughts, that there in Egypt, of course, there must also have been such bleakness. And it states in the Haggadah: “But in that darkness, bleakness, in Egypt, Jews got out and God saved us and we came from slavery to freedom and He bestowed upon us wealth” and we came back to life, “God will take care of them”, and the darkness, bleakness, that had remained after the present bloody deluge, tells the story of something different…and when this thick darkness, gloom, becomes disturbed by an orphaned band of light, which tears itself away somewhere in embarrassment, out through a window, it falls against us on a smoky skeleton of a former house, whose intestines (viscera) were wildly engulfed in fire, and is standing now, naked and embarrassed and shouts loudly, its silent pain, to the deaf world: or onto piles of grass, stones, bricks and iron, which dream into the black night about their noble descendants of the past, when they were still prosperous, dignified, well regarded homes, and complained about their present loneliness and desolate formulated loss.

And remarkably, notably! The air is a different one as well. Instead of the Siedlce air of the past, with her specifically delicate moist aroma, which used to, so delicately, softly caress, as such gently velvet mother's hands, is today so hard, dry and heavy, that the eyes burn, throat chokes, and the entire body is filled with lead: and instead that natural air of perfume of the past, from the fresh blooming of old tall chestnut trees, broad dignified linden trees and young slim acacia, which filled the streets of Siedlce on Spring evenings – the nauseating smell of cemetery air mixed with sour mold and tiny smoke filled drops, which the devil had left behind after his wild orgy, which he performed here.

And when the eyes do not see any longer, as it looks on a Spring evening of the present in the sky above Siedlce, one is annoyed, regretful, with those small twinkling stars, which still wink down so arrogantly, sweetly – youthfully, exactly like those good times of the past.


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2. In the Ruins

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

I find myself in a home, in my home town of Siedlce, in a Jewish home. I look at the people, at the things in the room; the walls tell everything that has happened. The moving, restless eyes of my hosts, which dart from place to place, also tell. The broken voices with their quiet speech to which they had become accustomed in their underground lives in hiding. The poor broken-up sticks of furniture with their protruding, broken limbs are the few silent witnesses who mutely relate what happened there. Heavy and fearful lies the dark grey gloom that looks out of the despairing damaged walls and from the torn up ceiling that tell of the bitter fate that befell the people who lived there. And when, at my request, my hosts tell a little bit about what he lived through in “those days,” one would recall that Italian, Dante, who, with his rich imagination, would give us a picture of how Hell must have looked—or also recall our beloved “Sheet Musar” [a book by Eliyahu Ha-Cohen] —who with such innocence depicted the well-known seven levels of Hell—one might say to him: “Come here, dear describer of Hell, and speak with a Jew who went through the Hitler era, and you would change the names of your works to—-pictures of Paradise…

There followed a long sleepless night.

The previous night, our traveling companions had made sure—with their frightening stories—that we could not sleep. And so the next night was also sleepless—thanks to the inner shocks and traumas of returning to the ruined city after seven years.

My host was occupied with finding me a place to sleep that was more comfortable. My body was strained and tired out, but I could not sleep. More powerful than my physical weariness was my frenzied imagination, that would not allow me to forget that there was no more Jewish life, that we would no longer have those whom we had left seven years earlier, and my mind formed one picture after another:

…Now I was on a Shabbos morning in the city park among
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the strollers who filled all the paths, who occupied all the benches. People met friends whom they had not seen all week. People greeted each other and were. Happy. The committees of political parties met there, and representatives of cultural and charitable institutions held meetings.

On a bench in the main path, in the shadow of an old chestnut tree, sat the directors of “Ha-Zamir”; Yosef Rosenzumen, Aaron Shpielfidel, Berl, Czarenebrode, Chaim Schleifer, Moyshe Grabia, Hersh Mendel Shapiro, Menashe Czarnebrode, and for many years—Moyshe Mandelman, and they considered many questions about Ha-Zamir and about the library.

A bit further on, on another bench, at the foot of an old poplar sat Asher Orszel, Levi and Yosef Gutgeld, Yehoshua Akerman, Avraham Shlomo Englander, Shalom Salzman, Henoch Ribak, Moyshe Yudengloyben, and for many years—Fishl Popowski, and they conferred on different Zionist and Tarbus issues.

And there, in front of the summer theater, on the half-open porch, were the proletarian activists: Avraham, Weinapple, Avraham Sluszne, Meir Rzanczaszeva, Yidl Friedrich, who discussed various political and professional matters.

And there, on the grandstand, where the military orchestra played at entertainments in the park, sat Siedlce's literary group: Yakov Tenenbaum, Yehoshua Goldberg, David Greenfarb, Y.Ch. Eisenberg, before whom the young writer Y.F. Greenberg read his newly written story.

And there, a walking meeting: Avraham Bressler, Esther Levenstein, Gutshe Ferster, Leibush Weinstein, Yakov Yom-Tov, Chayah Tenenbaum, Hershel Rosengarten—the directors of Ezras-Y'somim. As they walked, they discussed ways to improve the material and educational conditions of the orphans.

And there again, on a dark side pathway, a Chassidic young man in a long caftan and a small hat walks in an embarrassed manner with intended. And there, in that secluded corner, where no one is walking, an old householder looks around, and when he is sure that there is no “evil eye,” he smokes a cigarette with pleasure. And there, between the hill and the shadowed earthen wall, among the thick bushes and young lilac trees, are gathered the young workers for a secret Shabbos “mass meeting.”

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They sit there free from their work, on their own time. And on the half-cabin, half-veranda that stands on the hill near the water, a young man stands on guard, looking in all directions in case an unwanted spy approaches.

And there, on the left side of the water, Jewish children are gathered—boys and girls, dressed in their pretty Shabbos clothing. They carry on with ringing voices, clap their little hands, call to the wild geese that swim in the water and feed them the Shabbos challah and cookies that their mothers age them for their Shabbos walk. The park is totally Jewish. Everyone there is Jewish. They all speak Yiddish, sing Yiddish songs, tell Jewish jokes and laugh in Yiddish. And when the breeze blows over the green fields of flowers and trees, they echo it back in Yiddish…

In the evening, before Shabbos ends, Jewish Siedlce has gone strolling on the two main streets: Warsaw and Kilingskieve, on the so-called “promenade,” which now has a Shabbos look thanks to the closed shops and workshops. Whom does one not meet there? Pious chassidic Jews, students, who go for their Shabbos “lessons” or to study Pirke-Avos, with their velvet hats and yarmulkes on their learned heads—or they sit down for the third Shabbos meal, singing to the departing Shabbos queen; and there the merchants walk slowly and proudly, their hands clasped behind them, with quiet steps. They do not think about their businesses; they focus, this once in the week, on God's world. And there walk also the craftsmen with their wives and children, all cleaned up, nicely dressed, and agreeable after a week of hard work. Their faces are serene. You can see the pleasure they have derived from their Shabbos rest. And there a group of wives are walking, dressed in their best seasonal clothing and hats, made specially for their Shabbos walks. Each one wanted to outdo the other in elegance and chic; it made an impression as if one were at a traveling fashion show. In addition, older, prosperous ladies, who from Friday on wore well-tended wigs on their shorn heads, dressed in their wedding-clothes that they aired out from Shabbos to Shabbos. They sighed and shook their heads over the modern styles with décolletage and the short, sleeveless clothes worn by the young women and girls.

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There, walking in large packs, were hearty young people—men and women, playing, laughing, with resounding happiness that broke through to even the gloomiest and sourest passersby.

It seemed like a parade. Jewish Siedlce marched on the streets as if it were a holiday, with their Shabbos souls—as Y.L. Peretz had described—before her majesty, the Sabbath queen. As the weekday night approached, the streets emptied. Some people returned to their daily jobs and reopened the stores and workshops.

Some—the younger ones—who wanted to seem like intellectuals with contemporary attitudes went to the films, theaters, and concert halls. Those who were more observant and older sat in their unlighted “prayer houses,” from whose open windows came devout songs, and from the observant women one could hear the common womanly tune of “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob,” until late into the night.

* * *

And thus through the whole night pass these images that are engraved in my memory, molded in blood and marrow, images of everything I experienced and and in which I was a living participant. And while these images burn with fiery heat in my mind and through my whole body, robbing me of sleep, which would be a cure—when it comes—even so the procession of these domestic images lasts for a long time, and I peer at them, as one clings to the monument that stands at the head of a beloved relative's grave.

Blue streaks of light come through the window and announce the arrival of a fresh, new spring day, My weariness disappears; the images dissolve. I am moved to get up and leave the house. I want to see the devastation in the light of day.

Like a religious cantor who approaches the High Holiday Amidah with a quiet prayer of “Hineni he'ani mima'ash,” I, with a similar feeling, mixed with fear and discomfort, allow myself to go to the city of slaughter on the ruins of my destroyed home. I look around and recognize in a small remnant of a street that by a miracle was not obliterated that I was on the former Sholem Asch Street. The half-ruined city is still sunk in its early morning nap.

