Mordechai Tzanin: About Siedlce’s Community

Mordechai Tsanin (1 April 1906 – 4 February 2009) was a Yiddish language author, journalist and lexicographer and a leading figure in post-war Israeli Yiddish culture.

In 1947, Tsanin returned to Poland on a year-long fact-finding mission as correspondent for the New York Yiddish daily Forward. What he found there was published in the Forward, republished in every major Yiddish newspaper worldwide, and finally collected in book form as Uber Stein und Stock: a reise uber hundert horuw gewarene kehilos in Poilin (Yiddish: איבער שטיין און שטאק: א רייזע איבער הונדערט חרוב געווארענע קהילות אין פוילן‎, English: “Of Stones and Ruins: a journey through one hundred destroyed communities in Poland”). The mission ended prematurely when it came to the attention of the Polish authorities, who expressed their displeasure with Tsanin’s emphasis on the negative, compelling him to quit the country promptly.

The name of Siedlce went ahead. During the Tsar regime the town has been the center of the shire and a tool for the Russification of Poland. Siedlce has experienced pogroms under all regimes and was famous for that. Similar to volcanic area residents, scurrying to rebuild the ruins after the eruption of the volcano, so did the Jews of Siedlce recover after each pogrom and go on living the rich and normal life.

Since the infamous pogrom, when the Czarist killer Tiranowski sent the Dragoons Regiment to wreak havoc among Shedlice’s Jews, until the outbreak of World War II, Shedlice’s Jews had rich and diverse cultural and social life.

There was no public cultural institution in Poland, without a branch in Shedlice. The largest cultural institution in Shedlice was “Ha’Zamir” (Nightingale). This institution had a large library in six languages with special departments of Music and Theater and a chess club. All Jewish political parties were represented in Siedlce: “Bund”, “Poalei Zion” – left and right, “Agudat Israel”, “Hapoel Mizrachi”, communists, Orthodox “Ha’Shomer Ha’Zair”, and secular “Ha’Shomer Ha’Zair”, different shades of General Zionists, “Ha’Mizrachi”, Folkists. Besides these there were also “Zionist central” and “HeHalutz”.

The craft guilds and merchants club also had special social ambitions.

Siedlce’s Jews had schools of all denominations: high school, Talmud Torah, “Tarbut”, “Yavne”, “Beit Yaacov”, “Beit Yosef” yeshiva, ordinary schools Hedders. In one Talmud Torah alone studied five hundred students and at the Talmud Torah school was a modernized crafts school.

Dozens of synagogues were scattered in the Jewish streets. The number of Stiebels alone reached forty. The Great Synagogue was at the center of town for one hundred and sixty years. Flocking around the Great Synagogue were small prayer-houses focused on small artisans, the big Beit Midrash and community houses.

Siedlce Jews were especially proud of the new large building which served as an orphanage and old age home. The place had a large hall, the largest in the city, for concerts and lectures. Siedlce Jews had their own large hospital and dozens of aid institutions.

Besides charity funds six Jewish banks operated in Siedlce with the aim of self-help: Bank shares, Bank of artisans, Bank Agudat Israel, Bank of small merchants and traders bank.

And when it was necessary to decide on Jewish issues the highest authority was the exalted Chief from Mogilnitza, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Ginsbourg, whom all the rabbis of Poland would turn to with questions.

The Jewish community in Siedlce numbered Eighteen thousand. Eighteen thousand creative Jews, thousands of artisans, merchants and small traders, porters and carters, who worked diligently.

Siedlce shoemakers provided boots to the whole area. Brick factories supplied bricks to all. The flour mills in the city were Jewish. The city seemed like an endless fair. Traders and shopkeepers were always busy.

In the evenings, with the closure of shops, as the craftsmen retired from their workshops, the city youth began its activities. As in all the major Jewish cities, the youth in Siedlce also believed that redemptive revolution will begin right here, in Shedlice. And the youths will march at the head of the victory parade…

In recent years, the anti-Jewish boycott and Polish incitement impoverished Siedlce. Workshops closed, hundreds of Jews were left without a job, but culturally Siedlce has actually reached a peak in the years before the recent war.

Jewish Siedlce received the first death blow at the moment when German bombers appeared over the city with the outbreak of World War II.

The German bombers destroyed whole streets. Thousands of Jews were immediately left without a home. The German murder machine showed the meaning of Hitlerism to Jews immediately during the first days of occupation.

The Red Army entered town while Jewish property rolled in the streets of. Jews believe that from now on they will be left alone. With every exchange of custody Siedlce Jews knew a pogrom could be expected. Therefore, the Red Army received with joy and hope. They wanted to believe that the years of revolutionary work by the dedicated Jewish socialist movement and the arrest of hundreds of young yeshiva students due to revolutionary action will be rewarded by the Red Army which will protect them from barbarism and murder of the Germans.

Siedlce Jews were very disappointed. According to the agreement Between Stalin and Hitler Siedlce belonged to the German area. The Red Army handed Siedlce over. Some of the youth went with the Red Army. But family owners, children and wives, fathers and mothers, paid dearly for “everything”.

When the Germans murderers chose the city’s most beautiful women and killed them by shooting they claimed that this is a punishment for welcoming the Bolsheviks. When the despised Germans pushed all the Jewish men, from child to old, to the prison’s yard where Jews suffocated because of overcrowding, it was apparent punishment for the youth who went with the Bolsheviks. On Christmas Eve when the Germans torched and burnt the synagogue it was a punishment for the Jews being Jews.

Jews from Siedlce paid so much; they no longer had the strength to remember for what they were paying for. They never recovered since, Siedlce Jews.

They would share the fate of all Jewish communities.

Taken from the book: “Of Stones and Ruins: a journey through one hundred destroyed communities in Poland“.
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano