David Giora: Seeing the beginning

Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.

Fifty-one years have passed since my feet last stepped on the soil of Siedlce, and me – a grown man, dreams of this city by almost every night. Especially in the past year, after my cousin Ephraim, a man over the seventy years old, who’ve Never seen Siedlce since was born in the United States. All he heard from his father Jacob (the brother of my late mother) day and night, was Pienkna Street. If he is able to make such a drastic step and harness his daughter Debbie and grandson Michael for this purpose, who am I not to make a similar effort?

The main incentive was given by the photos of the city. Some – with a correct explanation, and a few – with an incorrect explanation. I, who know every stone in this town, was shocked by the photos and immediately took a vow to visit my hometown, as long as my legs and soul are able to bear the physical and mental burden.

I wish to emphasize – going on such a journey involved a heavy burden of physical and mental suffering.

I didn’t take into account that I was coming to a city empty of Jews. I knew that what was once – no longer exists, but I could not imagine that the Poles attempted to erase the few remains, so that no memory is left from what was once a city bustling with Jews.

When my feet stepped on the unholy ground (for wherever you stepped was saturated with Jewish blood and bones, or shattered tombstones from Jewish cemeteries used for paving the streets) – I felt fortunate that I am not a descended of Aharon Ha’Cohen, so that the prohibition of entering this huge graveyard didn’t apply to me.

I arrived at a poor hotel in the city, and I had not even managed to reconcile after a day and a half journey by train from Praga, through the capital Warsaw, and straight to Sieldce, and I walked with my wife through the streets. Had it not been for those bombings and fires which stormed the city in 1939 and then what the city authorities did to a large number of houses, I would say that I had never left this city, and soon all the friends and acquaintances from whom I had not even parted during our flight from the city in late October 1939 would reappear.

In vain I tried to find what was expected, my thoughts taking a deep dive in the past, without taking into account that I was walking in a terribly devastated city.

Luckily an acquaintance gave me an address and asked me to give his regards to a local resident on the street that was once inhabited by Jews only, Orzeszkowej Street, from where I did not stop for even one minute, walking and looking left and right.

Little did I know that the next day I will find myself in front of a videotape camera, telling the story of my life in a nutshell. Even if I would have taken many more pictures, I could not go into more detail what than I have already described extensively about this city, so each line that I add here can complete what I’ve missed in the past.

Amazingly, I made very few mistakes in my description. Siedlce community memorial book, published many years ago, has added some more information, but that was not enough. My wonderful memory, with which I was blessed, is what enables me now to go back and bring up memories which occurred in the distant past.

I could not resist going immediately to my late grandmother, Perla’s, house on 9 Cmentarna Street. It was a two-minute walk from the hotel where I stayed to this house. I see a slightly different street and can not find the house, as if the earth has swallowed it. Access to Cmentarna Street has changed. The ancient Christian cemetery was dismantled evicted, and so I go back and forth and there is no house no. 9. I managed to find No. 11, and It is similar to what was once number 9. I will not rest until I find what I want. This house is the last place where I slept and from here we set off on a long journey leaving Grandmother Perla and Aunt Pessah, to the mercy of Heaven.

House No. 11, which stood inside the courtyard, was familiar to me, although it was of a different color. Then it was red brick and now plaster was covering the house. Next to the road was a wooden house in the past. Now flowers are planted here and there is no trace of house number 9.

But here is the well! The same well from which the inhabitants of the courtyard had drawn their water. I too I drank from the same well, especially on Saturdays. This well has saved my honor and proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was standing in front of the original house once called 9 Cmentarna! For some reason the municipality has moved the numbers.

With trembling legs I stumbled into the yard and stood in front of the three windows where my father’s family used to live. I look up at the windows and balconies – where you once heard and saw Jewish life, and now everything is Polish.

One gentile, whom I asked to enter the apartment where my grandmother used to live, claimed that an old ill woman lived here and she certainly is not home. For one more moment I look at the familiar windows, and notice the shutters are missing. In my heart I swear I shall not rest until I step back in this house.

My wife is full of fear, lest I collapse in such a situation. I am actually full of courage, feeling younger than my age of 63. Despite my wife’s fears, I try that day, as long has not set, to find more and more places I know and not miss any.