I begin to walk but…a circle of speakers, multihued, mostly

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in fiery colors, dance before my eyes and drive the blood through my arteries, sending it forcefully and heatedly Tony heart, to my brain. My feet are immobilized and cannot move. They find themselves among smoothly blasted, black stones with hollowed out white and gold colored letters—recognizable Jewish letters. I look at them with horror and read: [in Hebrew]. “Here lies the upright, righteous, and generous R. Chaim Yakov ben R. Shlomo, who lived all his days righteously, may his memory be a blessing”…I feel pain in my feet, as if a snake bit them or as if there were a fire beneath them. I move from that spot and go on a bit and find myself at a second similar stone with similar letters, and I read: “Here lies the modest woman…Chayah Gittel bas Avraham who went to her reward on…”. I cast my gaze further on the blasted sidewalk and see many similar stones lying around and bearing similar inscriptions, with other names. I stand anad wonder: am I dreaming or am I in the cemetery? I feel certain that I am awake. It is no dream, and I am not in the cemetery, because here and there I clearly sees indications of a city. The old water carrier, Joseph, goes by, sees my confusion, sets aside his two pitchers of water, crosses himself, and says: “Do you wonder what this is? The accursed Swabians [an insulting term for the Germans] ordered the monuments to be taken from your cemetery and used for the city sidewalks. That is why I walk in the middle of the street. A righteous Christian would not tread on them.

It all becomes clear to me, and with great sorrow I cry out to myself: “Master of the universe! Is our shame so great?”


3. Pienkne Street

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

As if from fire I spring up to an area that is not paved and not plastered. I look around: a plain field, long and wide, is spread out as far as the eye can see, with a mournful, desert-like appearance, overgrown with wild, prickly grasses. Only the tossed about piles of stones and mounds of rubble indicate that houses once stood there and that it was an inhabited street. On the left side stand several abandoned houses, embarrassed, damaged, defaced by bullets. One recognized there the former Pienkne Street – the heart of Jewish Siedlce.

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Generations dwelled there, created and maintained a special kind of Jewish life. No non-Jews lived there, as if not wanting to disturb the specifically Jewish appearance of the street. Jews multiplied there, married off their children, and when a house became too small, they built on a wing or a little building in the courtyard for children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And thus grew the famous Pinkie alleyways that were a symbol of Jewish Siedlce.

There one could see – once – four generations in a single home: an old, gray-haired grandfather with a broad long white beard, with a broad yellow stateliness, the color of parchment, with a forehead full of creases. A grandfather who awakens at midnight, at the first cry of the rooster, and says the midnight prayers, cries over the exile of the Shechinah and the destruction of the Beis-Hamikdash; he fills his days with Torah and prayer, and when anyone will listen to him – he tells stories about the old Kotzker rebbe. Nearby lives his son, already old himself, who runs a business with his children. Early each morning he goes with his overstuffed talis bag and two pairs of tefillin to pray in the prayer house. By day they are involved somewhat in the needs of the community, somewhat in the Talmud Torah. In the evening, between the afternoon and evening prayers, he learns in a study group with other Jews, and when the High Holidays come, he leaves his wife and children and his business and he goes to his rabbi.

Separately, in the built-on wing, lives the grandson, an up-to-date young man, a maskil, who is active in a political party. A member of “Ha-Zamir,” still, after fifteen years of marriage, he eats at his in-laws and helps his father in the business, sends his young son to a high school, accompanies him to a football match, at which the grandfather and great-grandfather shake their heads in disapproval.

And if someone has a difficult question about Tosafos and cannot find an answer, or he wants to discuss Chassidus, he comes to the scholarly family on Pienkne Street, to R. Chaim Shmerl Goldzak and his two sons, who live not the income from the bakery that is run by the old mother Toibe and her two daughters; they earn so that the men can sit and study, and the women are prepared to be their footstools after a hundred and twenty years. There the questions will be easily answered, and thus is provided a new insight into the weekly portion according to the teachings of the Chiddushei HaRim [the teachings of the rabbi of Ger].

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And if a person wanted to hear some curious stories about the Polish uprising of 1863, he would go to the elderly Yisroelkele Schlosser (whose name among the people was – “Yeled”), who could always be found at his locksmith's workshop, which he had established some eighty years back and where he worked with his sons grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. One had to shake the hand of old Yisroelke Yeled, who would not let go until the handshaker had to give up because of the pressure. Yisroelke would ask: “What do you say about my hundred and seven years?” The more one allowed him to shake one's hand, the more exciting stories one heard from him. And if one wanted to know the secret of how he had lived to such a healthy old age, he would reply immediately that it was because every day he had drunk early in the morning, on an empty stomach, a glass of pure spirits.

If one wanted to discuss current Zionist or Tarbus matters – which needed immediate attention – one would go to Yehoshua Ackerman on Pienkne Street. He greeted everyone with a friendly, open face and shining eyes, abandoned his business matters and with great respect fielded all questions.

If a small merchant was disgruntled, vexed about his taxes or some other nuisance, he went to his union on Pienkne Street, where he could speak from his heart to the good-natured, always welcoming secretary, Yechiel Meir Zeidenzeig, and he would leave happily, fortified with good advice.

And if someone had to pay for a bit of merchandise that had spent several days at the train station or had to pay off an IOU, take out a patent, or fulfill a vow, he would go to his credit bank on Pienkne Street. He would be apologetic to the bank director and founder R. Monish Ridel, and he would leave happily, having been aided.

And not far away, in the home of the popular workers aid Meir Radzanczadszewe (Shimon Vechter's son), things were always happening. People dealt with serious questions: about declaring a strike of the shoemakers, about calling for a meeting over political detainees, and so on.

And if one went through Pienkne Street on market days, one would see a crowd of hundreds with heads raised, standing and staring up at the sky. In the middle of this crowd,

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one would see the most popular man on Pienkne Street, the greatest jokester in Siedlce, R. Feivel Greenspan, who also stood with his head raised, pointing with his forefinger toward the sky. To the questions of why this crowd is there and what they see in the sky, no one can answer, and then Greenspan laughs and calls out: “Animals, why have you gathered here in the marketplace and what are you looking for in the sky?” – Embarrassed, all lower their heads and depart with chagrin that they have allowed themselves to be made fools of.

Going to any home in the Pienkne alleyways, one hears the rasping of a saw or the scraping of a wood plane accompanying the song “The Worker Makes his Goods for Someone” – indicating that there is a carpenter's workshop. And a few steps further on comes the tick-tock of a sewing machine accompanied by Yossele Rosenblatt's “Rachem-na” or Sirota's “K'vakaras” – showing that in that place lives a tailor of the older generation who prays at the Tailor's Shul “Parkhei Shoshanim,” which is at 25 Pienkne Street. From a second window emerges another tick-tock from a tailor's machine, this one a bit more desolate, beating in time to Y.L. Peretz' “The Eyes Red, the Lips Blue,” sung by a solitary, pale woman at her work; and if one goes a few steps further, one hears the quick pounding of a shoemaker's hammer that beats on the sole of a boot in time to Morris Rosenfeld's “I Have a Young Son.”

I see the solemnity that takes over Pienkne Street after half the day on Friday: the street is filled with the aroma of freshly cooked fish and freshly baked challahs. No one walks on Pienkne Street now. They run. The women run with their Erev Shabbos treasures, with their Shabbos baked goods from the bakeries. Tailors run with newly sewn clothes over their arms, and shoemakers run with newly finished boots, shoes“carrying them to the householders who ordered them. Jews run to the mikveh with packs of clean clothing under their arms, and Jews run back from the mikveh, half-dressed, disheveled, sweaty, with drops of mikveh water dripping from their beards. Members of the association “Shomrei Shabbos” [Guardians of Shabbos] run through the streets crying out, “Shabbos! Shabbos!” Soon all the stores and workshops will be closed. Through the windows on Pienkne Street one can see the Shabbos lights, the twinkling of the Shabbos candles.

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kindled with softly whispered prayers and with hand-covered eyes by the Jewish women of Pienkne Street.

Most members of “Ha-Zamir” and readers of Yiddish books have described Pienkne Street and its surrounding alleys that cultivated a specifically Jewish kind of poverty. They have described participants in various pioneer and revolutionary youth organizations. In 1905, throughout the country resounded the contribution that Siedlce made to the revolution. And Siedlce itself knew that this was the greatest service of Pienkne Street and its surroundings. And if one at that time had to clear out of the way czarist official, a worker for the Okhrana, a follower of the Jewish revolutionary youth did Pienkne Street offer up as a voluntary hero, like Moyshe Radzinski (Moshe Gabbai), who carried out such work. And when the czarist dogs engaged in a ferocious pogrom against Siedlce's Jews, they unleashed their greatest fury against Pienkne Street and its surroundings.

The greatest number of Jewish organizations in the city were found on Pienkne Street: the first Jewish people's bank, the so-called Loan Association, the small merchant's bank, the merchant's union, the small merchant's union, all kinds of illegal political organizations and stores, several souls, especially those belonging to certain professions, such as the shoemaker's soul “Parchei Shoshanim,” Sheflan's shul, a traveler's home, and others, where everyday, ordinary Jews could study every evening from “Ein Yakov” and a chapter of Mishneh, and there were also many Chasidic prayer houses and charitable fellowships.

But such a disaster? That was all in the past. I see it all in my imagination, in a fantasy. The reality is that I am standing in the cemetery of Jewish Siedlce, near the stones and remnants that remain, a reminder of the destruction, like monuments to an extinct life.

It is now early morning. Once at this hour Pienkne Street would have been full of Jewish children rushing to the Talmud Torah, to the Tarbus, or to the Folk School with their schoolbags on their backs and under their little arms. Where are you, pale Jewish children? It has already been several hours that I have wandered through these ruins, and I have not encountered a single child, nor a single Jew. I walk through an empty field among stones and stinging grass. I know that once

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there was a whole stretch of Jewish streets between Pienkne and Warsaw Streets – Kasze, Pszeyozd, Proste, Szpitalne. I know that I am treading upon the graves of an extinct Jewish life, but will future generations also know when they walk here? Or will no Jewish foot walk here at all?

* * *

Three structures adorned Pienkne Street, not specifically Jewish but of a general city character: on the eastern side stands the old city hall with its specifically Old Polish architectural style, which there founder of Siedlce, Countess Oginska, ordered built for the needs of the city. Then there are the surrounding shops, as a business center. From the city council hall, an underground cavern led to her palace, the old Oginski Palace near the city park. And the last historic building was the city library.

On the lofty tower of the old city council hall stands the naked, gold-colored “Jacek,” who has held on his poor shoulders for many generations the heavy burden of the globe, within which could be found, written on parchment, the story of how five hundred years earlier the foundation for the capital city of Podlasie was laid.

On the other side, at the second street corner on the western side, at the exit from the street stands a tall, gray fortress wall with small, barred windows. This is the famous Siedlce prison, an inheritance from the former czarist times that was built opposite the Jewish center “Pienkne Street” as if to throw fear over the Jewish residents, who were not considered “nobility” by those who had God's grace.

At the end of the street, in an honored spot, stood the city hall, a simple unadorned building without great architectural or historical pretensions. But it occupied a prominent spot on the streets. Principally, it graced Pienkne Street with its high tower, which held a massive, round clock that showed the time on all four sides and communicated it through its bells to those who could not see it. On the tip-top there was always walking a watchman from the fire patrol on the lookout in case there was work for his crew.

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The city hall with its surroundings was the center, the heart of Siedlce. Every resident of Siedlce had to pass at least once every day through one of the four streets – if you wanted to meet someone, it was sufficient to stand for a while by the city hall and that person would come by. Aside from the many passersby, there were in the area always groups of people standing or sitting by the city hall. In summertime one often saw on the Pienkne Street side, close to the wall, at the foot of the high clock tower, resting in the shadow of the huge walls of the city hall a group of transport workers, coachmen and porters with ropes at their hips, some with whips in their hands, some sitting on the ground with their booted feet stretched out as free as anything; those who were standing there with their broad shoulders were always ready to carry burdens. Leaning against that huge city hall wall, they were ready with their strong backs, and right in the middle of this world of porters sat Avraham Weinapple, the head of the transport union, with his hat down on his forehead and his large glasses settled on his nose, reading to the group the “Folks-tzeitung” and instructing them about the world's political situation.

On the other side “by the entrance to Warsaw Street” there appeared, like a stock exchange of loafers, a combination of Jews and non-Jews who were unemployed and waiting for the monthly payment from the unemployment fund. They passed the time engaged in fervent discussions.

Groups of older Jews were there, too, propped up on canes; ruined businessmen told about the great businesses they once had and about the noble customers they had; they chewed the ends of their beards and looked out for the postman who might bring a letter with a check from a rich relative in America.

In the midst of this deserted field that lies far and wide around me, I stand now by a new plaza full of greenery and flowers. They are covered with glistening drops of dew that the morning sun has not yet made disappear. It is like an oasis in a wasteland. I sit down on one of the benches that are placed around as if I found myself in the domain of the former city hall, which I had seen in the

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first days of the bloody flood half destroyed, with its fallen clock tower. How from its ruins did such a beautiful plaza with benches arise? I look all around. There is nothing wrong with my eyes. One sees far and wide. There is nothing blocking the way.

Then I see the long prison building. The czarist bequest was lucky – nothing happened to it. It outlived Pienkne Street and all its inhabitants and stands and dominates its ruins. One sees the old city council hall, but little more than its bare skeleton. On its burned out high tower there remains standing only the shameful lower section of naked Jacek, poor thing, without his head and without the globe that was cut off with his shoulders. Poor Jacek. He shared the heavy fate of his Jewish fellow citizens.


4. Kilinske Street

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

It was good to sit a bit among the greenery and flowers, breathing in the fresh early-morning air. It helped me to forget just a little my tragic surroundings. That thought gives me momentary relief from the images of destruction. And that thought was helped by the appearance of the opposite cozy little street, which, with a few exceptions, had not suffered the same fate as its near sister, Pienkne Street. There it stood, with a line of upright houses on both sides and before, like soldiers – standing upright as if for roll call, two rows of growing trees with broad tops of green leaves that threw thick shadows over the gardens in which they stood.

But I could not sit and rest for long. The desire to see all at one time, as quickly as a breath, the whole scope of the destruction – raised me from the place. Now appear Moyshe Rotbein, the Halberstam brothers, Goldman, Kravietz, and others who had been stuck deep in the wolfish maw, ripped apart, away in underground holes, bunkers, woods – and survived. Survived in order to tell what had happened. They, and others who returned from the distant East where they had wandered, like myself, sought the bones of a father, a mother, a sister, a brother – the remains of the Siedlce Jewish community. We walk around

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in a group, casting shadows, and we move in silence, as if at a funeral.

On the right side we see the shoe businesses that stood one after the other, and on the left – the sewing goods store, the haberdashery, stationery and bookstores. Then, just as I did in earlier times I look at the writing on the signs and read new names, unknowns. And then, those unknown proprietors peer out of the open doors of their businesses that they opened with a clatter, like old, established residents.

My eyes devour all of the remaining houses on the once sparkling little branch of Kilinske Street and they search: perhaps I will see something from that earlier time. There are the windows from a house on the left side that for long time housed the Zionist organization – the “Merkaz.” The same windows from which the notes of “od lo avdah tikvateynu” [words from “Hatikvah”]. There are the walls on which were written out in large blue and white letters the whole Basle program: “Zionism intends to fashion for the Jewish people a legal, secure home in Eretz Israel.” For many years, people discussed and clarified what it meant to be a people without a home and warned about the tragic consequences of eternal homelessness. And there was the office of the “Keren Kayamet L'Yisrael” where Jews brought their saved up groschen to purchase land in Israel for Jews to live on; and there was the editorial office of the “Siedlcer Vochenblat,” the popular Jewish weekly in Podlosie.

And there, opposite, on the right side stands the building that housed there professional union of Jewish leather workers. On its walls were written the slogans, “Workers of the world, unite,” “Fight against fascism and reaction,” and others. There people spoke about the brotherhood of nations, about a better future that had to come. From its windows, the notes of the “International” and other songs of hope and freedom could be heard.

There are windows of the premises of the former merchants bank, the institution that played such an important role for the Jewish merchants in the times when all credit and business concerns in the city were closed to Jews. For them the merchants bank was like a mother, where, besides a loan or a

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discount, one could receive a nice greeting from the always friendly and talkative chairman, R. Asher Orszel, and good advice from the always taciturn director, R. Avraham-Asher Kwiatek.

And there, in that building, set in on the side, were the premises of the artisans union. After a hard day of work, each evening the Jewish worker found here a place to relax. He came to read the newspaper, play chess or dominoes, and seek protection from the decrees and repressions of the health inspectors with their boycott politics that shadowed his poor existence.

A vast gloom emanates from the windows of these premises that once had been so pleasant, heimish, familiar, and dear. An ice-cold strangeness comes out of those remaining buildings on the bit of Kilinske Street, and although a radiant springtime sun shines in the sky – all my bones are frozen.

I sneak over to Sienkiewicz (formerly Ogrodowa Street) and – again a wilderness: on both sides, right and left, wherever I look, I see nothing but ruins, heaps of stones, goats, little hills overgrown with grass. On one such plot of grass, where the beautiful house of R. Yisroel Gutgelt once stood, horses pasture with chains on their front feet.

