Historical contest 2012

On 19 March 2012, during a meeting at the Sokołów Podlaski Scout Centre we learned the winners of the competition for the best text about the history of Jews from Sokołów Podlaski and its vicinity. You can read them below:

1st place — Dominika Częścik

Jewish Inhabitants of Skibniew

The Forgotten Shtetl

Before the war, about a dozen Jewish families lived in Skibniew, which is located between Sokołów Podlaski and Kosów Lacki, in the Sokołów Podlaski commune. Though Jews did not constitute a majority in the countryside, their presence was visible. The information regarding the local Jewish community comes from Skibniew inhabitants, mainly Irena Rogozińska and Eugenia Skorupka.

The elderly can still remember the names, occupations, and the places of residence of their old Jewish neighbours, most of whom lived in flats or houses rented from the locals. They worked in services or trade, or as artisans. What did that forgotten shtetl look like? What were the names of its inhabitants? Who were they? Here are some memories about the inhabitants of our village, so forgotten that they seem unreal.

The Lejbs were a two-generation family of blacksmiths. Smith Lejb’s parents immigrated to America before the war, leaving their son with his wife and two children in Skibniew.

Aside from the Lejbs, there were also other Jewish families in Skibniew. Jew Jankiel slaughtered calves. He would go to farms to slaughter the animals and cut the carcasses up, and he was also a meat trader. He lived in a house rented from the Klukowskis, which until recently stood on Sokołowska Street, right behind the bus stop.

Miss Irena remembers Liba Waksztein, her schoolmate, a beautiful, bright, and vigorous girl. Liba’s father owned a brickyard at the Hilarów–Pieńki crossroads. He manufactured bricks from clay extracted on the spot, which he fired and then sold. He employed several members of the Jewish community of Skibniew.

The Skibniew shoemaker was Mendel. The house where he lived before the war was where there now grows the chestnut tree, at the beginning of Wiśniowa Street, on the left. Tailor Dawid was another Jew from Wiśniowa Street, where he lived with his widow mother, who was a peddler selling threads, needles, pins, buttons, hook-and-eye closures, and press studs.

A Jewish dyer lived by the road to Kostki, and in the centre of the village was Frajbuś’s bakery. Miss Irena still remembers the taste of the bread from his pre-war bakery.

At Shabbat, all Jewish men living in Skibniew gathered at the synagogue located in a section of a beautiful wooden building rented by smith Lejb, with its gable to Leśna Street. That building stood on Aleksander Wdowiński’s plot, with the smithy at the back. Shabbat began on Friday evening and lasted until Saturday evening. In Jewish homes women lit two candles.

“On Szkolna Street, where we lived,” remembers Ms Eugenia, “there was Erszko Taubman’s grocery. Erszko had four daughters, the youngest of whom, Ela, lived with her parents and helped out in the shop. The three older ones were already married. All three of them lived in Skibniewo. Their husbands, Mendel and Abram, were shoemakers, while Rojza was married to a saddler.

In Skibniew there were two smithies — a Jewish one and a Polish one — on one street (nowadays Leśna Street). The two smiths — Szlomo Jabłonowicz and Zalewski — had their own clients and lived in accord. “I don’t recall any conflicts between them. The Jews’ presence was something obvious to us. They had always been here, since I could remember. We went to school together,” recalls Ms Eugenia. Pre-war files in our school archive mention Abram Szczupak. “Yes, I can remember him,” says Ms Eugenia, “He was a reckless boy. He would go with our young men to parties. That’s how it was.”

Every Friday evening, when Shabbat began, Erszko would close his shop. Candles were placed in the windows of his house, the bustle subsided and the preparations came to an end. Erszko’s daughters helped out baking challah and cooking Shabbat dishes. The Jews celebrated throughout Saturday, until sunset. They could not perform any work, but on Saturday evening and on Sunday Eroszko’s shop was open and you could do shopping there even late in the evening.

The Jewish customs, tradition, religion, language, and attire clearly distinguished them from the Polish community. The fact that they were different inspired not only curiosity, but also hostility.