I walk west on the Pilsudskiego street, past “Polski Bank”‘s magnificent building. On the right is the soccer field and on the left is the terrifying prison. Moving on we pass old houses with peeled paint which weren’t touched by a painter’s or plasterer’s hand in years. Most of this belonged to Jews in the past.

Trying to find a trace or a sign of the Jewish past fails, and my dear wife, Etti, asks me where I’m headed, and I say nothing. Meanwhile we pass buildings: the HMO, the defunct old chimney of the electricity company and elementary school No. 2 , where my cousin, Velvel Doha, used to learn.

Another few houses and we are standing in front of the gate of Siedlce’s Jewish cemetery No. 3.

Near the gate, a sign in Polish reads “the Jewsh cemetery of the city of Siedlce, founded in 1825. (still?) in used  for burial. Protected area”. The second sentence gave me a glimmer of hope that I might find more Jews or even a single Jew, so that I would not know for sure that the city of Siedlce is “empty of Jews.”

I already felt fatigue, and if not for my wife I would continue to endlessly walk the streets. In my heart I know that the three days allotted to me by my partner will not be enough to see what I had planned in advance. As long as I’m sure we have a resting place for the next few days, I’ll take every minute to visit and document every corner.

We are sitting in the hotel’s narrow reception area and people want to know details us. I felt myself as an expert on matters of Siedlce, give them accurate information and they are surprised and ask more questions.

I wish to shoot a video around the city and at the remains of Treblinka death camp.

One of the hotel visitors approaches me and offers to do what I want. I say I will pay any price to fulfill my wish. The next morning our acquaintance appeared with another man, and the latter claimed that he was the photographer (Albeit a professional one).

My “acquaintance” from yesterday is only the driver in his car. I saw that I had fallen into a trap, but I could not retreat anymore. The hefty price which they both demanded for one hour of filming was beyond what I had planned for this purpose. After a short bargaining I managed to lower it to $140, and then added another amount for another film and some food, and we reached the sum of over $150.

The short time we had did not allow me to prepare and plan exactly what I wanted photographed. I did know that the day was still ahead and I will visit every corner I could as long as I had the physical strength.

We first approached the building that once housed the Jewish Hospital and the Society for the Protection of Health (Toz – “Towarzysto Ochrony Zdrowj a”). Interestingly, the Poles have designated the place for medical needs, and it now houses a gastroenterology clinic. This building, in which I was born on 19.4.1927, was never as close to my heart as it was now. I felt proud of myself In front of the video camera and told the story of my life as much as I could, mentioning that my grandfather, Abraham, was hospitalized there.

To the right of this house was the Jewish cemetery No. 2. Nowadays there is no sign of the cemetery. Between what used to be the market square and the cemetery a new street was paved with buildings on its sides. The hospital building shows no markings of its glorious Jewish past.

I cannot describe the bustling market of Tuesdays and Fridays, because it is not there anymore. In contrast, the closed market building nicknamed “Hella” stands intact and is being renovated, so I could not visit it.

The area in front of me is so familiar to me that soon there will be groups of Jewish children, including me, playing soccer and running around the building.

In the nearby pavilions where the Polish madwoman lives with her husband, shouts and curses will be heard, and if someone is “lucky” and hits the windowpanes of “Hella” building the Polish guard will try and catch and punish him.

I lift my head and everything is different without recognition. The Jewish children are gone, the community shops were burned down in September 1939, together with the entire street, almost. What remains are the trees that were planted before the war. They may be the only ones who can remember the comic-tragic past of this street, Filskiigo Street, familiar to all as Fiinknh Streen, and it no longer exists. Even though the original name was kept and no one changed it, for me it no longer exists. A few remaining houses are still standing, and on the street corner, coming onto Wojskowa all buildings were razed to the ground where several dozen peddlers are crowded selling their produce.

No, this is not the same vibrant market where Jews declared their wares loudly. Now everything is quiet. No one gets excited. Buy it if you wish, and if not – the goods will be sold tomorrow. Here, too, I run into queues. Especially for fruits that are not yet sold in government stores. Prices are quite high, although for us it is a trivial matter. The Poles , even though they live off several thousand Zloty per month – buy everything.