And in the middle of the street, amidst the ruins and destruction, there stands, as it did before, the great Russian Orthodox Church that was later converted into a military facility, with a high, ruined roof surrounded by a forest of growing green trees, like guardians who would protect it from attacks. It seemed as if the high, four-cornered tower with a cross at the top proclaimed proudly: “You see, the corruption has no power over me. I remain intact.” Instinctively I turn my glance to the exit from Pienkne, by Florianske Street, and on the side of Dluge, opposite from Sokolower Street. And from there, as the metal crosses shine in the early morning sun holding fast to their metal towers, they proclaim that in the struggle with the bloody destroyers, they emerged unscathed…


5. On the Sacred Area

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

We found ourselves on the area that lies like a four-cornered box where the four streets meet: Warsaw, Dluge, Stari-Rinek, Yiddishe, the sacred area of Jewish Siedlce. It recalls the old biblical call, “Remove your shoes from your feet, because the place where you are standing is holy ground…” As they did once for the tabernacle [in the wilderness], our forefathers and foremothers brought their gifts and constructed on this spot a Temple complex, with a shul, and over the entrance, as in old Chumashim, pictured the Two Tablets with Ten Commandments, with their eternal warning, “Thou shalt not murder.” They also constructed a room for a rabbinical court, an apartment for the rabbi, a room for the community council and all other community needs.

In order to have a secure place for the community's belongings and sacred objects, which might be subject to theft or fire, our forefathers built from stone and iron under the floor of the great synagogue a genizah. There could be found a great many sacred objects, such as: Torah scrolls, megillot, manuscripts, ark covers, silver candlesticks, menorahs, shofars, and many other things of historical and artistic value. The genizah was closed behind three doors of iron and wood, disguised, and closed with seven locks. The keys were held by the gabbai of the beis-hamedresh, who trusted no one else with them but opened and shut the room with his own hands when anything needed to be removed for a holiday or for a special occasion.

Early every morning, while it was still so dark that one could not distinguish between a dog and a wolf or between blue and green, the believing Jews of Siedlce would stream there to pour out their beleaguered hearts before the Creator of the world. It was too early for the official prayers, so in the meantime people said Psalms and called out from their overflowing spirits, “From the depths I call to you, O Lord.”

As soon as it was day, people said their prayers devotedly as a congregation. Early on, the simple Jews, workmen, small merchants, who had rushed in before going to their workshops and stores in order to pay the Master of the World his due. Later on the “finer” Jewish scholars, who had more time, who were not rushed, said their prayers slowly, drawing out their words for half the day. After prayers and before going home, still wearing their tallis and tefillin, they learned a page of Gemara. And even before they left, the tables in the beis-medresh were filled with

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other learners, young men and old Jews who learned some by themselves and some in groups, reciting aloud, with the special niggun, the special melody that Bialik had given eternal life in his “The Constant One.” The melody wafted out through the windows and into the street, informing all passersby that the people of Israel will not pass away.

In the evening, the shul and the beis-medresh were filled from corner to corner with people who were there for minchah and maariv. And there was no lack of children, who cried out with their youthful voices, standing on a bench, lamenting with great sorrow the injustice of having lost a father or a mother – reciting the ancient words “Yisgadal v'yiskadash.”

Between minchah and maariv, people would listen to a preacher, an emissary from a yeshivah who stood all excited on the dais and emotionally described what awaited in Gehenna with such detail as if he had just returned from there: how evil people were fried in huge frying pans, how they were hung on hooks and burnt in barrels of pitch, and he concluded that to forestall such things one had to give tzedakah and support Talmud students, and he ended with, “May the redeemer come to Zion in our time, amen…”

After maariv, all the tables were completely filled and the sound of Torah again rang out.

Now R. Shlomo-Shmuel Abarbanel studies the Eye Yaakov with a group of everyday Jewish workers. At another table, R. Paltiel Rubinstein studies a chapter of Mishnah with a different group. And – quiet. Be polite!! There at the eastern wall, near the aron-kodesh, at a table surrounded by the scholars of the city, one of the greatest scholars in Siedlce gives a lesson, the prodigy R. Nechamkeh Lev. And at another table, also at the eastern wall, surrounded by fine Jews, well-to-do scholars, half-maskislim, the old Havurah scholar and mask, the silver-haired, stately R. Yitzchak Nahum Weintraub teaches the daf-yomi.

Thus it is, day in and day out, until deep into the night.

But even deep into the night the beis-medresh is never deserted. After the departure of all the worshippers and the students, there always remain, throughout the night, tucked away in a corner among the stoves, some of the eternal poor, by the small light from a tallow candle with the whisper of a strangely sad melody that lasts through the night.

My mind runs through images of how the shul and the beis-medresh appeared on Shabbos and holidays and at other special moments, like, for

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example, on Tisha B'Av: in the evening, the sky in the west is wrapped in flames that recall the fire of Nebuchadnezzar's time that consumed the First Temple, as well as the fire from the time of Titus that consumed the Second Temple, just as the shul and the beis-medresh now appear as ruins. The tables and the benches are turned over, the Holy Ark with its Torah scrolls stands as if embarrassed, stripped of its cover in near darkness, with the light of a small candle. The whole congregations sits on the ground, like mourners, in their socks. The chazan recites the book of Lamentations with a mournful melody, as if lamenting the dead, while everyone, with tears and sadness, cries quietly to themselves, “Look and see whether there is any pain like my pain” and sheds bitter tears over the fate of a people who for thousands of years have wandered in the wilderness. And year after year, generation after generation, the earth on which we stand has absorbed the warm well of our tears.

Or: this picture, how the shul appeared and the beis-medresh, on the night of Yom Kippur for Kol Nidrei – how in sacred, silent ecstasy the people cried out their powerless protest against the evils of the world in tones enmeshed with the melody of Kol Nidrei; and at Ne'ilah, when the congregation was pale, wearied from the long fast, wearing kitties and talisim, pounding their sapped hearts at the “Al Cheit” forcing they had not committed, while in the twilight cutting through the hushed, sacred air came the cry of generations: “When I see every city built on its site” [a line from one of the piyyutim recited on Yom Kippur]…Their hearts are full of sorrow that every city and country of every people stands fast while ours lies in ruins – like our whole lives.

There were also moments of light and joy that the congregation experienced in this spot. For example, Purim, when the old Megillah was unrolled and they read about the defeat of an old enemy of the Jews who once thought he could wipe out the people of Israel. In the lusty tune of “Shoshanas Yakov,” and in a joyful dance, the elders let loose; and with wooden graggers and clapping of the hands and stomping with the feet, the children carried on, the young ones. And everything reflected joy that once, though very, very long ago, we did not lack the justice that so often renders us like a stepchild.

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Or Simchas Torah: the shul and the beis-medresh swim in a sea of light. Everyone, dressed in their finest clothes, beams with joy. It is no trifle, Simchas Torah for Jews! On the reader's platform stands the chazan, beaming, in his holiday cantorial garb, with the permanent gabbai of the shul, the distinguished R. EliezerShlifke, with his silver beard and his golden glasses on his nose, with his volunteer helper, the ever-moving R. Avigdor Kartoflia. They give out the honors – they call those who will come up to carry the Torah. First come the “fine” upper-crust, those who come to the shul regularly to pray – those at the Eastern Wall. They are called up with honor, with a melody and with their full titles, like this: “Our teacher, the great scholar of a fine pedigree, the descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov, R. So-and-so is honored with the procession of Abraham.” Later on come the simpler Jews from the Western Wall and those who come less often for prayers. They are called up without titles, simply as “Reb So-and-so is honored with the procession of Yakov.” The congregation dances in a circle with the Torah scrolls clasped to their hearts around the reader's platform, rejoices in the Torah, dances and sings: Happy are you, O Israel, that God has chosen you as His beloved people and thought you worthy of the Torah. The children, boys and girls, who on Simchas Torah are not chided for coming among the adults, shine with happiness, looking around, mingling with the crowd, holding the lower part of the wooden pole on which the Torah is wrapped, which their fathers hold while dancing. The children stomp their feet and sing with the adults, worthy stand on the tables and benches with Simchas Torah flags in their hands. On the tops of the flags are red apples that reflect the light. With their flaming red cheeks and burning brown eyes, they provide a wonderful picture of the holiday.

* * *

The bloody destroyer understood how there people were bound up with their shul and beis-medresh. Therefore, before he killed the people, in order to cause even more pain and suffering – first he destroyed the sacred place so that no trace of it remains where it once stood. A sad, empty place is spread out before my eyes, and in the middle is a broad common grave of marble and concrete, topped with a high tower – a reminder adorned with a hammer and sickle, under which one reads the inscription: “Praise and honor for the heroes of the Soviet Union who fell in the battle with the wild fascist beasts to liberate the city.”