“As soon as at the beginning of the war, the Jews left Skibniew. They disappeared. They moved to the ghettoes in Sokołów Podlaski and Kosów Lacki. Some tried to hide, but it was not easy. The Poles’ attitude to their Jewish neighbours varied. I can remember the following scene from before the war,” recalls Ms Eugenia. “The locals tried to make an elderly Jew climb a large rock by a shop in the village centre.

They ordered him to shout: ‘Long live Poland, let the rabbi rot!” He shouted: ‘Let it live, let it rot!’, for he could not bring himself to utter the word ‘rabbi’. That scene became engraved in my memory with the accompanying feeling of fear, shame, and helplessness. Even today it is difficult for me to speak about it.”

The events that came later nightmarish and inconceivable. Panic broke out, because when the Germans encountered a Jew, they killed him. People said that a young Jewish boy was hiding on the cemetery. He would come for food, but everybody was afraid. Later they said that he was no longer there, that the Germans had killed him.

Provision of help or shelter to Jews was punishable by death. During the occupation, smith Lejb and his family were sheltered by Stanisław Żochowski. In 1942, a great fire broke out in the village, consuming the building with the hideout. The hiding Jews were seen running to the first evergreen trees of the Przeździatka Forest, where they lived for over a year. Some of the locals knew about that as after sunset smith Lejb’s adolescent sons would come to ask the families they trusted for food. The Lejbs did not manage to survive the war. In 1943, they were arrested by the Germans and transported to Miedzna. The Skibniew inhabitant who transported them offered Mr Lejb a chance to escape, but the Jew refused as he did not want to escape alone.

In the autumn of 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in Sokołów Podlaski and issued an ordinance obliging all Jews living in the town and the surrounding villages to move to the Jewish quarter. The number of the ghetto inhabitants is estimated at six thousand. Most Jews from Skibniew moved there.

In the summer of 1942, the railway that went near the village was used to transport Jews from all parts of Europe to the Treblinka extermination centre. The first transport passed through Skibniew and reached the camp on 23 July 1942, carrying residents of the Warsaw ghetto. The ghetto in Sokołów Podlaski was liquidated on 22 September 1942. The Jews were ‘resettled’ to Treblinka, with the wagons that transported them also passing through Skibniew, as that was the only way.

When the trains slowed down between Kostki and Skibniew some of the Jews jumped out. Many of those escape attempts ended tragically. Miss Irena says that she never went to look at the victims, who were then buried along the railway in hastily dug graves. Those who managed to escape hid in the nearby woods, but they usually died after several months as a result of manhunts conducted by the police.

The war brought the Holocaust. The Jewish community of Skibniew ceased to exist. One can hear about it from the oldest villagers. The memory of the Holocaust is worth reviving and one should give oneself a chance to learn the truth, as that history is a part of ours.

2nd place — Agnieszka Damentko

I Don’t Know if it’s a Dream

It happened on the night after the Sokołów Podlaski Scouting Troop Rally, which was held during 1–2 October 2011. On such occasions one is filled with reflections and positive energy, but also tired. After such events, when I am already at home in the evening, I think about what I experienced during those two magical scouting days, when the everyday problems were unimportant, and when every second was filled with service. As usual before going to sleep, when I was at home, there came the time for reflections and conclusions. I was thinking about Korczak, our patron, and I was praying in my thoughts to never ever be forced to see the children in my care in the situation which Korczak’s children were in. I understand his decision to stay with them until the end, for how could one live knowing that they were dead, that they took that huge piece of our heart when they departed? Why, love knows neither nationality nor religion. Deep in those thoughts, I fell asleep. I guess…

I was woken by somebody jerking my arm, saying, “Come, come. Quiet.”

Like anybody woken in the middle of the night, I obediently followed, wondering why my brick stairs had suddenly changed into wooden ones. Then somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and led me outside. It was Kuśnierska Street. “It’s impossible,” I think. “I live on Wiejska Street. It’s about three kilometres away.”

“Come, come. Come and remember,” said the voice.

“I won’t go anywhere,” shouting, I broke free of his embrace.