The video camera takes me to the same gray building where, on the second floor, was the 7th elementary school named after Janusz Korczak. On the lower floor there used to be a bathhouse. Now there is neither a bathhouse nor a school. I go up to the second floor of the same wooden stairs. It’s the same corridor, the same doors through which thousands of Jews passed, now – offices. My class on the second door to the left opens and I am in a room divided in two. I ask forgiveness from the clerk, introduce myself and show shamelessly the place where I often stood in the corner as punishment, for speaking during class (and in Yiddish!).

The corner, where once stood a lectern for our teacher Wanda Koniitzina, isn’t there, of course. I look at the second part of the room and imagine seeing the bench where I sat with my friends Moshe Kozsnitzki and Dratebke.

Have I come to say good-bye to them, or to tell them that I, David, still alive and coming to eulogize them? All I can do is see and show, tell the story so that no word will be lost. My accompanying Poles got ready with colored drinking water and this saved the situation.

The courtyard still exists, with pavilions built along the walls of the house, so the original courtyard is smaller. The toilets were not liquidated, and they are still standing in solitude. The same goes for the low building in which our teacher, Vassertzog, taught us the secrets of the Jewish religion (in Polish, of course). At the same time the Christian students received lessons from the priest, instilling hatred toward the Jews in their hearts.

How much did I run around this yard? We’ve played football here, dodge ball, and gym classes. Near the walls were once garden beds where we learnt to grow flowers and some vegetables.

What desolation here, as if a human hand had not cleaned the yard since 1939. It seems to me as if all school children, mostly Jews, will soon be recruited in order to bring the court to the state it deserves.

Outside, I try to elaborate on the school, and all the time mention my teacher’s name, Wanda Konieczna, but a Polish passerby interferes, shouting “What Wanda?”. I must remain silent, not to be recognized, for fear that something might happen to me.

In the distance I see the veteran’s building – Domzolnieza, which turned into Ognisko cinema after the fire which burnt Beika cinema. The building remained intact and is now nicknamed Podlasie. In this cinema, in 1936, I first saw a talking film (and without paying). It was the coverage of our leader, Filsodski’s, funeral.

The photographer knows he has to shoot for one hour only, so he takes advantage and films every moment, even when I walk and say nothing.

He continues to shoot until I reach the magnificent Jewish orphanage building on Mankiewicz Street. The building stayed the same, with the same windows and next to it – houses that once belonged to Jews. I describe it in detail and the camera is ticking. Every once in a while a car passes by and its engine interrupts the filming. On the eastern side of the building, facing the courtyard was a huge Star of David. There is no trace of it now. The Poles shaved the whole thing off, and the Hebrew letters above the entrance gate, which marked the year of the building’s completion, were removed as well, leaving no trace of the past.

How can one abandon such a building? Now, of course, there are government offices in it, it did not even occur to me to come near the sign and read what was written on it, because I was horrified by what I saw.

Across the street, not far away, even though some of the houses were destroyed by bombs, I had to find the house in the yard where my Rabbi Shmuel Ibkobitz (cousin of my grandfather with the same name). there was nothing there. Gray houses were built in their place and if I did not remember the Jewish past, I would say that these houses were standing here for ages.

At the intersection of Kilinskiigo and Snkbitz’h, in the middle of the square, stands a church that was called “Di Tserkva” by the Jews. The name indicates that the church was Pravoslavic at the time of the Tzars. Between the two world wars, this church served as a military church. The northeast corner of the square housed another famous cafe – Fldobski, of which there was no trace. In a corner in the northwest, where jugglers and daredevils on bikes used to be there are now various kiosks with very few goods.

Across the street, I stand with wobbling knees outside his home of my friend, Naftali Kornblum. A magnificent house even today, with ornaments. I do not even try to get close to it, but watch it from afar.

Next to me is a building with shops, where once stood “Beika” cinema  I’ve already mentioned. I was lucky enough to see the tongues of fire rising from the roof of the building when I was staying with a friend across the street. A little further on I see the building where my teacher, Wanda Konieczna, once lived.