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There follows a long list with the names of the fallen heroes whose bones rest at the bottom of the memorial in this community burial place.

A holy shudder runs through my heart and my whole body at reading the names, which, though they sound strange and unknown, are still heimish, familiar, and dear.

I want to fall to my knees, to lay my hot forehead on the cold marble and call out: Who else, like myself, the cluster or surviving Jews, captives, persecuted by the wild fascists, returned from bunkers and underground holes, woods and taiga, could appreciate what you did to liberate us and to liberate the world.

An eternal light of love and gratitude will always burn in the pantheon of our hearts in praise of your young lives that you sacrificed to cleanse the world of that dark plague.

In the most beautiful and most important places of our destroyed city, people should erect such remembrances to serve as monuments to the heroic fighters – and as a warning for coming generations against the rebirth of fascism.

But is it not a mistake or a misunderstanding? Is this really the right spot for a communal grave and for a memorial for fallen heroes?

Consider – that on this bit of earth for hundreds of years stood a shul with a beis-medresh and that the earth absorbed so many tears and prayers from many generations – and it is a shameful dishonor to the last tragedy – the destruction of its congregation. They should erect a different monument, a monument of the Eternal Jew who sits Shiva on the ground, shoeless, with along gray beard and deep creases in his forehead,, with large eyes turned toward the heavens, cloaked in a tallis and kittle, a sack with ashes over his gray head. In one bony hand he should hold the number “six million” and in the other – the symbol of the eternal falsehood, with the inscription: “When you receive a slap on the cheek–turn the other one…” – Such a monument I have envisioned for this dishonored sacred spot to tell coming generations about the disgrace of the years 1939-1945. And perhaps in the future a passerby

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will stand and consider and – strike his heart with an “al chet” for the sins of his grandfathers –

Survivors recount:

…Late one cold, dark winter night – on Christmas of the first year of the bloody Hitler lordship in Poland (in 1939) Siedlce shuddered with alarm, for the beis-medresh with the shul were burning! The vandals spared no amount of benzine and naphtha so that the wild spectacle would create a more imposing effect. The flames reached miles high and lit up the dark night sky. Around the auto-da-fe stood the wild beasts carrying machine guns and handguns and they made sure that no Jew, God forbid, could try to extinguish the flames or bring out a burning Sefer Torah. In the shul and the beis-medresh were quartered several hundred homeless Jews from Kalisz, Wloclawek, and other cities of western Poland. The fire in the middle of the night found them sleeping. They jumped through the burning doors and windows, some with children and some with the elderly or the ailing in their hands, receiving burns and cuts, rifle and bayonet wounds from the frenzied man-eaters. The screams of the victims were mixed with and drowned out by the joyful cries of the villains who celebrated the wild conflagration that they had caused in the Christmas celebration to honor the birth of the savior of the world, who built his teaching on “You shall love your neighbor…”

During this wild orgy of flames, nearby on Warsaw Street near the Pilsudski Monument, representatives of the Murder-Race sat around tables “SS men, Gestapo, gendarmes, and other big Nazis, stuffing themselves like pigs, swilling, and singing in their loud, drunken voices the Horst Wessel Lied, while they “immortalized” on film the results of their wildness: the burning shul and beis-medresh with the burning and beaten Jews…

When the vandals were good and roused up, heated up by the flames and the alcohol, they realized that one thing was lacking in their spectacle – having a band of them descend on the despairing Jews who stood on the side and in their great helplessness wrung their hands and lamented

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their dishonored and destroyed holy site. The beasts in human form grabbed their first victim who came into their paws – it was Pinchas from 7 Florianska Street (Pincze Czach) – they dragged him to the burning shul and ordered him to bring out Torah scrolls from the Aron Kodesh and dance with them around the reader's stand. As the flames spread through the entire shul, the murderers slammed shut the doors and the unfortunate Pincze was incinerated along with the Torah scrolls that he held close.

On the morning after the fire, the vandals came to the Jewish community and collected signatures on a document testifying that the shul and the beis-medresh were burned through unknown circumstances.

Happy with their accomplishment, later on in a similar way they destroyed all the other souls and beis-medreshes in the city. Later on, the Jews were taken from the locked up ghetto and the murderers forced them, with terrible beatings, to take apart the remaining walls of the soul. The stones, concrete, and iron the Germans took for their “Lebensraum” purposes.

And again my glance went to three points in the city: Kilinske–Florianske–Dluge, to the tips of the high towers from whence dance the reflections of the crosses that play like carefree children with the beams of the springtime sun…


6. At the Old Cemetery

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

We take a few steps further from the destroyed holy place on this sacred ground and find ourselves in the old cemetery on the side of the shul…

There was once in Siedlce an old cemetery, the first of three in the city…

One generation related to the next that: once—once, hundreds of years ago, when all of Podlasie was a huge forest, a rich old lord, who owned the whole area, ordered that in the woods, which extended a great distance, an area should be carved out for a city. Because of the beauty of the area, which in Polish was known as “Pienkne-Shedlisko, the city was called Siedlce [in Yiddish, “Shedletz”]. Desiring that the city would be built and developed

 

sie032.jpg
The Great Shul in Siedlce. Burned by the Nazis on the night of December 24, 1939.

 

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Ghetto gate at Stari-Rinek reading,
“Entrance forbidden to Germans and Poles due to danger of an epidemic”

 

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Ghetto wagon transporting the dead

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quickly, the lord summoned Jews from other cities, descendants of those Jews who once for the Egyptians built Pithom and Ramses; for the old Babylonians—cities on their shores; for the Greeks and Romans—circuses and theaters; for the Spaniards—Cordova and Toledo; for the German barons—Mainz, Worms, and Frankfurt; for the Ukrainian hetmen—Uman, Proskurov, Kishinev, and other cities, where they were later robbed, deafened, or burned in autos-da-fe. They were given certain privileges, among which was the piece of earth on which we now stand. On one side they built a shul with a beis-medresh, and the other they set aside for a cemetery—surrounded with a thick, strong wall, built to last generations. There rested the bones of the first Jews of Siedlce. The people called it “The Sacred Spot.” With great solemnity the Jews walked the surrounding streets, Jewish Street, Dluge, and Stari-Rinek. Good Christians doffed their hats before the old “czmentasz” [Polish for “cemetery”] of the “staro-zakonnik” [“the old monk”]. Time has done its work and flung the old monuments onto the earth. Only a few remain, covered over with green moss. The engraved lettering on them is no longer legible. The earth that once was heavy with human bodies is now covered with plants, tall grasses typical of cemeteries and wild flowers that hold the secrets of hundreds of years. Their holy rest has not been disturbed. The surrounding wall has held them all, like a holy thing, closed to the surrounding hubbub, preserving it as a holy place.

Old people used to say that in their childhood years this was “outside the city,” where cemeteries were traditionally located. Later, as the city spread out, people built building after building, street after street, until this spot became the center of the city. With the growth of the city, the old cemetery became more heimish and familiar, so that no one, even the oldest inhabitants of the city, knew when it could no longer accept burials. It reminded all its neighbors that “man comes from the dust and returns to the dust.” But it did not frighten or throw fear on passersby. In the shadows of its walls, Jewish children played ball and

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jumped rope. And anyone who passed by in the twilight and stood on tiptoes and looked over the wall would see the thick woods with the high grasses full of their secrets, rocking back and forth as if they were sending to heaven a silent prayer from the first generations of Siedlce's Jews, who rested under this sacred earth

No one dared to tread upon this sacred place and to disturb the quiet sleep of Siedlce's first Jews, who had slept there for hundreds of years, until the earth of Poland was shaken by the bloody hordes of Hitler, who carried out the last act of this holy place before the destruction of Siedlce's Jewish congregation.


7. The Last Hours in the Large Ghetto

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

Several witnesses who miraculously survived that mass execution recount:

…It was a frightfully hot day. Aside from the daily suffering and pain that the imprisoned inhabitants had to endure from their torturers, with their wild, sadistic innovations—horrible ideas spread in the. Ghetto and further embittered their already embittered lives.
The Jewish Council had received a strict order from the labor office to send several score works to unload a train car in the train station, which, thanks to a fire in the axles, could proceed no further.

Rumors spread through the ghetto that in the train car there were Jews from Radom. Consequently, together with the workers went Heniek Adler, who was from Radom and who now lived in the Siedlce ghetto.

The sight that the workers encountered was horrible: the car was part of a death train that was taking the Jews of Radom to Treblinka. Because of a fire in the axle, the car could not continue and was held up in Siedlce. When the opened the car, they found packed together a hundred corpses. They were horribly stuck together from the crowding,

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the heat, and the gas that the lime that was spread on the floor gave out. Adler recognized inhabitants of Radom. The SS convoy that guarded the Jewish workers, urged them with clubs to unload the clumped bodies quickly. They were taken to the cemetery and there buried in a make-shift communal grave.

