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This work is the fruit of over a dozen years of research on the history of Jews in Siedlce. I decided to take on this subject because there has heretofore not been a systematic discussion of the history of the Jewish minority in Siedlce.a This issue was raised in contribution only by Paweł Śmieciuch1 and Agata Dąbrowska.2 My earlier publications merely indicated the state of my research and were in the nature of popularizations.3 This study aims to fill in a gap in Polish research on the history of Siedlce. I limited my research temporally to the period from the second half of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries since the majority of extant sources and publications relate to that period. The second reason for this choice was the rapid development of the city during this time and the influx of a large number of Jewish people. In this work I would like to answer the following question: How did Siedlce develop in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century with this participation of this community as well as how it changed after 1942, when the Nazis murdered the Jews?

The words of Pope John Paul II on 10 June 1999 in Siedlce were a strong impetus to research on the history of the Jews: “In this martyrized Podlasie, I cannot fail to mention the martyrology of the Jewish nation, which inscribed its painful page during the Second World War.”4

I made the years 1850–1945 the chronological bookends of my work. The year 1850 marked the opening of the Russian customs border to merchandise from the Polish Kingdom, which led to the rapid development of industry and trade. New conditions emerged for the economic development of the country and the enrichment of the population, of which the Jews were quick to take advantage, especially trade workers and merchants. Jews are a people who are very active, enterprising, and productive in the trades and small-scale production. Siedlce at that time became a city in which the Jewish population formed a high percentage and which teamed with a rich social, political, and cultural life. The end point was 1945. However, I mention the fate of Jews up to 2007, when the first organized group of young Israelis came to Siedlce looking for the roots of their ancestors. They toured the city, became acquainted with the history of local Jews, and paid homage to those murdered during the Holocaust.

This work is based primarily on Polish sources. These are materials that are held in the National Archive in Lublin (in the Provincial Offices unit in Lublin, Social-Political Department II), in the National Archive in Siedlce (in the County District unit in Siedlce and the County National Police Department unit in Siedlce, Collection of Posters from the Occupation of Siedlce County), as well as in other research institutes such as the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Ghetto Fighters' House in kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in Israel. The Lublin archive houses materials created by the Siedlce district governor during the interwar period, which include, among others, semiannual and annual reports sent to the Lublin provincial governor. These documents also contain confidential information gathered by the local police. The Siedlce archive, on the other hand, contains the county administrator's monthly reports to the Lublin provincial governor. These acts contain very valuable information, thanks to which I was able to create tables representing monthly and yearly reports on the organizational activity of Siedlce Jews for the years 1934–1938.5 During this period, Zionist parties and organizations dominated the life of the city. The activity of the Bund was also visible, along with the “Yiddishe Kunst” (Jewish Art), which was under its influence. Puzzling, however, are the infrequent initiatives of Agudah [Agudath Israel party—ed.], which had a large number of members and sympathizers in the city. Most likely the members of this party dealt with their political business during religious gathering and were for this reason not registered so frequently by the county administrator and the police. Of significant informative value are the acts of the County Headquarters of the National Police in Siedlce, but they also contain numerous inaccuracies and simplifications caused, I believe, by the inadequate knowledge of the affairs of the Jewish community by confidential informers. These acts often fail to distinguish among socialists from the Bund, socialists from the Zionist parties, socialist Jews active in the Polish Socialist Party, and independent activists with socialist leanings. They are all frequently given the same label of “Communists.” To this are added the lists of actual Communists, and what results is a falsified political image of the city. Reading these acts, one gets the impression that socialism was equivalent to Soviet Communism for the policemen compiling these documents.

The Siedlce Archive also contains a rich collection of posters from the occupation. This is a very valuable resource for research relating to the period of the Second World War. The accounts and recollections found in the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and Beit Lohamei Hagetaot also relate to this period.

