A delayed “Thank You” is better than none at all. That’s especially true when the “Thank You” is for an entire Jewish community’s unsung selfless act towards fellow Jews in need. And it’s true even when the “Thank You” cannot be offered to that community because it was completely destroyed in the Holocaust.
I had been waiting for many years to extend this “Thank You.” The opportunity came unexpectedly in an Israeli art museum. It was late June and I had just completed three weeks as a Sar-el volunteer, working on an IDF logistics base south of Tel Aviv. As is often the case, Sar-el rewards its teams of volunteers with a half day trip to an Israeli site of interest such as Masada or the Weizmann Institute. This time, our 15 person team was given a tour of the Reuven Rubin Museum on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv’s historic district. The museum is the former home of famous Israeli artist Reuven Rubin and houses many of the artist’s works.
Our guide Hadar met us at the museum’s entrance. After very professionally guiding us through all 4 floors of the museum, Hadar invited us to join in refreshments.
I was impressed with how thoroughly Hadar had analyzed Rubin’s paintings so that even a non-art connoisseur like myself could appreciate these works. Therefore, while standing around the refreshment table, I made a point of thanking her for the tour and complimented her on her professionalism.
As I often do when meeting people in Israel, I asked Hadar where she was from. “I was born in Jerusalem,” she said. “How about your parents?”, I questioned. “My mother and her family are from Israel. My father’s family is from a small town in Poland, but all of his family other than his father was killed during the Holocaust.”
“What town?”, I pursued. “It’s a small town no one ever heard of,” she replied. “Try me,” I challenged.
“The name of the town is Siedlce (pronounced ‘Shedlits’),” Hadar answered. “Siedlce?”, I replied, pronouncing it properly as if I had spoken of it many times. “You have heard of this town?”, Hadar asked, her eyebrows arching, sensing that I had.
“Absolutely, I have heard of Siedlce. My father owed a debt of gratitude to the Jewish community of Siedlce,” I replied.
Speaking very slowly and purposefully, Hadar said: “I have never met anyone who knows of my father’s family home town.” I could sense that she wanted to know more as she gestured that we sit down and that I explain my remark. I gladly obliged.
“When Germany invaded Poland from the west in September 1939 to start WWII, Russia invaded Poland from the east. Once Poland surrendered, the Germans occupied the western portion of Poland while Russia occupied the eastern portion. My father lived in Warsaw in the German sector and immediately witnessed the brutality the Germans visited upon Warsaw’s Jewish population.
“Together with his girlfriend and two of his two brothers, in October 1939 my father resolved to leave Warsaw and walk east to the Russian sector of Poland. The four of them hoped that Jews would receive better treatment under the Russians. They were not alone in this hope. A stream of Jews from Warsaw and other parts of western Poland joined in this exodus on foot towards the Russian zone (over 200 kilometers from Warsaw).
“My father’s foursome quickly ran out of food, and was forced to beg for food from local Polish farmers along the way. They slept in farmers’ haystacks or simply slept on the ground, propped up against a tree trunk. They were exhausted and slowly starving.
“Their luck improved when they came to Siedlce, which was halfway to the Russian zone. Over one-third of Siedlce’s 30,000 residents were Jewish. Even though the Jews of Siedlce did not have much in the way of food or other resources, they resolved to organize a community effort to assist the eastward stream of Jewish refugees. The community welcomed the refugees and arranged for them to be housed and fed in local Jews’ homes. And when they departed from Siedlce, the refugees were given food, clothing and sometimes even money to help them on their trek eastward.
“My father was so impressed with the collective generosity of Siedlce’s Jews that he made a point of including this story in his wartime memoir Fighting Back: A Memoir Of Jewish Resistance In World War II (Columbia University Press). He knew that, shortly after he passed through Siedlce, its entire Jewish community was destroyed by the Germans. And so the reason he insisted on describing Siedlce’s collective generosity in his book was to acknowledge the charitable conduct of those doomed Jews.
“It’s been 25 years since my father told me this story about Siedlce. Since then, I have many times wondered whether, if faced with a similar flow of needy Jewish refugees, the small Jewish community in my city (Raleigh, North Carolina) would be willing and able to organize assistance in the manner the Jews of Siedlce had.
“More importantly, since then I have hoped to meet someone from Siedlce or one of their descendants. On behalf of my father I wanted to express my thanks for the generosity of Siedlce’s Jewish community, even though it no longer exists.”
At that point, I stopped my narrative and simply said to Hadar: “On behalf of my father, I am very glad to meet you and to extend to you my deepest thanks for what your father’s family and other Siedlce Jews did for him.”
Hadar’s eyes glistened with tears. “I have never heard about this and it gives me goose bumps listening to your story,” she quietly said. “Thank you for taking the time to tell it to me. I can’t wait to call my father to tell him about the charity of the Jews of Siedlce. Thank you so much!”
It had been 75 years since my father arrived in Siedlce and experienced the generosity of the town’s Jews. As I hugged Hadar goodbye, I felt a sense of exhilaration for communicating the thanks I know my deceased father would have wanted to express. A delayed “Thank You” is better than none at all. And an acknowledgment of a community’s good deeds during the Holocaust makes them all the more remarkable.