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[Pages 14-27]



“A certain Jewish jokester, purporting to be well versed in the Hebrew language, figured out that Siedlce […]—Shedlets [Hebrew שֶדְלֶץ—ed.] derives from two words: 'Shed' ('devil') and 'lets' ('jester'), together meaning an evil spirit, something that is the worst possible thing in the Jewish world.”1 This term served well-known Hebrew poet living in Israel Ilan Sheinfeld as the title of his fantasy legends called Shedlets (Siedlce). They are based on the experiences he encountered in his childhood listening to the tales of his mother and grandmother, who were from Siedlce.2

This joke notwithstanding, there are several versions of the source of the name of the city. “Siedlce” is the diminutive of the Old Polish noun siodło [saddle], which denotes a village, a settlement.3 Koziorowski also derives the name “Siedlce” from the word siodło, indicating the analogous form in Old Czech.4 Stanisław Wąsowski put forth a bold hypothesis. There are three villages close together in the vicinity of Chęcin: Siedlce, Sokołów, and Łukowa. It was this that justified the supposition that Siedlce, as well as the nearby cities of Łuków and Sokołów, were founded by colonists from those villages, who arrived here starting in the thirteenth century and settled on terrain that was at that time uninhabited.5 Stanisław Litak derives the name “Siedlce” from the forest called Siedlisko, which surrounds nearby Pruszyn from the west and south.6 There was also a legend in which Queen Bona, when traveling through these parts, marveled at the landscape and said that this would be a good place to found a settlement.

The first historical mention of Siedlce occurred in 1448. It is a power of attorney of the bishop of Kraków, Zbigniew Oleśnicki, given to the clergyman Mikołaj from the parish in Łuków, to which Siedlce belonged, for the purpose of collecting tithes from the village Siedlecz.7 More information about Siedlce comes from the beginning of the sixteenth century, that is, the year 1503 and following. According to these records, the owner of Siedlce was Daniel Siedlecki, a member of the powerful Gniewosz family with the Rawicz coat of arms.8 In 1532, thanks to the efforts of Stanisław Siedlecki, Siedlce became a parish. “The parish of Siedlce almost from the moment of its founding acquired many patrons and benefactors, among whom there were also Jews from Łuków who, wanting to secure peace for themselves, offered a thousand Polish florens to the Siedlce church in 1675. Stanisław Siedlecki also saw to it that King Sigismund granted the rights of a city to Siedlce in 1547.”9

The oldest signs of Jewish settlement in Siedlce come from the seventeenth century. This information in based on research performed in Jewish cemeteries by Maurycy Sztein in 1910. These cemeteries provided information about the earliest history of the Jewish community in Siedlce.

The oldest Jewish cemetery in Siedlce was located near the former horse market next to the city's synagogue. The date of its founding is not known. We do know, however, that up to the time of the Second World War, it contained a gravestone, a matzevah, from 1630. On 22 March 1798, Duchess Aleksandra Ogińska issued an order in which she confirmed the grant of land for the cemetery, making it development free. She brought about the closing off of the cemetery and ordered the community to put it in order by building a tall enclosure and planting linden trees.10 In 1936, this cemetery was surrounded by a brick wall stretching along Żydowska Street (currently Berek Joselewicza Street) from the synagogue building to Długa Street (currently Bishop I. Świrski Street) and then as far as Stary Rynek Street (this street no longer exists, as it is overlapped by an internal roadway among the buildings of the former Provincial Offices). The cemetery had an area of 2,412 square meters. Next to it was the synagogue.11 The date of the building of the first wooden synagogue in unknown. What is known is that it burned down in 1851. A new, brick one was built on this same spot in 1856–1870. It was destroyed by the Germans in December 1939. The buildings of the BGŻ [Bank of the Food Industry] and the skyscraper of the former Provincial Offices are now located in this spot.

The next cemetery was located next to the Jewish hospital. It contained some gravestones from the years 1740–1822, but we know that people were buried there before 1740 as well. In 1926, this cemetery had an area of 4,780 square meters and was surrounded by a brick enclosure, stretching along Świętojańska and Sienkiewicz Streets.12 It was completely destroyed during World War II. Only a fragment of the brick wall survived, against which the Nazis shot 10 Poles on 27 November 1943. Currently the wall contains a memorial tablet with the names of the murder victims and an appropriate bas-relief. After being recovered by the Jewish Religious Council in Warsaw, the hospital building was taken down and the land was sold. It is currently occupied by an apartment building. The destruction of the hospital by the legal owner was met with great surprise, and even with protests, by the residents of the city.13

The last cemetery, which exists to this day on Szkolna Street, was purchased by the Jewish community council, that is, the kahal, from the Christian Mateusz Skolimowski in 1826. The purchase was made on behalf of the Jewish community council by Josek Złotypierścień, Dawid Grynberg, and Mojżesz Nusbaum. In that year the cemetery was probably enlarged, because the archive of the Jewish community council contains documents confirming the functioning of this cemetery from 1807.14 The oldest gravestone that was to be found there before World War II dates to 1827. Currently the oldest extant gravestone dates from 1855. Due to the expansion of the city in the vicinity of the cemetery, its closure was scheduled for 1 March 1867. The new one was to be created outside the city east of Stara Wieś. This intention was not, however, realized. On the contrary, in 1869 the cemetery was enlarged when a large area of land was purchased from the Mirkowski brothers. The next enlargement took place in 1910. In 1926, the Jewish community council bought two additional parcels of land connecting the cemetery with Cmentarna Street. Residents who owned property between these parcels protested, lodging a complaint with municipal and provincial authorities. In spite of this, burials took place on these two parcels at a distance of 30–80 meters from the cemetery proper.15 The cemetery occupies an area of about 3,000 square meters.16 It was desecrated on 22 March 1936. Headstones were painted over and pulled out of their footings. The perpetrators entered the cemetery after pulling several wooden slats out of the fence. This desecration took place during the period of emotional debates over the banning of ritual slaughter. The authorities linked the entire matter to these events. During the occupation, the Nazis committed mass executions of local Jews on the grounds of the cemetery. The shootings took place mostly against the cemetery wall. Additionally, bodies that were brought by truck were burned and buried there. It has not been determined where these transports came from. In 1942 the dead in a transport of Jews from Radom were buried here. As late as 1961, the Jewish Cemetery Inspection Commission counted as many as 18 mass graves, each of which was 5 and 10 meters long. About 3,000 murdered people are buried in them. These graves came into being after the majority of the signs of the criminal activities of the occupiers had been obliterated. In 1944 the Nazis exhumed the bodies of those they had murdered and burned them on pyres. The stench of burning bodies hung over the city for days. The older residents of Siedlce remember the event to this day.17