I took three trips to Israel in pursuit of materials and a deepening of my knowledge of the subject. The first was in 1994. I met Siedlce natives Srul Lewin and Hercel Kawe at that time, as well as the charismatic figure of Catholic priest Grzegorz Pawłowski.6 In 1997 I took a study trip to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. This course, designed for people working in museums of remembrance, was called “Judaism, the History and Culture of Polish Jews, the Holocaust.” While completing the program of touring Israel, I happened upon Beit Lohamei Hagetaot, in which I discovered a very detailed map of the Siedlce ghetto. After computer editing, I am including it in this work. This is a new document in scholarly circulation. The earlier map of the ghetto that I had drawn on the basis of German materials, mostly posters from the occupation, was not exact. One might say that it was theoretical. In 2005, I took another, second level course in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. At that time I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and to familiarize myself with the new, multimedia exhibit in Yad Vashem depicting the extermination of the Jews and the creation of the state of Israel. There is a 1939 photograph presented in this exhibit depicting the Siedlce synagogue in flames. This photograph was included to underscore the German extermination policy regarding the Jews at the very outset of the occupation.

Jewish sources were used in this work as supplementary material. It was primarily The Book of Remembrance of the Siedlce Community that supplied me with valuable information. Compiled in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Siedlce natives from various parts of the world, from Argentina, the United States, and Israel, it was published in 1956 in Buenos Aires in Yiddish and in a small number of fragments in Hebrew. The memoirs in Hebrew were written by Zionists. The editor-in-chief and the person who inspired this work's coming into being was Isaac Kaspi. In popularizing knowledge about the Jewish community in Siedlce, he played a role similar to that of Antoni Winter among Poles.7 In fact, they corresponded, sharing information, yet each worked separately on the history of his own nation. The Book of Remembrance of the Siedlce Community, at my initiative and with financial aid from the Society of Supporters of Podlasie, was partially translated into Polish and is available in the National Archive in Siedlce. Adam Bielecki from the Jewish Historical Institute did the translation.

The majority of Jewish sources were destroyed during World War II. Copies of the Shedletser Wochenblat (The Siedlce Weekly), which were preserved in the Library of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, were an exception. Some issues of this periodical were sent to what was then Palestine. Michael Halber made an electronic copy of this journal and sent it to the Regional Reading Room of the Municipal Public Library in Siedlce.

The absence of sources makes it impossible to acquire additional information about the names of some of the people described in this book. Often only surnames appeared in documents. Some of them have variant spelling (Trzmielina/Szmielina, Gudgelt/Gudgeld, Halbersztat/Halbersztadt, Jomtow/Jontow/Jom-Tow/Jon-Tow). I standardized spellings when referring to one and the same person, although I know there were instances of a variety of spellings of a surname within the same family. This also applies to the names Oszer/Uszer. I use the name Jakub or Jakób in this work in accordance with archival material.

Throughout this work, I consistently capitalize the word “Jew” [Żyd], out of respect, even though according to the rules of Polish orthography, “Żyd” is spelled with a capital letter when it refers to “member of a nation,” whereas “żyd” is lower cased when it refers to “a follower of Judaism.”8 For the names of Jewish parties, associations, and so forth, I adhered to the spelling that was mostly in use in the interwar period. A change in the way many words deriving from Yiddish or Hebrew are spelled is currently observable in the Polish language.

This work is supplied with appendices. Included in them are sources that have not previously been utilized in Polish historiography (an interview with Hubert Pfoch and the account of Fritz Hoeft). The included literary works, particularly the stories of Bracha Kahan, depict characteristic Jewish types, their living conditions, and the atmosphere of old Siedlce. The work contains tables that portray the numbers of the city's Jewish residents during various time periods.

I would like to thank the late Izaak Halber, with whom I met many times and who was my source of plentiful information. After his death, I was helped by his wife, Maria Halber, who translated texts written in Yiddish. Their son, Michael Halber, provided me with guidance over several years and furnished me with much material, especially in English and Hebrew. I wish to give special thanks to Professor Zofia Chyra-Rolicz, who provided me with advice and assistance. An important source of inspiration and information were Jews who came from Siedlce but lived in various parts of the world; I corresponded with them both traditionally, that is, via the postal service, and with the aid of the Internet. These were Renia Pancerowa, Isabel Cymerman, Helen Herman, and Abraham Gome. Some of these people form a second and even a third generation connected by family tradition with Siedlce. These people sent me photographs and information, which I used in this work.