From here to the end of the Kilinskiigo street we travel by car and stop at the corner of 3rd of May Avenue. For some reason the streets are ruined by crisscrossing excavations.

I stood in the corner which almost always housed the carrousel, long gone. I continue on the left and count the houses and am surprised to see they are odd numbers – they were replaced for some reason, why – I have no answer. No one knows about it. The Kaplan family’s home, a magnificent building, barely changed, but the many years that had gone by took their toll. The 3 flours building of which the lower floor housed some of the Kupat Holim physicians’ rooms. I remembered the apostate Doctor Stein, whom I had visited many times. My late father’s stories about the exploits of the “Fly man” who climbed the walls of the building all the way to the roof.

Between the Kaplan building and Orlovsky’s wooden building, separated only one number, it should have been number 10. But now it’s gone and is replaced by number 23. Nothing can fool me, because here I am standing outside the home of Velvel Orlovsky. I cannot speak a word and all I try to say in his honor, or more accurately – in his memory is replaced by bitter weeping that bursts out of my throat with tears streaming from my eyes.

For many years my father worked here until he was fired and forced to move three houses to the Kramazs family (this house was also leveled to the ground). I remember the place by heart. A house built of wood that still stood was a mystery to me. Later I found out that for many years this house had served as a youth hostel and recently was shut down due to its poor condition.

Across the street was the long building that housed a professional clinic and HMO, and prior to this – a commercial school.

I cannot approach the railroad track, because our photographer warns me that photography is forbidden. So he is filming the bridge over the railroad tracks for me and I remember those days when I would climb up and look down at the trains that passed under.

Separating Filsodskiigo street and Strobiiskh street were the Bell Gates, called in Yiddish “Di Glakn”, which the Germans have dismantled in 1941, when it attacked the Soviet Union. Not even a memorial plaque is hanging there. The separation between the streets exists to this day.

On the left side is the family church of Princess Aoginskh, who is also her resting place. For some reason the place is closed and locked, and permission to go in is granted by the priest in charge. I give up this honor, and proceed to the municipal hospital that is near the church.

A modern and sophisticated hospital was built near the old Mryansk hospital, fitting a district town. It did not even occur to me to go into it, for every moment was precious to me.

Since I’ve found the new school No. 7 the day before, I wanted to photograph it and show everyone that here, too, the Poles had tried to erase the Jewish memory. The name Janusz Korczak was gone, because he was a Jew. In its place, of course, there is a Polish name.

We turn back and see “the Square”. This small garden located between Filsodskiigo, Folskiigo and Florianskh, is abandoned. I cannot help myself and tears choke my throat again. How can I forget the tens and hundreds of Jewish children who were ran back and forth here? How can I forget the poor and humble woman who sold warm fritters to passers-by? And that was her livelihood. How can I forget the bench on which my mother Rachel was sitting and next to her the cart with my sister Frieda? the place is so close to me, but inside me I feel as if everything is happening in a dream. There is no living soul here. Only “Jacek” the statue holding Earth on its shoulder, watching over the from the roof of the building and is perhaps the only one who remembers the glorious past, if only it had a soul.

It’s hard for me to part from the place, but I stumble to what was once Beit Ha’am, where a theater on the second floor held plays, and also performed in Yiddish. This building is my first memory of the city. Here I saw the play “Hasia the orphan”. It did not even occur to me to go up and see what is inside. Across used to be “Sooiatooid” cinema, but now – it was as if it had never been built. The Shefelan synagogue was also wiped out, of course. Only a few houses which were not destroyed in 1939 remained standing. Not because Jews lived here, I guess, but as historical buildings for the Polish population that lived here nowadays.

My grandmother Perarl’s sister, Lea Appelbaum, and her son Jacob lived in the next two adjacent buildings. The two houses are still there, but painted differently. On the ground floor was the candy store where I bought the bottle of seltzer and juice for my father on Fridays. Everything is shut closed, as if no human was ever there. Nearby was the Ash bakery, now replaced by a two floor house. There is neither grocery store nor a bakery as were once.

Wherever you go and look, you only think about the past, perhaps at a certain moment someone would jump in front of you and I identify himself as “so and so”, but these are only dreams in vain.