“Don’t shout because they’ll kill us. Easy, come. I’ll explain everything,” the stranger was trying to calm me down.

“OK, but who are you?” I asked.

“Dawid Szymiel. Come, I’ll show you something.”

We walked quietly towards the cemetery on Siedlecka Street, but it was different from the one I knew. To my surprise, it was an Orthodox one. We then went, also to my surprise, to a gravel pit, which I had no idea existed. Suddenly, I almost exclaimed a joyous Czuwaj! [Polish scouts’ traditional greeting (translator’s note)] at the sight of scouts sitting in a group of people in hiding.

“Quiet,” whispered my companion. “They’ll see us.”

“Who?” I asked. “The scouts? So what? Come, let’s talk with them,” I told Dawid.

But he only frowned on me and pulled me down by the arm. What happened later was horrible and strange. Bolshevik soldiers. Yes, Bolshevik soldiers of 1920. Our boys fought bravely, but they stood no chance against that great force. And those beasts had no respect even for dead bodies, which they decapitated.

I saw nothing else, because tears flooded my eyes and the pain of helplessness poured into my heart. I followed my companion like a puppet on a string, not even wondering what I was doing in the year 1920.

When we approached a peaceful street, my companion spoke to me.

“It used to be different, Agnieszka. We, Jews, were furriers, many of us helped the January insurgents. I do not know why what we have just seen took place less than 40 years later. But follow me, I want to show you something else.”

We were standing outside a shop whose entrance was guarded by stalwart men.

“What’s this about?” I asked. “And what year is it?”

“It’s 4 March 1937. Activists of the National Party have been waging an anti-Semitic campaign since 1934, and this is a picket outside one of the Jewish shops. There has been a number of such events, which encouraged Poles to use violence against Jews and destroy their property. Ten people were severely beaten up due to those actions. But this isn’t everything. Follow me.”

We walked for a while. It was daytime. Although I was not born in Sokołów Podlaski I know that the Thursday market used to be organized where there is the Lux shop now, so I was not surprised by the crowd of people, stalls, and animals. My companion pulled me away from the market square and I saw it bombed at that very moment. There were no soldiers in the square, only civilians. The bombed streets were: Rogowska, Mały Rynek, and Piękna.

“Before that, they bombed the school on Długa Street, but there were soldiers, whereas here are none,” my companion sadly informed me.

After that he spoke only once.

I saw people denounce others in their cruelty and fear. I saw the establishment of the ghetto, where at first the situation was not so bad, but then came the hunger. I saw the liquidation of the ghetto and the cruel manner in which the Jews were deported to Treblinka. I saw people and those who did not deserve to be called people: Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews. For cruelty had no nationality.

I felt faint. I do not know whether it was because of what I experienced or because of my long wander, but I felt as if I was losing consciousness and when I blacked out in my head I heard:

“Please, don’t ever forget. Promise!”

“I won’t.”

3rd place — Michał Wierzbicki

It Was not a Bad Dream…

On that day began a nightmare for many, a nightmare that for a large majority of those people ended in a gas chamber. Many certainly remembered that day as tragic, perhaps the most tragic day of their life, not only because it opened a new chapter in the history of Sokołów Podlaski, but also because of the almost tangible hatred and the sound of weeping floating in the air.

On 24 August 1942, the ghetto in Sokołów Podlaski was completely cut off. In the light of the earlier events and the rumours going round, that could mean only one thing — that the ghetto was to be ‘cleansed’. In September, special pacification detachments began to arrive in Sokołów Podlaski along with an infamous Ukrainian military unit, which had already earned a bad reputation. One could smell the upcoming liquidation in the air. It was nearing inevitably. Only a miracle could save the local Jews from the cataclysm, which it proved to many of them. But that miracle did not happen…

