I went to Poland to research my family’s history. I found a new generation to tell it to.
The house at No. 3 ul Azsa in the Polish city of Siedlce is mustard-and-peach stucco with a flower-lined balcony and the date 1811 marked under the roof. A nail salon fills the first floor; when my cousins lived there, before the Nazis occupied this city about a two-hour drive from Warsaw, it was their grocery store. Azsa is Polish for Ash — the street was named for Sholem Ash, the 19th century Yiddish writer, back when half of Siedlce was Jewish. There are no Jews in the city today.
On the day we visited — 17 far-flung relatives on a heritage tour and a dozen local teenagers who had studied Siedlce’s all-but-erased Jewish history — a woman opened a second-floor window of my cousin’s house and waved.
My grandfather’s first cousin Cypora Jablon lived in this house with her brother and parents. Cypora attended Siedlce’s Queen Jadwiga school, the very school our teenage guides go to now. Cypora’s daughter, Rachel, was born into the war and spent years four hidden by two of Cypora’s Catholic friends from Queen Jadwiga.
Rachel’s 55-year-old son, Gal, who had left his pregnant wife in California to join our trip, waved back to the woman on the second floor.
I had organized the four-day tour with Zuzanna Rudzinska-Bluszcz, a human-rights lawyer from Warsaw, whose grandmother, Zofia, was one of the two women who saved Rachel. Zuzanna and I met more than a decade ago, when I first came to Poland to research my family’s story, which turned out to be her family’s story as well.
I am an adjunct professor at New York University writing a book about the intergenerational transmission of trauma. After cousin Rachel died of cancer in 2003, my mother gave me a copy of the diary Cypora wrote in 1942 from within the Siedlce ghetto, and my investigation of the story began. Zuzanna and I became friends and, during a summer vacation with our families, began to plan the trip to Siedlce.
Relatives around the world signed on to join the trip via a Facebook group: A third cousin from the Bay Area who pulled her daughter out of college and insisted her race-car driving son come along as well; a retired couple from Rome; my 83-year-old mother in Boston; Aharon, the son of Cypora’s brother, Shimon, who lives in Bogota; and Sala, an 88-year old chemist who was born in Siedlce, survived the war in Siberia, and lives now in Israel.
We worked with the Forum for Dialogue, a Polish organization that has run programs about local Jewish history in some 200 towns. The forum recruited students from Queen Jadwiga to explore their town’s Jewish past, a topic not covered in the national curriculum.
The students had read Cypora’s diary, and now they were meeting her grandson, nephew, and cousins. “It’s nice when a story is so personal, when we can focus on a specific person, and learn about things through their story” said Ula, a high-school senior. “It’s easier to identify with them than with a whole group of people.”
A survivor returns to Siedlce
It was particularly poignant to watch Sala, who grew up in Siedlice, interact with these young people, who have been nominated for an award the Forum will present March 10. She found her old home on a town map, and when one of the students pointed to the park she goes to with her friends after school, Sala, who now needs a walker to get around, remembered playing there as a child.
Sala, her sister and their parents were among about 100 of Siedlce’s Jews who survived the war. But when they returned from Siberia, their home had been claimed by non-Jews, so the family moved to Wroclaw, more than 200 miles away. They left for Israel five years later after Sala’s mother was killed by a burglar. Many of the others emigrated in 1968, when Poland’s anti-Zionist campaign deprived Jews of work and citizenship.
While Krakow and Warsaw have experienced revitalized Jewish communities over the past two decades, no Jewish culture remains in Siedlce; the last Jewish resident, Maria Halber, died in 2017. My mother and I had tea with Maria in 2007 in her apartment, where she and her husband — who survived the war in an attic room behind double walls with five other men — chose to remain as representatives for those who perished.
Today’s students at Queen Jadwiga, then, have no Jewish neighbors. The ones who served as our guides are like seedlings popping through tough soil. In a country whose government censors those who diverge from the war narrative of complete national victimization, these students are confronting the past in all of its complexity.
“We are going to receive crocuses from the Galicja Jewish Museum in Krakow soon,” one girl named Olga emailed me after the trip. “The crocuses symbolise Jewish children who died during the Holocaust. We would really love to commemorate Rachel in particular, so we are preparing a plaque to put it next to the crocuses once we plant them.”
Rachel, we knew from Cypora’s diary, had survived because her mother had Catholic friends with whom she had played sports, attended university and pursued social justice.
Walking an invisible history
“Seeing” the Jewish history of Siedlce is not easy, because most of the sites where our ancestors slept and ate and prayed and worked were either burned and razed under German occupation, or transformed in the Soviet era without any attempt to memorialize the sites. At the umschlagplatz, where more than 10,000 people boarded trains to their deaths in Treblinka, there is a dance club.
Jews lived in Siedlce from the 16th century, and made up more than 70% of its population in the 19th. After an east-west thoroughfare brought travelers and trade to the town, Jews worked as innkeepers, craftspeople, and merchants. My grandfather was born in the town in 1894 and lived through a deadly pogrom in 1906 before leaving for the United States in 1912, at age 17.
That year, Siedlce had two synagogues and at least 20 Hasidic prayer rooms, Zionist and other social clubs. Even as Jews left for Palestine and America, by the time World War II began, almost 40% of the town’s 30,000 people were Jewish. Almost all were killed.
The Queen Jadwiga students were excellent guides through this invisible landscape. Through the Forum for Dialogue, they had four full-day workshops, explored archives, created short documentary videos and interviewed their own family members about the past. On market days, they quizzed shoppers on Judaism and offered them lessons in history and religion. They made a digital map that lets viewers click on places from Siedlce’s Jewish quarter and read about their history.