Materials that might more precisely document the history of the Jews in the beginning of their settlement in the city have not survived. Jews in Siedlce are first mentioned in a charter granted by Władysław IV on 8 December 1635. Thereafter they appear in all property inventories. Thus, in 1730 there were 39 Jewish families in the city, in 1755, 123 houses were recorded, of which 29 were Jewish. Siedlce was populated in 1765 by 631 Jews, and the function of rabbi was performed at that time by Meir, the author of a Talmudic commentary, “The Path of Meir.” Subsequent years saw a drop in the Jewish population: 218 Jews resided in the city, along with Stara Wieś, in 1787, but in 1794 an increase occurred, with 375 people recorded.

A messianic movement arose in the seventeenth century among the Jewish population of the territory of eastern Poland. A universal expectation of the coming of the messiah spread among the Jews after the slaughter carried out by Chmielnicki's Kossacks. Such a movement developed in Podlasie as well. Its leader was Jehuda He-Chasid. He was born about 1655, but it is not known with certainty whether it was in Siedlce. But he did live here a long time and surrounded himself with Jews from the city and its environs. Among his closest “brothers” were Gedalia from Siemiatycze and Abraham ben Gad Janower (Janowski). When Jehuda He-Chasid was 20, he left for Italy, where he studied the kabala in Verona for half a year.18 After returning, he became a preacher in Szydłów by Grodno. Jehuda Chasid left Poland in 1699 along with 120 followers with the intention of heading for the Holy Land. On the way, on German territory, he was joined by other Jews, fascinated by his beautiful sermons. The number of his followers grew to 1,500 people. They called themselves the “Holy Society” (Chevra Kadisha). The foundation of his teaching was the announcement of pending salvation, which would befall only those Jews who did penance, were reborn morally, and turned to God anew. On regular days, they ate only bread and oil, only on Shabbat and holidays did they eat meat and other products deriving from living animals. They bathed daily in cold water and slept only on the ground, not in beds. The most zealous of them slept no more than two hours a day, spending the rest of the time on studying their writings. They were preparing for the arrival of the messiah by perfecting themselves morally and through frequent prayer, fasting, and penance (among others, by self-flagellation). Jehuda Chasid was an impassioned preacher with the ability to kindle a fire in the hearts of crowds of listeners and reach women as well with his messianic propaganda. There were instances when he would go into the part of the synagogue reserved for women and preach to them. He announced that the messiah would be revealed in 1706, but he never said who he would be, thanks to which he avoided the accusation of Sabbatianism.19 In Nikolsburg in Moravia, the society divided into two groups. One, led by Chajim Malach and consisting of 150 people, took advantage of Samuel Oppenheim's offer and sailed down the Danube River to the Black Sea and from there to Jaffa. The other, larger group, under the leadership of Jehuda Chasid, went to Italy, from which it took ship in two groups to the Holy Land.20

It is interesting that the Chasidim were also joined by Christians who shared their messianic expectations. One of these was the mystic Hochmann von Hochenau. He believed that the Jewish road to salvation did not require that one change one's religion. The roads of Christians and Jews would converge when the messiah was revealed to one and the other. Hochenau agreed with the Chasidim that the messiah would appear in 1706 in Jerusalem, for they believed that no one would be saved outside Eretz Israel (Land of Israel).

Jehuda Chasid arrived in Jerusalem with his followers on 14 October 1700. There were only one thousand at that point, since 500 had died along the way. They settled by the old trading road in the ruins of cellars dating from the times of the Second Temple. They worked together to renovate the cellars, converting them into livable houses. The area occupied by the brothers was called the “Court of the Ashkenazim,” that is, Eastern European Jews. Gedalia from Siemiatycze, the chronicler of the society, wrote down their first impressions: “The aforementioned Rabbi Jehuda Chasid set up a Midrash, a house of prayer, and constantly practiced in it both day and night with great penitential reverence, zealous prayers, sincere sorrow and tears. He also ordered that a spring or well be made, and every evening as well as every morning he would bathe in this spring or well and submerge himself three times, displaying great devotion in doing so. He did this for several days, and when, on the morning of the eleventh day, he submerged himself in this water, he fell ill and suddenly died.”21 The moment of death itself he presented in the following way: “Our teacher Rabbi Jehuda Chasid arrived in Jerusalem with his supporters on the day of the new moon in the month of Cheshvan 5461. [. . .] Most were ill from the great hardships of the voyage. The accommodations on the ship were very bad, and the space provided for all of us was much too tight. Our teacher went to the mikveh on the eve of Shabbat, and then he suddenly fell ill. He still said the evening prayer, but when he left the synagogue, he collapsed. Then he was delirious, repeating the morning prayer, constantly the same verses, without regaining consciousness. His brother-in-law, Rabbi Yeshayahu, finally said the Kiddush, and then a doctor was summoned. There was a wealthy Sephardic doctor in Jerusalem, equally versed in scholarship and in medicine, Reb Mordechai Molko. [. . .] When the aforementioned physician came, he said that he could do nothing now, that we would have to wait one day. On the morning of Shabbat, our teacher rose, washed, and said the morning prayer. Then he asked everyone's forgiveness for having disturbed their night's peace. He did not remember what had happened in the evening. He felt only that there was some sickness in him, but he felt almost recovered. Then he collapsed again. This time he was deprived of speech, he could not utter a word. He testament must lie somewhere under his writings; he often wrote on it. He was buried that very same day; many men and women of Jerusalem paid him their final respects. The Sephardic hazzan sang the Sephardic threnody, and all those who were gathered bitterly mourned the sudden death of our teacher and regretted that they were not worthy of seeing his saintly countenance. After every verse of the dirge, they beat their heads with their hands and called out: Woe! Woe! Even if someone had a heart of stone, he would have softened. Then the most distinguished Sephardim carried the litter to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and there he was buried, just as they do abroad, not in a tomb as was previously the custom here. His wife, the rabbanit, died a year later, and then his beloved little son. They moved on to eternity but left us in despair.”22

