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[Pages 173-174]


Jews were present in Siedlce essentially from the moment it received the rights of a city (1547). Until 1804, the city was in private hands. Individual owners brought Jews in and allowed them to settle. They felt that the city would be able to develop thanks to this. And indeed, that was the case. The Jews were engaged mostly in the trades and commerce. But areas such a medicine, construction, or transport were also their domain. The Jewish population was dominant in Siedlce in the nineteenth century, comprising about 70 percent of residents. The Yiddish language was heard more than Polish in certain quarters of the city. Many Jews participated in the uprisings of the Poles against the Russian partitioner in 1830 and 1863. They were an important provision and logistic base in these actions. They sometimes fought with weapons in their hands.

In addition to the material development of the city, figures such as Jehuda He-Chasid, Rabbi Benjamin Dow Anolik, and Rabbi Meisels contributed to the spiritual growth of Jews. Their attachment to religion and tradition had a decisive significance in the lives of many of the city's residents. Until recently, the Jewish hospital building was a symbol of the battle for faith and tradition. It was built using monies that were earmarked for penalties place on Orthodox Jews for not wanting to “Europeanize,” that is, they did not cut off their sidelocks or beards and continued to wear their gabardines. Unfortunately, the hospital was demolished before our very eyes in the beginning of the twenty-first century. A structure that was inextricably tied to Jewish history disappeared from the landscape of the city.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, two groupings clashed: Orthodox Jews, with their attachment to religion and tradition; and the Bundists, with their faith in socialism. Later, Zionists were added, and they battled sharply against both groupings and dreamed of a Jewish state in Palestine. The pogrom that was staged by the tsarist troops in 1906 put a stop to the political life that had been developing vigorously. The Jews closed themselves up in their homes, prayer houses, schools, societies, or friendship and neighborhood groups. They joined a very active political life anew only in 1915 under the German occupation. The Bolshevik invasion in 1920 and the attitudes of certain Jews also brought about a mutual lack of trust between the two societies, each accusing the other of ill will. In the twenty-year interwar period, a number of parties as well as several dozen societies and labor unions were active in the city. In the 1930s, the Zionists gained ever greater significance, contributed to by the economic crisis and the lack of prospects in Poland.

The period of the Second World War brought the almost total annihilation of the Jewish community of the city: 12,500 people were loaded onto freight cars and sent to the death camp in Treblinka. Besides people, the Nazis also destroyed the material traces of the Jewish presence. The city's synagogue was burned down as early as December 1939. The two oldest cemeteries were completely destroyed, and the newest one, on what was at that time Szkolna Street, was partially destroyed. The Germans burned down the building and all the documents stored by the Jewish Religious Council. At that time, the chronicles of various religious brotherhoods containing valuable material went up in flames. The remaining documents were lost in the ghetto or were burned in Treblinka. What little material survived is now found in the National Archive and Registrar's Office in Siedlce.

Jewish society did not rebuild in Siedlce after the war. As a result of the complicated political situation, Jews emigrated to the United States, Israel, or other countries. Currently, aside from the modest memorial on Berek Joselewicz Street, there are no clear traces of the Jewish heritage in the city. Yet they set the tone for this city together with the Poles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, unfortunately, very few still remember.

This book does not exhaust the studies dealing with the Jewish population in Siedlce. Articles and books about the Jews in neighboring cities, such a Sokołów, Węgrów, Mordy, Łosice, and Łuków, are making an appearance. The Siedlce Jews had very good contacts with the residents of these cities. An analysis should be made of what connected the local Jews with the residents of those cities and what differentiated them. To what extent was so-called Jewish solidarity proven correct in difficult moments, or to what extent was this a myth that survives among Polish society.

The person who, along with Professor Zofia Chyra-Rolicz, supported me in my research was Michael Halber. I therefore decided to include in this book the “Additional Bibliography” put together by him. This is a guideline for people who do not know Polish and for researchers who would like to delve deeper into my findings to date. Some of the entries there have now been translated into Polish, such as Eddie Weinstein's 17 Days in Treblinka (Łosice, 2008), while others, such as Noach Lasman's The Road [Szosa], have been translated into Hebrew and German but have not been printed in the language in which they came into being, that is, in Polish. [Lasman's Szosa has now been published in Polish (Poznań: OPAL, 2006) and is available online as a PDF manuscript.—trans.] Still others, such as Małgorzata Niezabitowska's Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland [Ostatni. Współcześni Żydzi polscy], are a translation of the Polish edition into English and German.

Finally, one must reflect: Did the city's Christian society, seeing the extermination of the Jews, realize what was happening? Were the following generations of Poles living in this city aware of this tragedy? The answers to these questions are difficult, and surveys should be conducted among the residents for this purpose. From my observations and experience I conclude that barely a part of the residents had or have such awareness; the majority, however, did not and does not. I hope that this book will contribute to the first group's becoming the majority.


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