Hell broke lose in the morning of 22 September 1942, when the ghetto swarmed with men in uniforms. The town was cordoned off by gendarmes, Ukrainians, and SS-men to prevent possible escape attempts from the town. Panic broke out. Machine guns were placed in hot spots. Patrols, composed of Ukrainian soldiers, blue policemen, and Jewish auxiliary forces combed the ghetto tenement by tenement, house by house, searching for Jews in the cellars and attics. Those were horrible scenes. Many must have remembered them for the rest of their life. Whole families were dragged out onto the street and arranged into marching columns under heavy escort. Those who protested or offered resistance were executed on the spot with a shot from a machine gun or pistol. The elderly and children were ruthlessly murdered in front of their relatives. Amidst the sounds of weeping, people calling out to their relatives, and the general turmoil, the ghetto residents reached the railway station. There, they were squeezed into barred wagons used to transport cattle — the transportation method typical of the Nazis. Those were the conditions in which those Jews were to spend their last journey — like animals squeezed into a cage and waiting for slaughter.

But those people did not lose hope and they consoled one another showing the occupier that they were not afraid to die for their own religion. On the next day, in the ghetto began a search for the Jews who had managed to hide. Closets, cellars, and attics were combed in search of hidden Jews. There was also a manhunt for those who had sought shelter from the Nazis on the outskirts of the town and in the neighbouring villages. Chances of survival were slight, as the search was very thorough. After its end, special groups of Jews were sent into the ghetto to clear the area and after they performed their task they were ruthlessly killed. The Jewish administration was killed in cold blood, though it had been promised protection, and the rest of the Jews were deported to the camp in Treblinka.

It is estimated that in Sokołów Podlaski 1,500 Jews were executed on the spot and 5,500 were deported to Treblinka, where they died in gas chambers.

The Jewish community was not rebuilt after the war. Sokołów Podlaski is no longer as it used to be.

Distinction — Sylwia Wierzbicka

The History of the Sokołów Podlaski Jews

God created us and gave us free will so that we can make our own choices, better or worse, but not ones that would make innocent people suffer. Every person deserves respect regardless of race, nationality, appearance, or religion. But during World War II, an attitude of aversion and hatred towards the Jewish nation was born in the German nation. The Germans discriminated against the Jews only because of their different skin colour and facial features. The Nazis deemed a Jew every individual who had at least one ancestor of Jewish origin going back three generations. Hence those were racial criteria, and not religious or cultural ones. For me this is unthinkable! How can one hurt another human being, one’s neighbour, because of the differences in external appearance?

The Holocaust had been intended from the start as a solution to the Jewish question. And the Nazis did succeed. The policy of mass extermination took the toll of almost six million Jews. Is this humanity? Who gave the Nazis the right to gas their neighbours, make soap out of them, and detain them in concentration camps? The Germans had treated Jew like subhumans, exploiting their material assets and ‘labour force’. Initially unaware of that, the international public opinion and our allies gradually learned about what was happening to the Jewish nation. But did they provide any help or support? No, they did not.

The Jewish inhabitants of the Sokołów Podlaski region also suffered from persecutions. Jews began to settle in Sokołów Podlaski in the 16th century. One of the reasons was the fact that back then Sokołów Podlaski was property of the Radziwiłłs and the Kiszkas, who, unlike most Poles, were not Catholic. Consequently, they took in Jewish settlers as a counterbalance to Christians. The Jewish settlement gathered more momentum in the early 17th century. 1650 saw the construction of the first brick synagogue in Sokołów Podlaski. The reinforcement of the Jewish influences came in the 18th century with the establishment of the local Jewish community. In the 19th century the Jews constituted a majority in our town, with their number growing constantly. Right before the outbreak of World War II the Jews made up almost 60 percent of the population. They were famous in the area as superb furriers. That occupation was passed on from generation to generation. The Sokołów Podlaski Jews actively participated in the 1863 January Uprising, with a number of them arrested for helping the insurgents.

Approximately four thousand Jews lived in Sokołów Podlaski before the outbreak of the war. The school on Długa Street, where Polish soldiers were quartered, was bombed on 7 September 1939. The next bombing was in the centre, with the air raid claiming numerous casualties, including a number of Jews living on Mały Rynek, Rogowska, and Piękna Streets.