Not all Chasidim, however, accepted the fact of Jehuda Chasid's death. As late as 1733, many of his followers in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia sold their homesteads and set off for Jerusalem, believing that Jehuda was hiding in some cave and would be found. Some even believed him to be the messiah, who after his death would reveal his mission. The remaining brothers decided to build a synagogue in their neighborhood. They bought a large lot with this goal. One of the brothers described the situation at that time in the following way: “A huge amount of money was spent on the synagogue and its courtyard and many bribes were given to the Moslem rulers of Jerusalem before they let us build.” The synagogue lasted a mere 18 years. Bitter religious tensions arose between the Sephardim, that is, the Mediterranean Jews, and the recently arrived Ashkenazim. The rulers of Jerusalem at the time supported the Sephardim, and in 1720 the Ashkenazim were driven out and the synagogue destroyed.

The site of the synagogue has a further history. In 1857, the building of a new shrine was begun. It was directed by Rabbi Mordechai Tsoref. The construction lasted seven years. More than half the cost was financed by a Jew from Bagdad, Joheskel Reuven. The rest was gathered from donations of the faithful. There was a saying that circulated among the donors: “Whoever buys one stone will see his life's ambitions fulfilled.” This was an allusion to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who carried stones during the construction because he did not have the money to make a donation. The erected synagogue had suggestions of medieval Ottoman architecture. A characteristic feature of the shrine was a cupola of large dimensions. The interior was ornamented with paintings containing motifs of the Shield of David, seven-armed candlesticks, as well as the tablets of law received on Mount Sinai. The synagogue was named Hurvat Rabbi Jehuda He-Chasid, from the surname of its original founder. Yet this structure also did not last. During the battles between the Jews and Arabs in 1948, the synagogue was destroyed, and the land was incorporated into Jordan. In 1967, after the six-day war, the Jews once again incorporated this part of the city into their country. They planned to rebuild the synagogue according to a new design. Yet none was accepted. A reconstruction according to the old design was also not undertaken. The place was simply reinforced, that is, the walls were torn down and one of the four arches holding up the cupola was reconstructed.23

The heyday of Siedlce did not come until the second half of the eighteenth century, during the time when Aleksandra Ogińska was the owner of the city. At her initiative, the stone palace was enlarged, the building of an arch of triumph was completed, a park was built, and many building were built that stand to this day. In order to gain funds for the renovation of city hall, Ogińska, on 1 April 1787, sold 28 stores that were in the ground-floor part of the building to the Jews in perpetuity. In 1783. King Stanisław August Poniatowski was visiting Siedlce. He was sumptuously greeted by Ogińska and two delegations: a Christian one, and a Jewish one. The Jewish delegation, in discussions with the king, touched on the matter of building a synagogue.

Jews were engaged primarily in trade and rental. We must assume that the Siedlce community council (kahal) existed in an organized form in the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1794, the community council started to construct its own building with an apartment for the rabbi and with a separate accommodation for a yeshiva (a higher Talmudic school for educating rabbis and teachers of religion).24

After the partitions of Poland, the city came under the rule of Austria. In 1804, Siedlce became an administrative city. Prince Adam Czartoryski turned Siedlce into the national property of the Austrian government. During the war of 1809, the city was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw and became a main city of the department, that is, the seat of local authorities. After the creation of the Kingdom of Poland in 1815, Siedlce became the capital city of Podlasie Province. When Podlasie Province was liquidated in 1845, [Siedlce] became a county seat of the Siedlce District of Lublin Province. From 1 January 1867 to 1912, Siedlce was the provincial seat of the newly created Siedlce Province.25

Not much is known about the Jews in Siedlce in the beginning of the nineteenth century. We know that three people had the exclusive right to sell kosher meat in 1812–1813: Abraham son of Dawid, Kalman son of Mosze, and Jakow son of Icchak.

In 1819–1823 the so-called Brześć Road was built. It led from Warsaw through Mińsk Mazowiecki, Siedlce, Międzyrzec, Biała Podlaska, and Terespol as far as Brześć and on to Russia. The city revived as a result of this road. A period of frequent contacts with Warsaw and Brześć as well as with other towns was initiated. Many people who traveled this route stopped in Siedlce. A brisk export of grain and other agricultural produce from the area ensued. This was noticed by Zofia Ścisłowska, who traveled this road and wrote down her observations in Recollections from a Ride through the Country: “Finally, Siedlce's being considered a small town can also be justified by the fact that all of trade remains in the hands of bearded speculators who, even after the city burned down in October 1854, work by baking commonplace bread, which was difficult to consume by residents accustomed to the famous Siedlce rolls that owed their existence to the cook of Her Excellency Ogińska, the Marshall's wife, once the heiress of this city, and that were at the time so famous that they were sent to Warsaw to the table of King Stanisław August. It is no small difficulty for the residents to become accustomed to Jewish bread and not so easy to forget about the rolls, which have passed into posterity! Yet on the other hand, one cannot deny the right that Siedlce has to being called a city, for it has a number of magnificent buildings. There is also a court of justice, before whose sentences many have bent their heads in humility. There is a credit society, a postal department, district authorities, and a treasury authority. There are schools with five grades, there is a girls' boarding school under the management of the respectable headmistress, Mistress Krzysztof. Siedlce also has a printing house and a bookstore, in which one can find a physic for boredom, if one suffers from that ailment. There are as many as two pharmacies, two confectionaries, two inns, one of which has the grand name of “Warsaw Hotel” and a cafeteria run by the firm of Mistress Najbelt, which has been well-known for a long time; this is a place for occasional evening rendezvous, the only social club for the residents. One can also find here several wine bars under the ownership of exiles, or rather, owners of the promised land: all this inclines one to call Siedlce a city, and henceforth we shall call it that.”26