We began our walk at the school and headed to the 18th century Oginski palace, a visual standout in an otherwise architecturally unremarkable city. The places we were looking for were harder to spot. A block-long two-story building, recently repaved in smooth gray concrete, had been a private house where 40 Jews met for daily prayers.
Traces of mezuzahs can be seen on the former Jewish residences. The Judaica company Mi Polin has used those traces, from Siedlce and 67 other cities, to create new mezuzahs for sale on its Website
The students led us down an alley where, tucked between a brutalist apartment building and modest rowhouses, there is a plaque. Two of the Queen Jadwiga girls read aloud about mass deportations to the Treblinka death camp, and one of the boys lit a hurricane lantern and placed it by the plaque.
Then we walked to a government office on the site of a former synagogue, where a pole displays photos of the synagogue and a map of the route to Treblinka. My mother leaned against the pole as one of the students described how the Germans burned the synagogue down on Christmas Eve, 1939.
‘May my words be a living witness’
Beginning in 1940, Cypora and her husband, Jakob, and their families were confined to a ghetto that consisted of the very streets we walked. Conditions were miserable, food was scarce, and there was a deadly outbreak of typhus in early 1941.That October 1, the day Cypora gave birth to Rachel, 12,000 Jews were corralled into a smaller area surrounded by barbed wire. Crossing in or out was punishable by death.
It was only because Jakob was in the Jewish police that Cypora and Rachel were able to survive a five-day purge in August, 1942, when 10,000 were shipped to Treblinka. Cypora then snuck Rachel to her Catholic friends, who lived near the ghetto wall; she looked too Semitic to try and pass as Catholic herself, so returned to the ghetto.
On Nov. 27, 1942, according to Cypora’s diary, all 500 remaining Jews — including those in the police — were rounded up. Cypora gave the dairy to a friend who planned to escape, then took deadly poison. She was 25 years old.
Thirty nine of Cypora’s handwritten pages survived the war. The original diary is at the United States Holocuast Memorial Museum, and an English translation can be found online.
“When people who have not been through this, hear about these things will they ever be able to believe them? Will they believe that all I am writing is the absolute truth?” she worried in the diary. “May my words be a living witness to those who went through these terrible things, these terrible tragedies!”
These words had inspired me to write Cypora’s story. Our student guides had written poems and made drawings responding to them.
A cemetery with no map of the graves
Our last stop was the Jewish cemetery on Szkolna Street, an apt metaphor for Siedlce’s Jewish history. So many of the stories of Siedlce’s victims remain untold; in our own extended family tree, there are blank spaces we may never be able to fill.
The cemetery, established in 1807, is now an empty field with jagged tombstones poking out through wild grasses. These are the tombstones that remain; the Nazis used others to make paved roads.
In 2009, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Jewish Community of Warsaw installed a commemorative plaque at the gate and student groups, both Jewish and Polish, occasionally come to pay their respects and clean up. One from a Beersheva high school left behind a giant blue and white flag with a Star of David and their school information.
Zuzanna had invited Grzegorz Suchodolski, a Catholic priest from Siedlce, and Rabbi Stas Wojciechowich, from a Reform synagogue in Warsaw, to lead us in ecumenical prayers at the cemetery..The Queen Jadwiga boys put on crocheted blue and white yarmulkes before entering, out of respect.
At the nearby Catholic cemetery, tombstones crowd together as if among friends, and are lovingly covered with flowers and candles that visitors can purchase from a vending truck parked outside.
There is no such truck outside the Jewish cemetery; Jews don’t put flowers and candles on graves anyhow, only stones. Some of our group started wandering through the field in search of stones.
I began picking up candy wrappers and cigarette butts, and found myself by a wall where an empty bottle lay on the ground. Was this the wall where, as I had read in Edward Kopowka’s history of Siedlce’s Jews, there were mass executions in August, 1942?
“Jewish women brought to the Jewish cemetery were shot against the cemetery wall,” an eyewitness had testified in the book. The women, “in contrast to the men,” had “shouted, cried, and even tried to resist.”
I imagined the group of Jews who were “made to stand in three lines, in such a manner that the first row stood by the wall, the second kneeled, and the third half lay, half sat,” as the witness described. “It gave the impression that the group had been placed for a photograph.”
May their souls be granted proper rest
It started to rain, and our group huddled closer together. The rabbi chanted the haunting “El Maleh Rahamim” prayer said at Jewish burials, pleading that the souls of the departed be granted proper rest. The priest recited hymns in Polish.
Photographs show the muted palette of our dark jackets, the grey skies, sand- and moss-colored ground, and slate stones, interrupted by the bright patches of red, turquoise and royal blue of the umbrellas. As opposed to the litter that depressed me with its disrespect, these bits of color asserted the presence of people creating shelter and asking for mercy.
One of the hands holding those umbrellas belonged to Sala, the only remaining member of our family who was born in Siedlce. The rest were all hands honoring people they never met. One student in our group later said in a video made by the dialog group: “There’s some kind of bond, I can’t quite explain … it’s a bond between all of us.”
A month after our trip, in Poland’s national elections, Siedlce voted 62% for the populist right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). Closely allied to the Polish Catholic Church and vehemently anti-LGBTQ, the party preserves the myth of complete Polish innocence in the war. Weeks later, tens of thousands of PiS supporters marched in Warsaw for Independence Day and denounced the Jewish community for demanding reparations.
When I read about the rise of far-right nationalism, and when I see reports of anti-Semitism in Poland, I think about the students we met from Siedlce. I feel the hugs that we exchanged when we left the cemetery. Not a face was dry and that had nothing to do with the rain.
Judith Greenberg is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her forthcoming book about her family history in Siedlce, Poland is called “Cipa’s Echo: Mothers, Daughters, and a Holocaust Legacy.”