Editor's Note, Introduction:

  1. Although Jews were a minority (the second largest) in Poland as a whole, they formed a majority of the population of Siedlce for most of the period discussed in this book. Return

Author's Notes, Introduction:

  1. P. Śmieciuch, „Społeczność żydowska w Siedlcach w latach 1919–1938 w świetle sprawozdań sytuacyjnych starosty Powiatu Siedleckiego (informacja o zespole),” in Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, no. 1 (1992): 79–84. Return
  2. A. Dąbrowska,”Przyczynek do dziejów Żydów w Siedlcach w latach okupacji hitlerowskiej. Nieznany pamiętnik z lat II wojny światowej,” in Szkice Podlaskie 9 (2001): 228–244. Return
  3. „Zostawiłem maskę przeciwgazową w Izraelu i przyjechałem do Siedlec—wywiad z Henrykiem Reise,” in Kurier Siedlecki, no. 2 (14 March 1991); „Przełamać stereotypy,” in Kurier Siedlecki, no. 14 (1991); “Trefne ryby,” in Kurier Siedlecki, no. 18 (24 October 1991); “Bij Żyda—ratuj Rosję,” in Tygodnik Siedlecki, no. 2 (1992); “Świątobliwy kaznodzieja,” in Tygodnik Siedlecki, no. 20 (1992); “Getto w Siedlcach,” in Tygodnik Siedlecki, no. 16 (1992); “Żydzi siedleccy—zapomniany świat,” in Gazeta Kulturalna, no. 3 (1992); “Żydzi w Siedlcach do czasów I wojny światowej,” in Prace Archiwalno-Konserwatorskie na Terenie Województwa Siedleckiego 9 (Siedlce 1995); “Żydowskie partie polityczne w Siedlcach w latach 1918–1939,” in Prace Archiwalno-Konserwatorskie na Terenie Województwa Siedleckiego 10 (Siedlce 1997); „Polacy i Żydzi w Siedlcach podczas okupacji niemieckiej 1939–1944,” in Pamięć i Sprzwiedliwość. Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej 40 (Warsaw 1997–1998); „Siedleckie kirkuty,” in Szkice Podlaskie (Siedlce 1998); Żydzi siedleccy (Siedlce 2001); „Prasa żydowska w Siedlcach w okresie dwudziestolecia międzywojennego,” in Prasa podlaska w. XIX—XX szkice i materiały, vol. 2 (Siedlce 2004). Return
  4. Quotation remembered by the author. See also I oto przybyłeś . . . Ojciec Święty Jan Paweł II w Siedlcach. Siedlce 10 czerwca 1999 (Siedlce 2000), p. 86. Return
  5. See Tables 6–15. Return
  6. Father Grzegorz Pawłowski (Jakub Hersz Griner) comes from an orthodox Jewish family. He hid as a child during the war by grazing cattle. After the war, he converted to Catholicism and later entered a seminary. In 1970 he left for Israel and there he preaches to Catholics from Poland and other countries of the former USSR. The Catholic church of the Spanish Franciscans in Jaffa has become a true support for Poles staying in Israel. In addition to hearing a weekly holy mass, workers staying in Israel utilized the Polish library here and obtained information about work opportunities or finding lodgings. In addition, Father Grzegorz offered missionary aid to the sick and needy. He arranged for access to medicine and in difficult instances served as a translator. For Polish laborers working illegally in Israel and not knowing Hebrew, this was an invaluable service. See Sługa Mesjasza. Z ks. Grzegorzem Pawłowskim—Jakubem Herszem Grinerem rozmawia Lucyna Montusiewicz (Lublin 2005). Return
  7. Antoni Winter (1910–1988)—a long-time teacher in the Siedlce school district, social activist, and regionalist. He authored the historical monograph Dzieje Siedlec 1448–1918 as well as numerous articles devoted to this city. During the German occupation, he was engaged in aid to the poor and to Children of the Zamość Region. Return
  8. Nowy słownik ortograficzny PWN, ed. E. Polański (Warsaw 2000). Return


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