The German-language writer and astute observer of life Heinrich Heine also traveled along the Breść Road, describing his impressions in the book About Poland. Here is how he presented his observations: “I get shivers down my spine when I remember how I saw a Polish village inhabited primarily by Jews beyond Międzyrzecz for the first time. Even the W— Weekly, even if it were cooked to a pulp, would not be able to induce me to retch with such energy as the sight of these ragged, dirty individuals; nor would my ears be tormented to such a degree by the excruciating oration of a school kid enflamed by the love of physical education and fatherland as the Jewish jargon. Yet the disgust soon gave way to compassion when I looked more closely at the fate of these people and when I saw the pigsty-like burrows in which they live, jabber, pray, swindle, and—eke out an existence. Their language is Germanic, shot through with Hebrew, and cut to a Polish fashion. In olden times, due to religious persecutions, they migrated from Germany to Poland; for Poles were always distinguished by tolerance in similar cases. When some religious humbugs advised one of the Polish kings to force Polish Protestants to return to the fold of Catholicism, he replied, “Sum rex populorum, sed non conscientiarum!” [I am the king of people but not of their consciences!—author's note]. Jews were the first to bring trade and industry to Poland, for which Kazimierz the Great bestowed upon them extensive privileges. It seems they were much closer to the nobility than to the peasantry; for according to an old statute, a Jew gained nobility by converting to Christianity eo ipso. I do not know whether or why this statute was abolished and which of these two things lost their value. In those far-off times, Jews, both culturally and in education, certainly surpassed the nobleman, who pursued only the raw craft of war and did not yet have any French refinement. They, the Jews, on the other hand, at least were occupied with their Hebrew books in the fields of scholarship and religion, because of which they in fact had to leave their fatherland and a comfortable life. It seems, however, that the Jews did not keep pace with European culture, and their spiritual world became mired in unfortunate superstitions, which ingenious scholasticism forcibly squeezes into thousands of bizarre forms. And yet, in spite of the barbaric fur hat covering his head and in spite of the even more barbaric idea filling this head, I respect the Polish Jew immeasurably more than many a German Jew with a Bolivar on his head and Jean Paul in his head. The character of the Polish Jew, fated to complete isolation, became a compact whole; this Jew took on the stigmas of freedom. This man did not create within himself a quodlibetical mix of a variety of feelings and did not waste away, because he was not sentenced to choking in the tight walls of the Jewish streets of Frankfurt, in arch-intelligent urban regulations and merciful legal limitations. The Polish Jew, in his dirty gabardine, with his beard populated by vermin, with his garlic odor and gibberish, is dearer to me still than any number of Jewish potentates appearing in all their splendor of state debentures.”27

Relations between the Jews and the Christian population varied. This is testified to by the fact that in 1816 a case of “ritual murder” took place in Siedlce.28 The lack of understanding by the Christian population of Jewish religious practices was taken advantage of to spread anti-Semitism. It was in particular about the consumption by Jews of meat resulting from ritual slaughter. Jews consumed meat coming from animals and birds that the Bible calls clean and are popularly defined by the term “kosher” (in Hebrew kasher—“suitable”). The rules of slaughter had as their goal the elimination of blood, since its consumption was completely forbidden. The consumption of matzo, that is, unleavened bread, also became shrouded in legend. Jews consumed it during the holiday of Pesach, also called the Holiday of Unleavened Bread. It fell during the month of Nisan (March–April) and lasted 7–8 days. During this whole holiday, only unleavened bread, matzo, was to be consumed. Pesach was a spring holiday commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Religious Jews observe these rules in the present day, endowing them with great significance. Over the course of a number of centuries, libels were spread that Jews purportedly ritually murdered Christian children and added their blood to the matzo. Such libel often led to pogroms and lawsuits.29

It has been noted that an attempt was made in 1823 to create a zone for Jewish residents in Siedlce. A Podlasie Province commission worked out a special project as a result of which Jews were forbidden to live on the main streets, and the neighborhood in which they were to reside was demarcated as the western section of Piękna Street (currently Pułaski Street) and others, located in the southern or western parts of the city. The final deadline for relocation was set as the end of 1825 under threat of forcible removal of violators by the police as well as a financial penalty. No wooden, only brick, houses were allowed to be built in the Jewish neighborhood, and those according to approved designs. This project was never implemented.30

The November Uprising broke out on the evening of 29 November 1830.b The east-central location of Podlasie Province in the Kingdom of Poland made it an important area for operational reasons. In 1829, the territory of the province had a population of 362,331; of these, 37,939 residents, or 11 percent, were Jews, of which 80 percent lived in cities and 20 percent in rural areas. The percentage share of the Jewish population compared to the total population of Podlasie Province was 46 percent in cities and only 3 percent in rural areas. Most Jews were in Radzyń District, 31 percent, and in Siedlce District, 26 percent. In connection with the organization of new military formations by the insurgents, there was an increased need for footwear and sheepskin coats for the soldiers. As early as 19 December 1830, the Governmental War Commission called upon Piotr Strzyżewski, the deputy president of the Podlasie Province Commission, to take on the fulfillment of this responsibility with all due speed. In Siedlce, the requisite agreements were signed with Poles for the manufacture of footwear: ankle boots for the infantry and riding boots for the cavalry, but it was Jewish trade workers who took on their manufacture. The rallying point for the whole province was also set up in Siedlce. By 28 January, 527 pairs of ankle boots (57 from Siedlce, 120 from Międzyrzec, 164 froom Sokołów, 120 from Żelechów, and 65 from Biała) and 297 pairs of riding boots (125 from Siedlce, 123 from Żelechów, and 49 from Biała) had been manufactured and sent to the Military Station in Warsaw. The Supreme National Council imposed an obligation for Jews to supply 10 thousand sheepskin coats for the Polish army. The Jews of Podlasie Province were to supply 879. Their collection was carried out by Antoni Hincz, the mayor. By 2 February 1831, 673 sheepskin coats were taken in. The best at meeting their obligation were the Jews of Siedlce District, 100 percent, and Biała District, 83 percent, whereas the worst were those of the Łuków and Radzyń Districts, 62 percent.31 It must be emphasized that to a large degree the speed of supplying the coats depended on the generosity and wealth of the Jews and to a lesser degree by the number of trade workers. Sandomierz Province, known for its slowness in supplying sheepskin coats, had the most furriers, and large numbers of sheep skins were tanned, according to data from 1827. So the Jews of Siedlce fulfilled their obligation superbly.

