08 November 2016

I woke up this morning in Siemiatycze, which for the past ten years had been a constant in the repertoire of my imagination. My great-grandfather (Maurice Davis) was the only one of his siblings not born in Siemiatycze. He was rather born in Birmingham in 1907- one year after his mother (Rachel nee Sokol) was reunited there with her husband (Elias Davis) after three years apart.

The handy guide that I found online completely eviscerated the need for a tour guide. It is a shame that these guides, which have been developed for shtetlach across Poland, have not been developed for Lithuania.

Like Bialystok, Siemiatycze was the property of magnates until the Partitions. She underwent her greatest development under the proprietorship of the Sapieha family (of Lithuanian and Ruthenian origin), in particular under Anna Sapieha Jablonowski in the latter half of the 18th century.

She built a luxurious palace, but unfortunately it was burned to the ground in the January Uprising of 1863 during the Battle of Siemiatycze. All that remains are the two stone sphinxes that guarded either side of the road leading to the entrance. Just behind it we were thankful to find an information center, where we were able to obtain a map that made the rest of our day significantly easier.

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The road to her palace was called Palacowa, it still stretches from the sphinxes all the way to the city square. On Palacowa we found some fine examples of classicist homes, which dominated the city before the war.

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Still on Palacowa, just before the square, we found the still standing synagogue and beit-midrash (house of learning).

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Records show that there were Jews in Siemiatycze as early as the late 16th century, when they were invited from Lithuania by the magnate of the time. They were then subject to the Kahal (Jewish administration) of Tykocin, but were able to free themselves in 1730.

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When deciding to built the alley to her palace (later Palacowa), Jablonowski gave no consideration to the Jewish cemetery through which it ran. The Jewish community revolted in sadness and anger at the disruption of the eternal rest of their forefathers. To appease their frustration (a necessity as they then made up 70% of the city), Jablonowski commissioned the construction of a synagogue along her ornate alley.

The beit-midrash was perhaps even more impressive than the synagogue. It now houses a technical school, which has surely contributed to her preservation.

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The grounds in front were also kept very nicely.

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The synagogues’ rather inconspicuous appearance is the only reason for her endurance of the Nazi atrocities, which destroyed a good bit of the town. The building now belongs to the city and functions as her cultural center.

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We entered to find a crowd gathered in her main hall for what appeared to be a meeting of sorts. Behind the speaker hung a massive screen, where once stood the bimah.

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Plaques commemorating her storied past hung both inside and outside.

On the top floor we were welcomed by a friendly women with no English language skills. Using Google Translate (as I had in Nadvirna) she kindly walked us around the exhibit of Siemiatycze artifacts. The first room we entered housed a collection of paintings by Jozef Charyton (1909-1975) that depicted Jewish life in Siemiatycze.

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They were put to good use in my imagination of pre-war Siemiatycze.

Another portion housed materials from the World Wars, and another of a traditional loom.

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Our friend described the balcony (where we stood) as the place where the women prayed, per traditional Jewish custom.

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She described the area around the synagogue as historically an area where Jews resided.

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With that we made the short walk to town square, another place of historically Jewish residence.

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There was a nice town sign, which I always love to see.

In the center stood a monument to the town heroine, Anna Jablonowski.

At the far corner of the park we found the beautiful early-18th century baroque Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such a structure definitely did not exist in my baseless expectations of Siemiatycze.

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Next door stands the former monastary.

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We grabbed some lunch materials from our hotel complex before heading across the Bug River to the Jewish cemetery.

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A red-brick gate with memorial plaques guards the entrance.

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A lapidarium of the twenty or so surviving stones stands just inside.

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The remainder is inhabited by a rather serene forest.

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The cemetery was founded in the 18th century to replace that destroyed by Jablonowsky.

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My guide suggests that ‘the number of the tees growing in the [cemetery] now, corresponds to the number of matzevot in the past’.

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With that, we started the hour long drive to Miedzyrzec Podlaski, south of Siemiatycze on the way to Lublin. Miedzyrzec also lies along the road from Warsaw to Brest, Belarus. A native of Miedzyrzec, Kayla Holtzman married Moshe Shlomo Szkolnik of Siemiatycze there in 1862. Some children and most grandchildren ended up in Birmingham where they used the surname Sokol.

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Thankfully I found another listing of relevant sights.

We started at the former Jewish gymnasium, which still functions as a gymnasium.

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Similarly, the former Jewish hospital (which took a frustrating amount of time to locate) still functions as a hospital. It was established in 1929 with the support of American Jews. On the 25th of August 1942, the Nazis shot all sick Jews in their beds.

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Town square was delightful.

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On one side ran Lubelska Street, which was once constantly packed with Jews, but entirely empty on Shabbes.

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North of the square we found the Jewish cemetery. Built in 1810, it replaced the former Jewish cemetery that presumably accommodated Jews since their arrival to the city in 1512.

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The walls were lined with headstones, and filled with remnants.

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A memorial to the 150 Jewish women and children murdered by local Poles stood just inside the gate.

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The northwest corner was the best preserved, but unfortunately flooded with garbage.

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I spotted a couple stones across the open field. Dad and I walked there to find a large flat stone that commemorated two folks who died during the war.

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I assumed it was erected after the cemetery was already destroyed in memory of loved ones murdered- confirmed when we found multiple large stones just like it scattered throughout the field.

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One in particular was very difficult to clear off, unlike the others it was made of metal. Dad and I spent some time trying to clear it off and reorganize the broken pieces.

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To reach town square we walked down Grabarska Street, once a thoroughfare of the ghetto, which housed 20,000 Jews before liquidation in 1942 and 1943. All were killed in mass shootings or sent to concentration camps, all remnants are destroyed.

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We arrived in town square just before sun down. Passed by the old fire station, endowed by American Jews.

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When we started our drive to Warsaw at 3:30 it was already getting dark. Encountered a good bit of traffic on the way into town and had an ordeal at Avis.

Didn’t get to the hotel until 8:30. The Regent is luxurious. Took an amazing shower and had a delicious dinner. It won’t be easy going back to the dormitory.

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