Many of the workers thought, in view of the horrible scene with the Radomers in the car: Is not a similar fate awaiting the Jews of Siedlce?

Then a Jewish woman came who had escaped from Minsk-Mazowiec and she related how all the Jews there had been taken to one spot. Many of them were shot right there and the rest were taken in an unknown direction. Dr. Lebel, the head of the Jewish Council, tried to telephone the Jewish Council in Minsk, but no one answered.

Then we heard that a special band of Gestapo and Ukrainians were in the city with a special secret mission.

Christians who encountered Jews during the day related that they had heard from the train workers and others in the depot that people were preparing train cars for the Jews.

And then there came to the ghetto, to the seamstress Mathil Greenberg, a gendarme with his wife, who had ordered clothing from her and now demanded back the material, as that…they were leaving Siedlce.

Also the commander of the Polish police, Graf, came to the watchmaker in the ghetto and demanded back the watch that he had left for repairs.

It also became apparent that in the evening there arrived in the ghetto many Polish police—many who had never been seen before. And when the downtrodden and worried ghetto dwellers asked the police what had happened in Minsk Mazowiec, they sought to calm them and said that near Warsaw there had been a train accident and two thousand Jews were taken there as workers.

These, as well as other facts, showed that something was in store, that something would happen. And though no one knew where or when,

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people instinctively felt that something horrible, frightful, was coming.

* * *

…It was dark night in spring—erev Shabbos, the ninth of Elul, 1942, after three years of Hitler's bloody domination in the country, when the Jews of Siedlce, beaten down and bedraggled by the hard labor which they were forced to do every day, swollen with the hunger that the Nazis imposed, brought down and weighed down by the terrible craziness of the wild sadists, robbed of faith in God, man and the world, lying cramped in their small, dirty ghetto cots, dreamed—some of how to get a few potatoes the next day for the wife and children; and some of how to escape from their cramped, larked ghetto prison, to go the woods to the partisans and to help defeat the bloody enemy; some lamented quietly with their broken hearts by saying a chapter of Psalms and waited for a miracle; and some, with the greatest despair, resigned themselves to a longing that death should come as the only thing that could free them from these terrible conditions, while some who came under the reign of typhus in the ghetto or of starvation writhed in their last agonies, pronouncing their last despairing curse in the darkness of the dark world.
During this dark night, the ghetto was surrounded by a black, bloodthirsty international rabble: by Ukrainian brigands, who got their thieving pedigrees from their bloody grandfathers, those who served Chmielnicki, Gotta, and the Fetluras {Ukrainians who at various times led attacks against the Jews], who from time immemorial bathed in Jewish blood; by Latvian criminal young people, for whom robbery and murder were genetic inheritances, were entertainments, sport, like chasing in a mob after rabbits or ducks; by Lithuanian ne'er-do-wells who voluntary joined up with the German murder bands so that they could freely murder and steal Jewish clothing; and by home-grown”grenadiers” and other scoundrels who were as faithful as dogs to the bloodthirsty German occupiers, as they had earlier faithfully served the fascist Sanatzia rulers in the country and even earlier served loyally as the handle of the czarist whips.

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The leaders of this bloodthirsty family were, you understand, the most refined murderers of all times and generations: the German SS.

This siege was like iron, with hand grenades, machine guns and other instruments of destruction, as they wanted to conquer a strong, powerful enemy and not—the worn out and tortured skeleton-like Jews who lives, for the past three years, had been as worthless as dust.

Getting out of the ghetto “immediately” was impossible. The tragic hours of that dark night seemed to last forever. The half-dead people of the ghetto felt as the end was approaching, and the skeleton-like bodies pressed together, the swollen mother clasping more tightly to her breast her withered child, a sister holding more tightly to her sister, a brother to a brother, one to the other, all huddled together like the trees in a forest when the woodsmen come and—waited for morning.

And then morning arrived with its horror and terror.—— —— —— ——

When the first blue traces of light broke through the dark sky over the Siedlce ghetto, everyone knew about the terrible order that was worse than all previous wild orders that the Nai murderers had issued during the three years of their bloody lordship over the unfortunate Jews:

“All Jews must immediately abandon the ghetto, taking along only the smallest handbag. They must appear at the square of the old cemetery.—— —— —— ——
When the sun arose in the east that morning, as it did every day, fresh and beaming, it encountered in the emptying ghetto a wild mob of bloodthirsty raptors, like hungry locusts on an abandoned field of grain. The nearest thing to this wild pillaging was, you understand, the knights in their steel helms who came to get tokens for their “beloved ladies,” whom they had obtained for a big lunch or a stolen Jewish watch, and now they were coming to get a whole wardrobe. The Ukrainian brigands, the Latvians, and the Lithuanian robbers worked assiduously for the “holy cause” that had brought them into the war.

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Like the vilest reptiles in a horrible place on a hot summer day, they swarmed through the emptied ghetto, by the side of the uniformed thieves, all sorts of awful people:

Professional bandits, whom the Germans had recently released from prison; unemployed prostitutes who were not successful at their “craft” because of their advanced age; former assistants in Jewish businesses in better times; religious women with crosses who had heard from their priests on the holy altar in church that Jews were a sinful people and therefore God punished them; there were many from the “golden youth”, educated by the “Orendownik” and “Sturmer” and by the most recent bible—“Mein Kampf”—they came to see the fulfillment of a great ideal that they had heard about for years—a “Poland without Jews.” There were also Roma—the future victims of the Treblinka gas chambers—to seize a few pieces of Jewish bedding.

The happy news that the ghetto had been emptied spread quickly throughout the neighboring villages, and bands of thieving peasants came with horses and wagons, bringing their wives and children to help pack their loot in large bags. They dug in the cellars and the courtyards, seeking Jewish gold; they tore apart chimneys and ovens, ripped up floors and ceilings, ransacked attics, made holes everywhere; they stuffed sacks, baskets, and suitcases, dragged out pots, pieces of furniture, sewing machines, whole and ripped up Torah scrolls, whatever might be useful—and if it was not useful, American Jews would pay well for it. And everyone, everyone—the bloodthirsty thieving mob of international zealots disappeared, beaming with joy and thanking God, although the wait had been long, but now the great, joyful day had arrived…


8. At the Umschlagplatz

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

And the old cemetery—the quiet, holy spot where for hundreds of years the bones of the first Siedlce Jews had lain in quiet—received a new name, in accord with the terminology of the murderers: Umschlagplatz.

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Through the wide opening that had been created at the cemetery at that time, where the shul with its beis-medresh had stood, which the Nazi vandals had burned down for the spectacle—in honor of the first Christmas celebration in Siedlce—through this opening there entered the fifteen thousand Jews of Siedlce, together with the Jews from surrounding cities who had been found in the ghetto. They were herded in like persecuted creatures into a cage, like a helpless herd of oxen into the slaughterhouse courtyard before slaughter.

Beyond the surrounding walls of the cemetery—the Umschlagplatz—which had long stood there, was another steel-like wall of armed Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and many armed police, and there were several local people, even children and young people, who voluntarily participated in this “sacred labor,” especially because they would be rewarded: the Germans had promised to take from the dead, or from living Jews, their clothing and shoes, and all those volunteers were worried that someone, God forbid, might escape from that encircled Gehenna.

The executioners did not quickly finish with their victims. Slowly—calculated according to a thought-out and prepared plan that was intended to satisfy and delight the wild beasts's instincts—the work was carried out according to all their rules and precepts that their people had learned in the Kazarma schools and in the literature for the hangmen.

The work was divided up in a systematic way according to the groups. Each group had to carry out its mission in a designated area.

One group of armed murderers set out in a wild mob through the ghetto to force the unfortunate into the Umschlagplatz and to organize the theft of their remaining possessions. With bizarre wild voices and unceasing shooting, they caused a terrible uproar and panic. They went from house to house, looking in every hiding place, in every cellar, attic and covered hole, shooting every Jew that they found and brought out of the hiding places. They murdered and plundered, stole and destroyed everything that came into their hands. Thus were the streets of the ghetto transformed into a slaughterhouse. Every courtyard, pavement, and sidewalk was covered with corpses that were tossed there like

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formless piles of rags upon which the murderers' hard boots had stomped. The drunken cries of victory and calls of joy from the frenzied cannibals mingled with the cries of the helpless victims, with the lamenting cries of the terrified and hunger-tortured children and deafened and maddened those who had come from the ghetto.

A second group of killers went to that part of the ghetto that was shaped like a triangle, where Sokolow, Aslonowicz, and Okopowa Streets came together to prepare a spot for the able-bodied men who were to be selected at the Umschlagplatz. This was a very simple matter: everyone who was within the triangle was gathered together and shot.