On 10 April 1831, a battle took place at Iganie with the goal of taking over Siedlce by the insurgents and crush the Russian units under General Grigory Rozen. The plan of attack was to hit the Russian units that were camped along the Brześć Road from two sides. General Ignacy Prądzyński attacked from the south, while the main attack was to come from the north under the command of General Jan Skrzynecki. Unfortunately, General Ignacy Prądzyński began the attack on his own, with only about seven thousand troops, intended for close combat, at his disposal. The Russians had a significant advantage; they threw 14–16 thousand soldiers onto the battlefield, among which were crack units of the so-called Lions of Varna. These were regiments of riflemen (thirteenth and fourteenth) that had won fame during the battles for Varna [in modern-day Bulgaria—trans.] during the Russo–Turkish War in 1829. They were decimated by the Polish artillery under the command of Major Józef Bem and the Polish infantry in a bayonet clash. In spite of serious losses (about five thousand men), the Russians retreated to Siedlce and prepared a defense. The Polish side sustained 400–500 deaths and many injuries. The Poles were in no condition to continue the attack on the city. General J. Skrzynecki arrived with his troops after the battle and the withdrawal of the Russians. Although it did not bring the intended military results, the victorious battle gained a permanent place in the history of the Polish and Jewish communities.

Between 1841 and 1843, a prison in the American style was built in the city with 117 cells. Its official opening was held 3 June 1844. The prison grounds contained a factory hall and the court building. The prison was modernized in 1882–1885 and 1891–1892. It contained two chapels: Eastern Orthodox and Catholic. Jewish prisoners held their devotions in the factory hall, and the Torah and necessary prayer accessories were kept in a special cell. During their holidays, Jewish prisoners were able to prepare their meals according to the dictates of their religion and their tradition. Many political prisoners served time in the prison. It exists and functions to this day.

Siedlce suffered an unsuccessful attempt at an uprising in 1846. The merchant Icchak Grinberg fought in the insurgent detachment commanded by Pantaleon Potocki.32

In 1851, the old, wooden synagogue burned down. The new, brick one was started in 1856, but in 1870 there was another fire, which destroyed the roof and the Aron Kodesh ([Holy Ark], the place where the Torah scrolls are kept). The work took several years and was completed in 1876. “The height of the synagogue was about four stories; two large windows in the shape of the tablets of the covenant, were placed on the eastern and on the western sides right under the roof. Beyond the entrance there was a large vestibule that led on the right to a small prayer house, known as the 'tailors' small prayer house,' and on the left was the women's gallery, which was part of the first floor on the northern and southern sides. The other part was located on the fourth floor of the synagogue. To the right and left of the vestibule, stairs led to the balcony, which was located on a level with the second floor. A large hall furnished with benches for 800 people stretched before a person entering the interior of the synagogue. The eastern wall around the Aron Kodesh was decorated with musical instruments of hammered copper. The Aron Kodesh was in the wall. In front of it gleamed two lions. Scenes from the Bible were painted around it.”33 The architect of the synagogue is not known; the Aron Kodesh was fashioned by J. Cwibak and his sons. Next to the synagogue was the city's Beit Hamidrash34 as well as the home of the Chevra Mishnayot.35 These buildings (or premises) were connected into one large structure. The synagogue was burned by the Germans on 25 December 1939. Next to the synagogue in Siedlce were numerous small prayer houses for trade workers, such as butchers (who engaged in ritual slaughter), cobblers, and so forth. The small prayer houses for trade workers were formed on the basis of occupational interests as a counterweight to Polish guilds.

Starting in 1820 and up to 1900, a very sharp dispute waged between the Chassidim (Chassid—“pious, God-fearing”) and their opponents, called Mitnagdim (in Hebrew, Mitnaged—“opponent”). The opponents of the Chassidim came from Orthodox Jews who looked unfavorably upon any kind of religious novelty. The movement known as Chassidism, as has already been mentioned, arose in the first half of the eighteenth century in the eastern territories of the Polish Republic and very quickly found followers in Ukraine. In the years that followed, it spread in all directions, finding support everywhere. From the time Jews were slaughtered by Chmielnicki's Cossacks, a mood of great uncertainty and grief reigned in Ukraine. It was halted by Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700–1760), known as Baal Shem Tov, that is, a Man of Good Name. In its popular understanding, Baal Shem Tov signifies a man whom the people trust. In a religious sense, it is a man who communes with that which is godly, who lives with and for his neighbors. The master himself did not write down his teachings; they survive in fragments thanks to his students' notes.36 “God, so the Baal-Shem teaches, is in each thing as its primal essence. He can only be apprehended by the innermost strength of the soul. If this strength is liberated, then it is given to man at each place and at each time to receive the divine. Each action which is dedicated in itself, though it appear ever so lowly and meaningless to those who see it from the outside, is the way to the heart of the world. In all things, even in those that appear completely dead, there dwell sparks of life that fall into the soulds that are ready. What we call evil is no essence, but a lack. It is 'God's exile,' the lowest rung of the good […].”37