The Germans seized Sokołów Podlaski on 11 September, and on 27 September 1939 the Red Army marched into the town (the realization of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Regular liquidation of the members of Judaism took place in early October 1939, when the Red Army left Sokołów Podlaski and the German troops marched in taking their place. The anti-Jewish campaign was to lead to a total annihilation of the people of this nationality in our area. In the autumn of 1940, a separate Jewish quarter was marked out in Sokołów Podlaski for all the Jews to move in there. The authorities ordered whole families of Jewish origin to resettle there as soon as possible. Initially, the people managed that difficult situation, but things gradually got worse. The authorities ordered the Jews to wear an armband with the Star of David, which they were forbidden to take off. Neither could they leave the ghetto, which was punishable by death. The ghetto was small, while the number of the Jews amounted to a few thousand. Later, in 1941, the quarter was surrounded with additional barbed wire entanglements and a wall to make escape and help more difficult. After some time, the ghetto became plagued by hunger, poverty, and spreading diseases.

The most desperate and emaciated Jews sneaked at night to the ‘Aryan’ side to obtain a little food. In an attempt to stop the Jews from leaving the ghetto unauthorised, the Germans established a kind of Jewish police. In return for better living conditions those individuals denounced the escapees thus sentencing them to suffering. In spring, the ghetto was totally cut off and blocked with barriers. Doctor Herman was the only person authorized to issue temporary passes. Everybody who wished to leave the ghetto underwent control. The epidemic of typhus, starvation, and poverty took a heavy death toll. People of Jewish nationality constituted something like a labour force in our area, with the German authorities using them to clean the town, repair streets, etc. It was the Jews who engineered the River Cetynia and built the promenade, which exists until this day. Treated like objects, they received no remuneration for their hard physical labour. The Nazis deprived the Jews not only of their life, but also of their culture and important symbols — they burned the synagogues and made pavements out of Jewish tombstones.

In September 1942, a Ukrainian military unit — Vlasovtsy, infamous for a number of violent and brutal actions against the Jews and Poles — arrived in Sokołów Podlaski with the Nazis. They arrived in the ghetto and, together with the German gendarmes and the blue police, combed the Jewish quarter street after street. The Jews they found — women, children, men, and the elderly — were dragged out onto the street, arranged into small groups and ordered to march under heavy escort towards Sadowa Street near the railway station, where a train was waiting to take them to Treblinka. Those who protested were killed on the spot in cold blood. The elderly and children were killed in front of their family and friends. Approximately a thousand Jews died on that day. The Germans and Ukrainians were brutal and ruthless. The remaining Jews were squeezed into the stuffy wagons, where they gasped for air. The trains took them to the extermination centre. At the same time, the Ukrainian detachments searched the ghetto for people who might have hidden there. When they found somebody, for instance, in a cellar, they killed them without mercy. And when the Ukrainians were afraid to go in, for instance, into the cellar of the Sokołów Podlaski synagogue, they threw in grenades. Nobody went out alive from there. The Vlasovtsy also penetrated the houses and numerous hideouts in search of valuables. Despite promises, the Jewish police and the Jews who helped search the ghetto were also murdered later. The ghettoes in Sterdyń and Kosów Lacki were liquidated too.

Some of the Jews managed to survive thanks to the help from Sokołów Podlaski inhabitants. Nowadays, there are no Jews in the area; at least there are no facts to confirm that. Few people realize today that the Jewish nation had inhabited these areas, or perhaps they simply do not want to know that despite the fact that the Jews used to constitute 70 percent of the population and play a very important role here. There are few surviving remains of the Jewish culture and presence in our region. At Marian Pietrzak’s heritage park there is a unique collection of tombstones (stelae) from the Sokołów Podlaski Jewish cemetery, including the rabbi’s tombstone, as well as a curtain from the synagogue and candlesticks. The Jewish cemetery used to be located where today there is the PCK Square with the monument commemorating the death of numerous Jews. The synagogue was located on Magistracka Street. At the site of the former extermination centre in Treblinka there is a Jewish cemetery with tombstones commemorating the death of Janusz Korczak and other members of Judaism. Young Israelis and Poles meet there annually, with this place and the shared history uniting the two seemingly disparate nations. On that day the young commemorate the great crime and the innocent suffering of their brothers.