At the same time, another group of killers, armed with all sorts of killing devices, was already waiting and “greeting” the unfortunate victims right by the entrance to the shul- courtyard-Umschlagplatz. The frenzied human-animals had arranged themselves in two rows—a kind of road—through which the victims had to pass. Their murderous propensities were delivered to the heads and backs of the people, who were considered as absolutely worthless and—that sacred area of the synagogue courtyard ran with blood and was covered with corpses.

Another group of killers—entirely Ukrainian—sat on the surrounding old cemetery walls with handguns and machine guns and never ceased shooting at the mass of half-dead, piled up people.

They also had the duty to pay attention that this order was carried out: everyone had to sit with their heads down to the ground and be silent; for getting up or raising one's head, one would be shot. This gave them the opportunity, those heirs of Chmielnicki and Petluro, to shoot Jews for the slightest movement. Every Jew was a target, and every shot hit the bullseye.

Certain groups were selected to conduct the decorative aspects of the program, as, for instance: taking away their lunches from the Jewish crowd, who were in the presence of their executioners.

A special group was assembled in various spots around the Umschlagplatz with photographic and film equipment in order

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to memorialize in film all the details of the extraordinary “adventure”—the bloody spectacle.

Also the metropolitan Polish fire brigade was mobilized to take part in the “exceptional impression.” Their job was: from time to time to spray the beleaguered community with water—so ordered the executioners—and they did so with enthusiasm and pleasure.

Nor were the Polish police left behind: they had known their former neighbors, the Jews, for a long time, and they knew that the Jews could hide or escape from the Umschlagplatz [trans. note: probably this should read “the Jews could not hide or escape”], and they knew everywhere that the Jews might have hidden their possessions—the gold and jewelry that the Zhids owned in such quantity. So these important police were everywhere: in the ghetto, where they could find a few Jews in hiding and kill them at leisure; because they were local, they knew all the hiding places, all the holes, and they knew where to look…And there, in the Umschlagplatz and around the square they were present. There they encountered well-known Jews who, in the last hours of their lives, surrendered their watches or some last few hidden zlotys in the naive belief that their hometown police would save them or at least give them a little water to quench their terrible thirst. But the Polish police did not stand apart from their German or Ukrainian colleagues: they beat, robbed, and murdered along with them, those who for generations had hated the Zhids, from whom they would finally be free.

A special time in this program was the executioners' mealtime. Near Pilsudski Street, there where the beis-medresh stood, the serving tables were set up, around which sat the executioners and began to eat and guzzle, while, lying in their own blood, hundreds of Jews who had been whipped and shot, and others who had been tortured, with pale yellow faces, were forced to come to the meal site and were forced, by blows, to sing and dance for the drunken villains. They toasted each other with glasses of wine and with chins red with wine they sang in chorus, “When Jewish blood spurts out from the knife” [lyrics from the “Horst Wessel Lied”].

One of the executioners stood up at the table, an Obergruppenfuhrer from the SS, all inflamed, a drunken guzzler. He waved his hands

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to show he had something to say. His subordinate Germans and Ukrainians perked up and with the help of their whips and rifle butts they quieted down the dazed crowd. The coarse, hoarse voice of the killer in his white gloves thundered over the Umschlagplatz: he must have two pairs of silk stockings for his girlfriend, who sat next to him; he gave fifteen minutes for the socks to be brought to him.

Finished with the meal, they approached the climax of the program—to the selection from among the young, healthy, able-bodied men of 16 to 40 years of age, whose working skills could still be useful to the devilish German war machine. A selection—that is what the killers called it in their murderous language.

It was clear immediately that all women, all children up to 16, and men older than 40 were all consigned to death.

At the selection table were seated the leaders of the different killing groups, extermination and destruction companies, Gestapo and work leaders—ed by the chief executioner, Fabish.

Everyone was forced to go along that “highway,” from the selection table all the way to Dluge Street—between the two rows of frenzied murderers, who lashed and killed the Jews who passed through with their specially prepared tools of death.

The whole community of people was forced along this hellish road ibefore the wild hordes in a parade of death. Drunk and aroused by the their successful undertaking, they called out in one breath: “Left, left,” which meant—to the Treblinka gas chambers. Their place was on the left side of the shul and the cemetery square, on the side of Stary Rynek. Seldom did the executioners call out, “Right,” and that only for the young men, who could demonstrate with their healthy muscles and work-hardened hands that they could still be useful for the wild machinations of the bloody sadists. “Right” meant: survive for a bit. Their spot was in the right sight of the square by Ber-Yoselewicz Street (formerly Jewish).

They amused themselves well, those wild sadists, at the selection table after their lunch of chicken and wine among the tortured and dead Jews.

There ran the Jews with heads split open, eyes gouged out, knocked-out teeth, and all, all—bathed in blood. There a woman carried off her dying child; there crawled on the earth a gray-haired old man with pierced side; and everyone made such

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wild grimaces and hoarse cries, making such bizarre sounds, and—the killers rolled with laughter.

Some of the Jews would not go to their assigned spots, right or left, and remained lying in the midst of the “highway” being flogged and hacked at on the ground. This mass of bodies was trampled on by the stiff boots of the murderers and also by their own unfortunate brothers, who ran over them in order more quickly to pass through the “highway” and all the more quickly to arrive at the—left, left, left…

There were also some chosen “lucky ones” who had the. Luck to take a shortcut on the last road: unnoticed by the executioners, they snuck around those being flogged on the left of the killing ground and thus avoided the bloody course. One such successful person was pale, ailing Yisroeltsche Yom-Tov.

After a half a day, the selection ended, and the executioners' helpers had counted and registered those young men on the right side. They were counted like horses, oxen, or like some other beast of burden. There were five hundred and seventy of them.

Under guard and with blows they were led to the triangle of the ghetto: Aslonowicz—Sokolower-Okopowa, which was thereafter called the small ghetto.

Those there on the left, the greater majority, were not counted—it would be a waste of effort. Soon they would be sent to Treblinka and to the gas chambers. What would the difference be of a few Jews more or less? What need to be formal? But they could be further degraded, abased, tortured, beaten, killed. They knew, those practiced killers, that by tomorrow those Jews would no longer exist, and so today they could be afflicted with pain and suffering.

With the arrival of night, the frenzied killers redoubled their devilish labors against their defenseless victims. The more the victims writhed in their agonies, the greater grew the bestial ecstasy and the more the bacchanalia grew. They became more inventive, seeking new means of torture and death, smashing heads, aiming and shooting in eyes and ears, ripping little children out of their mothers' arms, cutting them in half, bashing children's heads on the stone monuments that were there or against the walls of the old cemetery.

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A crude, overstuffed German offered a piece of chocolate to a pale, emaciated child. The starving child opened his little mouth, but…instead of chocolate. He received a bullet in his open mouth. And as his grieving mother, who was pulling her hair out of her head, pleaded for a buillet of her own, the German complied. Her riddled body fell and covered the splayed out body of her dying child.

A second killer stuffed into the mouth of a Jew a piece of solid sugar. When the starving Jew had the piece of sugar in his mouth, he received on his cheek, which was bulging from the sugar, such a blow that his cheek was punctured and his teeth fell to the ground in a pool of blood.

On the cheek of Shalke Felsenstein, a maddened German saw a mole. The German aimed at it. Three times his revolver jammed, but the fourth time it shot and he fell to the ground, dead.

Leibl Mandelbaum got lucky—for a large sum, a policeman Brough him a flask of water. Nearby lay Freyda Barchowski with her small children, who writhed and suffered from the fiery heat. Mandelzweig [called “Mandelbaum” earlier] gave her a bit of water for the children. For this sin, an SS man shot him.

Young Pesach Rosenberg could not withstand the suffering from the heat and the anguish. He began to move his head in order to straighten his stiff back, and he sought a bit of water. Immediately a hail of bullets struck him in the head. Rosenberg was left lying dead in a pool of blood.

Yisroelke Teller, the “rabbi” of Siedlce's underworld, raised his head a little way off the ground. A Ukrainian saw him and—struck his head with an axe.

Those who were sitting on the walls surrounding the cemetery increased their devilish efforts, Chmielnicki and Petlura's grandchildren, who called themselves by the name of their new “hero”: “Wlasowces”—they did not hesitate to shoot into the clustered,, beaten mass. Others took stones, bricks, from the old cemetery walls, as well as bottles, pieces of iron or of wood and—everything that could kill was thrown from that height onto the unfortunate

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victims. Every new “accomplishment,” every new “brainstorm” of theirs was met with joy and wild encouragement from their German comrades and commanders.

This wild bacchanalia and bloody orgy lasted through the whole night, from Saturday to Sunday, and for several days after that.

* * *

And the great beaten-down mass lay pressed together on the ground with their heads bent, as if sitting shiva for themselves, whose lives would soon be cut short; still, the community that would be cut off huddled close together. And in order not to give the killers any pleasure, they held in their woe and protest that the horrible beatings and indignities called forth. So their tortured limbs they held still. Their only goal was: to be a worm, an ant, whose life no one sought and who could crawl freely and hide in the ground.