Chassidism was the common man's answer to formalized Judaism. Chassidic fellowships arose within official Jewish communities as groups whose aim was communal prayer. These fellowships were characterized by piety and joy of life, often exhibited through dance and song. Each fellowship was bound and distinguished by respect for righteous men, that is, tzadikim. The Chassidic fellowship did not constitute a community in the literal sense of this word but rather a gathering of the followers of one tzadik scattered in various places. The Chassidim regarded the tzadik as their greatest authority in religious and secular matters. A group resembling a court retinue gradually formed around the tzadik. The title of tzadik generally became hereditary, which contributed to the formation of various dynasties. A tzadik was supported by his followers, who visited him particularly during holidays. Sometimes this led to their living a very affluent life. But most tzadikim lived modestly and in poverty, gaining respect for themselves through knowledge and piety. There were many distortions in this movement, particularly in its later period. Rapturous love for the tzadik coexisted quite early on with crude adoration, treating the tzadik as a great miracle worker who “maintains an intimacy with heaven,” can fix everything, and can secure a “comfortable” place in the other world. There was often hostility between the followers of different tzadikim. Frequently superstitions spread among the Chassidim. Currently, most Chassidim live in the United States and Israel.38

During 1823–1824, there were at least 30 Chassidim in a total Jewish population in Siedlce of 2,908 people living in 391 families. We find this out from an interrogation of Abraham Dawidowicz Kohen, in whose house local Chassidim gathered. He stated in the record of the interrogation that the Chassidim had been active “from Austrian times,” which means from the years 1795–1804.39

The tzadik Symcha Bunim from Przysucha (?–1827) had a rather large number of supporters in Siedlce. The most influential of these was Zisie Siedlecer (of Siedlce). Tzadik Bunin was a sensitive and intelligent man. He was connected with Jakub Icchak from Lublin, known as the Seer, and later with Yehuda–Jakub Icchak from Przysucha. After the death of Yehuda, a large number of the Przesucha Chassidim chose him as their rabbi.

Bunim was called the Knower of the Mystery. Throughout his entire life he strove for the renewal of Chassidism. His influential opponent in Siedlce was Meir Nisem (?–1810), the founder of the many branches of the Nusbaum family. A kind of trial arose over Bunim. It took place in Ostylec during the wedding of Opatów rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Heshel's grandson. This rabbi fulfilled the function of presiding judge of this court. Five students from Przysucha, chosen in secret balloting, went to Ostylec to defend Bunim. The delegation was chosen according to the following criteria: 1. wise man; 2. wise student; 3. pious Chassid; 4. wealthy man; 5. good speaker. Zisie Siedlecer was chosen as the wise man. Choosing him for such an important delegation testifies to the fact that he was known among the Chassidim, and the Siedlce followers of Bunim formed a considerable community. This was particularly true when Aleksander Zusja Kahan performed the function of rabbi in the 1820s. He was a close coworker of tzadik Symcha Bunim from Przysucha and known from the letter of protest he wrote in defense of the Chassidim to the representative of the Kingdom of Poland General Józef Zajączek asking him to rescind the decree delegalizing Chassidism.40

Yet it was the opponents of the Chassidim who led the Siedlce community in the nineteenth century. The opponents were the rabbis, the preachers, and the cantors. It was particularly the cantors who in Siedlce were the objects of quarrels and altercations between the discordant sides. Some believed that the cantor should be deeply religious and learned; other were prepared to disregard this under the condition that the cantor had a good mastery of the style of leading prayers and had a “sweet voice.” Many Siedlce cantors were opponents of Chassidism. These included Szmuel Dawid Siemiatyczer, Ruwem Kantor, and Jakow Zelman Rubinsztajn. Rubinsztajn, who was feuding with the Chassidim, had to leave the city. Among the preachers who fought against the Chassidim were Monis and Izrael, called Izraelke the Preacher, who also left town in fear of attacks. During these years, the function of rabbi was performed until 1810 by Cwi Hersz Wajngarten and from 1853 to 1867 by Izrael Meisels. Israel Meisels was the son of Warsaw rabbi Duberisz Meisels. During his stay in Siedlce, he published the Book of Commandments by Rambam [Maimonides—ed.] with his father's commentaries. He died in 1876 in Kraków; these words were inscribed on his gravestone: “. . . He studied the Torah and the law of Israel day and night. As a judge, he judged Israel. He illuminated the sons of Israel with the light of his name. . . .” One of the Beit Hamidrash in Kraków was named after him to honor his memory.

After Wajngarten and Meisels, the function of rabbi was performed by Baruch Lipszyc, the author of a religious book titled Jakub's Covenant.41 They were all opponents of the Chassidim and held the highest offices in the community, thanks to which they were able to influence Jewish society. The battles between the Chassidim and their opponents not only brought much confusion but also contributed to the kindling of a religious life among Jews. The Siedlce opponent of the Chassidim Israel ben Jechiel Grinberg built a private Beit Hamidrash in 1878 because he did not want to pray in Chassidic houses of prayer. In 1903, Grinberg also built a religious Talmud-Torah school.

The battle between the Chassidim and their opponents ended when a new movement, Haskalah, or the Jewish enlightenment, appeared among Jews. The supporters of the Haskalah were called Maskilim (the enlightened). Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) is considered to be the creator of the Haskalah. In the name of the implementation of assimilationist trends, he tried to prove the distinction between religious affiliation and a sense of national consciousness. The Maskilim had as their main goals the development of secular study, freeing Jews from the traditional attitude that is averse to any change, and gaining civil rights for Jews. The proponents of the enlightenment sent their children to Russian or Polish schools. This movement was elitist. All pious Jews fought against it vehemently.

In January 1863, there was an uprising on the territory of the Russian partition. Walenty Lewandowski along with a group of insurgents planned to attack the Russian garrison in Siedlce. However, the insurgents scattered before the attack took place.

The Jews, who had lived in the city for generations, had a positive attitude toward the uprising. They exhibited this support by cooperating with the representatives of the National Government. They sewed uniforms and sheepskin coats, they dealt in military equipment, and they transported mail. In the spring, on 26 March 1864, the tsarist authorities arrested the following Jews in Siedlce for sewing uniforms and coats for “the rebels”: Sider Fagelman (a townsman from Sokołów, aged 60, father of four children), Jankiel Fridman (a townsman from Sokołów, age 40, father of three children), Simsza Futochman (a townsman from Sokołów, age 31, father of three children). Jankiel Snice (age 46, father of four children), however, a resident of the village of Trebień on the territory of Siedlce County, was arrested on 12 February 1864 for “making scythes in his home for the rebels.” Altogether, 23 Jews in Siedlce County were arrested for aiding the insurgents.42 The Siedlce Jew Michelson fought in an insurgent unit on the territory of Podlasie. Toward the end of the uprising, he was injured in battle and taken prisoner. In spite of being tortured, he did not betray his comrades in arms. He was hanged in Radzyń Podlaski on 18 August 1864.

Yet some Jews took an unfavorable view of the uprising movement. These were mostly arrivals from the depths of Russia, so-called Litwaks, who were imbued with Russian culture and language.

On 19 July 1851, the tsarist authorities issued a decree that bore the name “Regulations concerning the use of clothing and specific characteristics of Jews and their women.” The Siedlce chief of police at the time ordered that the decree be read three times in the city synagogue. It ordered the Jewish people to “resemble” Christians. Jewish men were to shave their sidelocks, beards, and hair; married women were to wear bonnets instead of wigs. Their attire was also to be more “European.” Those who did not submit to the decree were fined. The authorities located the money from this source in a bank in Warsaw. In 1869, the sum collected amounted to 11,551 rubles. The Jewish community council, which was represented by Izrael Ber Liwerant, initiated efforts to have this money earmarked for the building of a Jewish hospital. The matter dragged on over twenty years. In 1880, a petition was sent to the tsarist authorities for the building of the hospital, signed by 233 Jews. The signees additionally committed themselves to paying 1,445 rubles annually for the benefit of the hospital. The hospital proposal was passed on to the minister of the interior in St. Petersburg. Only after four years, in 1884, was the proposal returned with the notation that technical flaws had been found in it and that the proposed sum of 1,445 rubles was insufficient for the maintenance of a hospital. Further efforts were made, which lasted another four years, that is, to 1888. The design was changed, the number of beds increased, and a commitment was made to cover all the hospital's expenses from their own donations. Abraham Kamiński, I. M. Lubelski, B. Kahan, as well as Rabbi Grohbard were engaged in conducting this case. The tsarist authorities continued trying to hamper matters, this time regarding the location of the hospital. Finally, approval was given for construction. In 1891 the hospital was ready. The following people were involved in this action: Juda Orzeł, Mordechaj Hajnsdorf, Tender Boksennbojm, Mosze Goldsztern, Nuta Zylberewajg, Note Rubinsztajn, Jakow Słuszny, Mosze Kelmenzon, Izrael Richter, Josef Zając, Gedalia Szapiro, Awigdor Solnicki, Beniamin Liwerant, Ch. D. Lichtenfacht, Meir Jona Rozencwajg, Jakow Grynszpan, Wolf Openhajm, Galman Kamienne, Kalman Wiśnia, and Kalman Jabłoń. Alter Słuszny was imposed as trustee, who managed the hospital and answered to the authorities. He did not have the support of the city authorities or the Jewish community council, which had wanted Doctor Rozental in this position. He was replaced after three years by Abraham Kamiński, who enjoyed the support of the community council. From 1902 to 1926, the position of trustee was held by Icchak Nachum Weintraub, a person who had great authority among local Jews. In order to assure income for the hospital, which was located by what was then the market square, fifteen stalls were set up. In 1892, a cholera epidemic broke out in Siedlce, and the hospital was converted to an infectious diseases hospital. The official opening of the hospital took place in 1893. In September 1906, during a military pogrom, the wounded and dead were brought to the hospital. During the shelling of the building by tsarist soldiers, the caretaker Jan Born, a Christian, and Judka Lipszyc, a patient, were killed, and paramedic Maria Łazarska was wounded. The hospital continued to function up to the World War II. After the war, a children's hospital was located here for a time. Then for a number of years it served as a dental outpatient clinic.

In 1997, the process of restitution of real estate that had been the property of Jewish community councils began in Poland. The hospital building with the surrounding land was taken over by the Jewish Religious Council in Warsaw, which sold it in 2001 to the owner of a construction company and in the authenticated deed agreed to its demolition. The Union of Jews Originating from Siedlce in Israel and the city's public protested against such a decision. The protest against the demolition was signed by 246 people. The building was demolished in 2002 in spite of this, and apartment houses were built in its place.43

Translator's Notes, Chapter 1

  1. Berek Joselewicz—see chap. 5, n. 64. Return
  2. November Uprising (1830–1831)—an armed uprising against Russia initiated by young officers at the military academy in Warsaw; supported by large segments of Polish society. Return