The mass was ruled by a dull, hardened despair. From a passive resignation, that came through necessity, that the world was worthless, without law and without a judge, after losing a belief in God, man, and the world, not hoping for a miracle, not making any plans for escape, for running away, Run where? The bloody rule had spread it dark government over the whole country and in almost all the countries of Europe. A full three years had led to this day and had prepared the masses through hunger and pain; isolated in the dark ghettos; with tears day in and day out for human feelings; knocked down and stole the human “I” and led people to the level that they regarded death as the only liberator from all sorrows. So the mass did not cry out, did not complain, did not protest, and accepted all with a resigned indifference that things were as they had to be.

It was as if the whole huddled mass became one congealed misfortune. Its consciousness was dulled and atrophied by the wild three-year labors of the people-devourers. Their great woe, sorrow, and suffering could not call forth the feeling of “Let me die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30), or other stories of revenge and rebellion. They strove to be silent, the great mass. Only their eyes

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wandered around. There, the heavens, today, no more than any other day, remained self-contained and stubbornly quiet, sent forth no rain of fire, sulphur and stones like that hail that once avenged such tortures in Egypt; here—the sun, that burns hotter than ever, stings with its hot rays, as if with glowing spears, in the exhausted eyes, mixing with the hot, dry dust. It creeps into the nose, onto the neck, goes deeply into the empty, emaciated bowels, as if sent expressly to incinerate the unhappy victims, who yearn for a sip of water that they cannot get; and the same sun is too stingy to send out such a fire that it would ignite and burn everything—the whole world, along with those who are suffering.

And here the exhausted eyes look to the ground, which lies there quietly, dumb, sees everything and keeps silent. Under the surface of the execution grounds rest the bones of the victims' ancestors. They have no will that the earth should open, tear open in a terrible earthquake and swallow up everything, as once happened in the sinful city of Pompey.

Only the high grass of the cemetery and its multicolored flowers, which the late summer sun had brought forth in that spot, stood until yesterday proud and playful but not lie trodden down, mixed with dirt and blood, crushed under the feet and the boots, sharing the fate of their unfortunate neighbors, the trampled community.

* * *

However, there were also cases of individual heroism, outburst, and protest that were expressed in various forms in those tragic moments at the Umschlagplatz.

There were some who understood what was to come and did not wait to be killed at the hands of the murderers. They had prepared for themselves potassium cyanide—the dearest merchandise in the ghetto—and ended their lives there in the square, like Mrs. Dr. Papho and others, whose names I do not know. Others cut their veins with razor blades and bled to death.

An older gray-haired man arrived at the Umschlagplatz in his tallis and kittel, occupied himself for all of Shabbos and the whole night

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with heartrending prayers and selichos, said his confession [vidui] and concluded with “Shema Yisroel”!

Elsewhere, a Jew sat in a corner, wrung his hands, and argued with the Riboyno shel Oylam. He asked: “Is it possible? Who will maintain your holy Torah if you have decided to annihilate your people Israel? Remember that today is the holy Shabbos, in the month of Elul, near to the Yamim Nora'im, and that should protect your hoy community. A miracle should happen. Why should the Gentiles say…Father in heaven???”

In another corner an observant mother laments over the dead body of her tortured child. She groans aloud, this unlucky mother, her great woe and sorrow and sharp words against Heaven. She asks bitterly: “Where is the Father who pities His sons?” She tells her neighbors, who lie fainting around her, that she herself had read in an old holy book in Yiddish

That once, in an evil time for Jews, there were great righteous people who called the Creator of the World to a judicial hearing. Now, in our great sinfulness, we are so guilty that there is no one to call them to justice.

And there, hidden under the wall of a house near the corner of Stari Rinke and Dluge, among all the bullet-riddled half-dead, are young couples. On their round, pale, almost childlike faces and big, open, blue eyes, which are turned to the far distance, is frozen—together with youthful fire, which kindles love in its first springtime, is the whole sorrow, hatred, and scorn for the accursed world that can destroy such young lives along with their newly awakened love. They have known each other since childhood. They went to school together. The pain and sorrows of the ghetto brought them closer together. They sit pressed together, bound together by their hands and glances, unafraid of being lost in the wild chaos on the threshold of death. They will not be allowed to live together—but they prepare themselves to die together: “In their lives and in their deaths they were not divided” (2 Samuel 1: 23).

* * *

As I have already related, the killers had ordered their victims to sit with heads bowed to the earth and to keep silent.

Suddenly the quiet was broken by one of the condemned—the always calm, thoughtful, teacher of religion

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Avraham Wasserzug, who used to teach the Jewish children history, how a small group of persecuted and oppressed Jews called the Maccabees stood up to battle their tormentors, who were great in number, and defeated them. He sprang up like a bound. Lion who had broken his fetters, stood on a rock and fire shone from his eyes. His voice thundered like the noise from a volcano with words of consolation for the suffering about the eternal Jewish tragedy that produces in every generation a Pharaoh, a Haman, a Torquemada, a Hitler, who wants to destroy us; and he spoke about the triumph of Israel that burns eternally that bush in the wilderness and will never be burned out. He called out to the killers: “Today you are strong, armed, and you can demonstrate your 'bravery' to us, killing those who are defenseless. But the day is near when you will have to pay a reckoning for your bloody deeds! You are drunk and blind on blood and evil and you cannot see the hand that writes on your killing walls, “Mene! Mene!… [a reference to the handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel]. Count the days of your bloody rule, you mass murderers!…”

Like a tree that has been chopped down, Wasserzug fell from a rain of bullets that pierced his abused body and interrupted his words of consolation and vengeance.

The interrupted speech of the fallen Wasserzug was completed by young Nahman Rogowikamien (son of Paltiel), who was also one of those destined for Treblinka. He sprang up and with all the fury of youth his infuriated spirit called out: “You are not a people of thinkers and writers, only of thieves and murderers! The strong hand that comes from the east will take vengeance on you for our innocent blood and for your bloody deeds erase you from the face of the earth…!”

Like Wasserzug, so Rogowikamien ended his young life on the Umschlagplatz.

* * *

The unfortunates were not soon taken to the train station, as had appeared to be the intention. Although everything had gone according to schedule, they had not prepared enough cars for the trip to Treblinka. Was this done intentionally in order to for the victims to be tormented in their last days before death or

[Page 49]

was it a mistake? Who can know the intentions and plans of mass murderers?

Early on the next day, Sunday, the first group was taken to the station. They were lined up in rows of five, holding each other's hands. Whoever could, tried to be among the first-desiring to be more quickly killed, annihilated—to put an end to things! Whoever from hunger or beatings or shame could not stand up and go on the death march was left behind, thanks to a murderer's bullet. Many of those who were weak were helped along by the healthy.

This last shameful march of the great community to the death wagons took a long time, until daytime on Monday.

The sacrificial victims were packed in the barred freight cars like dead objects. They were stuffed in and crowded together with the help of rifle butts, axes, and other weapons, causing horrible, Dantesque scenes: Here a woman was packed into one car and her child, whom she had kept by her side the entire time, was torn from her grasp and put into a second wagon on top of those who were already there. As the terrified mother and the child yelled and cried, there were two shots and—they were quieted forever.

Here a man was shoved into a packed wagon. He could not get in. But the hangmen shut the doors with all their might and the man was crushed hanging between the wall and the door—half his body in the wagon and half outside.

Shmuel Levita did not get into the wagon as quickly as the murderers wanted, so he was hacked to pieces by a will Ukrainian with his beloved national weapon—an axe.

The wagons, treated with fresh lime, thanks to the terrible crowding and burning heat, were filled with poisonous air and many of the victims lost consciousness or lost their minds and suffered terrible torments.

The way from Siedlce to Treblinka was not long—about thirty kilometers—but it was enough that half of the victims could not survive the short trip and arrived at their last station already dead.

It took two days to load and send the transport—

[Page 50]

Monday and Tuesday—the last transport left early Wednesday. A long, terror-filled whistle from the locomotive of the death train gave notice that it was bringing fresh fuel for the most recent invention of the twentieth century—for the gas chambers of Treblinka.

* * *

Throughout the time of this never before seen extraordinary “spectacle”—the action, the selection, and the death march, the streets where all this was happening were filled with curious citizens. The former neighbors with whom they had lived, worked, and done business came in unfriendly wonder. They watched this excellent picture, and in the sweet smiles on their pious Christian faces and the sparkling fire in their bright eyes, they showed their happiness and thankfulness to the organizers of this interesting undertaking. More than one rubbed his hands with great pleasure and called aloud so that the both the victims and the killers could hear, “Finally we're free of the bedbugs! Now we can live in Poland…”

 

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