Author's Notes, Chapter 1

  1. Gazeta Podlaska, no. 2 (1931): 7. Return
  2. They were published in Tel Aviv in 1999 in Hebrew and contain 235 pages. Return
  3. A. Brückner, Słownik etymologiczny języka polskiego (Warsaw, 1957), pp. 491–492. Return
  4. S. Koziorowski, Badania nazw topograficznych archidiecezji poznańskiej, vol. 2 (Poznań, 1914), p. 185. Return
  5. S. Wąsowski, „Koniec Podlasia,” in Gazeta Podlaska, no. 2 (1932). Return
  6. S. Litak, „Siedlce przed lokacją,” in Roczniki Humanistyczne, vol. 11, book 2 (Towarzystwo Naukowe KUL: Lublin, 1962), p. 153. Return
  7. A. Winter, Dzieje Siedlec (Warsaw, 1969), pp. 15–16. Return
  8. Ibid., p. 16 Return
  9. Ibid., pp. 17–18. Return
  10. Book of Remembrance of the Siedlce Community, ed. A. W. Jasny (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 14–15. [Published in Yiddish and Hebrew. The author used fragments translated from Yiddish into Polish by Adam Bielecki (see Introduction).—ed.] Return
  11. Sąd Rejonowy w Siedlcach, Wydział Ksiąg Wieczystych (SR w S., WKW), księga hipoteczna no. 682. Return
  12. SR w S., WKW, księga hipoteczna no. 697. Return
  13. See Appendix 12. Return
  14. M. Sztein, O cmentarzyskach żydowskich w Siedlcach. Referat odczytany na posiedzeniu miesięcznym Siedleckiego Oddziału Towarzystwa Krajoznawczego dnia 14 czerwca 1910 r. (Siedlce, 1910–2008), p. 6 Return
  15. Material in the author's possession. Return
  16. SR w S., WKW, księga hipoteczna, no. 757. Return
  17. W. Sobczyk, Założenia projektowe na zagospodarowanie terenu cmentarza—pomnika męczeństwa Narodu Żydowskiego w Siedlcach przy ul. Szkolnej. Materiały historyczne i zdjęcia opracowal Jontel Goldman, typescript in the possession of the Nation Service for the Preservation of Landmarks in Siedlce; historical material and photographs compiled by Jontel Goldman. Return
  18. Kabala—Hebrew kabbalah—“reception, acceptance, transmission, tradition.” A mystical current of Judaism. The beginnings of the kabala should be sought in antiquity, among Jewish mystical groups occupied with questions of the beginning of the world and revelation. Its founding text is considered to be Sefer Yetsirah (Book of Creation—a treatise about the creation of the world). The greatest work of the kabala, Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Radiance), was edited in the thirteenth century. It exists in many variations. Return
  19. Sabbatianism—a messianic movement inaugurated in the middle of the seventeenth century by Shabetai Tsevi. It grew out of the kabalistic tradition. It preached that the Law of Moses and the institutions based on it were imposed on Israel by demonic forces and are contradictory to the true faith of the patriarchs. God's revelation is hidden in all religions that are based on the Bible and thus also in Islam and Christianity. Shabetai Tsevi converted to Islam in 1666, but he continued to preach his teachings clandestinely. [See Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626–1676 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973)—ed.]. Return
  20. J. Doktór, Początki chasydyzmu polskiego (Wrocław, 2004), p. 38. Return
  21. Ibid., p. 38. Return
  22. Ibid., pp. 38–39. Return
  23. See photographs 17 and 18. Return
  24. I. Kaspi, “History of the Jews in Siedlce,” in Book of Remembrance of the Siedlce Community, pp. 20–21. Return
  25. Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, vol. 10 (Warsaw, 1889). Return
  26. Z. Ścisłowska, Wspomnienia z przejażdżki po kraju, vol. 1 (Warsaw, 1857), pp. 86–87 (spelling consistent with original). Return
  27. H. Heine, O Polsce, trans. Stanisław Rossowski (Lwów–Złoczów, n.d.), pp. 14–16 (spelling consistent with original). Return
  28. Kaspi, “History of the Jews in Siedlce,” p. 25. Return
  29. The accusation of ritual murder in Siedlce appeared as early as the end of the eighteenth century. The design for a cemetery monument to the seven allegedly murdered people has survived. See Katalog rysunków z Gabinetu Rycin Biblioteki Uniwersyteckiej w Warszawie (Warsaw, 1969), vol. 2, item 796 (various localities; Siedlce, pp. 179–181). Return
  30. A. Winter, „Siedlce jako ośrodek administracyjny w XIX w.,” in Szkice Podlaskie (Siedlce, 1983), p. 12. Return
  31. J. Warmiński, „Udział Żydów województwa podlaskiego w dostarczaniu obuwia i kożuchów dla wojska polskiego w czasie powstania listopadowwego 1830–1831 r.,” in Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, no. 2 (1975): 41–48. Return
  32. Kaspi, “History of the Jews in Siedlce,” p. 25. Return
  33. Ibid., p. 30. Return
  34. Beit Hamidrash — a house of study, a building containing its own library of religious works, designated for religious study, prayer, and discussion. Return
  35. A building designated for the Brotherhood for the Study of the Mishnah. Return
  36. M. Buber, Opowieści chasydów (Poznań, 1986). [Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken, 1947–48 / 1991).—ed.] Return
  37. M. Buber, Opowieści rabina Nachmana (Paris, 1983), p. 17. [Translation used here is from Martin Buber, The Tales of Rabbi Nachman (New York: Horizon, 1956), pp. 12–13.—ed.] Return
  38. W. Tyloch, Judaizm (Warsaw, 1987), pp. 244–252. Return
  39. M. Wodziński, „Ilu było chasydów w Królestwie Polskim około 1830 roku?” in Ortodoksja, emancypacja, asymilacja. Studia z dziejów ludności żydowskiej na ziemiach polskich w okresie rozbiorów, no. 1 (2003): 39; Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych w Warszawie, Centralne Władze Wyznaniowe (1871): 9–10, 42. Larger clusters of Chassidim, however, were found in neighboring cities, that is, 100 families in Sokołów, 60 in Żelechów, and 30 in Węgrów. Return
  40. M. Wodziński, Oświecenie żydowskie w Królestwie Polskim wobec chasysyzmu. Dzieje pewnej idei (Warsaw, 2003), p. 111. Return
  41. Kaspi, “History of the Jews in Siedlce,” pp. 32–34. Return
  42. T. Krawczak, „Nieznani powstańcy styczniowi na Podlasiu,” in Prace Archiwalno-Konserwatorskie na Terenie Województwa Siedleckiego, issue 6, pp. 45–96. Return
  43. This issue was discussed in the local and the Jewish presses; see Głos Gminy Starozakonnych, no. 1–2 (2003): 2–4. Return


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