Jews arrived in Mazovia as early as the Middle Ages. The northern trade route ran through the region. Jewish merchants were attracted by commercial centres and customs houses in the towns and settlements situated along the Vistula River, one of them being Ciechanów. However, there is no information mentioning the century in which Jews settled in Ciechanów. The first reference of a Jewish population in the town is found in the list of Jewish communities issued in 1507, in connection with the coronation of Zygmunt I Stary. The first data on the number of Jews in Ciechanów goes back to 1567. Registers of a tax, in the amount of 1 zloty, levied upon on the Jewish population living in the Mazovian Province in 1549, confirm that in 1567 there were 11 taxpayers of Jewish faith living in Ciechanów.
During the reign of the Jagiellonians, when the royal authority was still relatively strong, Jews were quite successful in refuting the attacks of representatives of the Catholic Church, who tried to eliminate any contacts between Christians and Catholics, also in the field of economy. The situation of Jews worsened as a result of an economic crisis which occurred at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, inciting competition between Christian and Jewish merchants. New anti-Jewish privileges were then issued and Jews were banned from towns. The Swedish Deluge proved to be a particularly tragic period for Jews in Ciechanów, as well as in many other towns. The Jewish population was accused of cooperating with the invaders which resulted in pogroms committed by the troops of Stefan Czarniecki. In Ciechanów about 50 Jewish families fell victims of riots.
The first half of the 18th century proved to be a period of economic and financial stabilization for Jews in Ciechanów, thanks to a privilege issued by Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki in 1670. In the mid-18th century the Ciechanów Kahal was one of the biggest in northern Mazovia, and included the Jewish communities of Maków, Mława and Płońsk. However, in 1753, the Jews of Maków revolted and broke contacts with the community in Ciechanów. They also chose a new rabbi. The Ciechanów Kahal brought a complaint to the Committee of Rabbis appointed by Va'ad[1.1] in Jarosław. It soon became clear that the Parliament had no right to decide on matters of this kind. In 1758 the Ciechanów Kahal lost its authority over the Maków Kahal, and soon also over the communities in Mława and Płońsk.
The third partition of Poland changed the situation of the Ciechanów Jews, as the town was incorporated into Prussia. The legal and economic situation of Jews in northern Mazovia was determined by a patent of King Frederick William II issued in 1797. The Jewish self-government, which functioned in the days of the Republic, was dissolved, the rabbinical court was abolished, and the powers of the Jewish communities were limited to religious affairs. At the same time, all manifestations of Jewish identity were eradicated, for example, the use of Hebrew was prohibited in merchant books. There were also economic repressions. However, over time, the Prussian authorities began to appreciate the significance of the Jewish population in the country’s economic growth. In 1802, the Prussian government abolished the feudal privileges of towns and guilds. Jews gained the right to settle in towns, purchase real estate and perform any craft. This resulted in the migration of Jews from the countryside to the towns. In 1790, 240 Jews lived in Ciechanów, and in 1808 – 1,194.
Ciechanów Jews traditionally worked as traders and craftsmen. They were also tenants of pubs and liquor houses, like Chaskiel Erszkowicz, who towards the end of the 18th century rented an inn from the Augustinian monastery in Ciechanów. Beer was brewed by, among others, Berek Lewkowicz and a widow, Heywa Smułka. The creation of the Duchy of Warsaw brought further developments in the situation of the Ciechanów Jews. Although the Constitution of 1807 declared all people equal before law, this was not implemented in relation to the Jewish population, which in 1808 was deprived of the voting right for 10 years. Soon, further restrictions modelled on the legislation of the Republic of Poland and the Prussian era were introduced.
In 1808 the following towns of northern Mazovia had the highest percentage of Jewish population: Drobin, Wyszogród, Ciechanów, Płońsk and Maków. Ciechanów was the third largest Jewish centre in the region. In total, the town had 1,395 residents, out of which 1,194 people were of Jewish faith – constituting 85.6% of the entire population of Ciechanów .
In 1811, the prefect of the Płock Department, according to the guidelines of the Duchy of Warsaw restricting the freedom of movement of Jews in cities, took measures to establish a Jewish district in Ciechanów within the area of the following streets: Żydowska, Tylna and Pułtuska. However, preparations for Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and finally the defeat of the French army, shattered the plans for a Jewish quarter in Ciechanów. The idea was restored after the establishment of the Kingdom of Poland. The decree of 1816 reads as follows: ‘(…) singling out a separate district for Jews to live, upon a recommendation of the Government Commission for Internal and Police Affairs, aims to redress damage caused by Jews who live in the vicinity of main roads, therefore we have taken the following decision: (…) Jews will be allowed to live and purchase yards and houses in accordance with police regulations in the town of Ciechanów but only in a designated part of the town, that is along Żydowska Street, which starts at the market and ends by a road on Tylna Street, which brings you to Zielony Rynek market square; along Pułtuska Street, which starts at the market and crosses Tylna and Traktat Pułtuski Streets; along Podpidkowa Street, which starts at the market square toward Przasnyska Street and ends on Traktat Pułtuski and Pułtuska Streets; as well as on Tylna Streets, which goes towards Traktat Pułtuski Streets and ends by field roads, one of which takes you to Zielony Rynek market square and the second to Traktat Warszawski Streets, where it ends.” Thus, from 17 January 1817, Jews de iure were not allowed to live in any other part of the town. However, they were continually resisting the decisions of the authorities.
A lot of information about Ciechanów Jews is derived from the list of Jewish families residing at particular streets, attached to the official letter of the Płock Province Commission to the Government Commission for Internal and Police Affairs, dated 26 November 1823. According to the list, 415 Jewish families lived in Ciechanów and 99 houses in the town belonged to Jews. Most of them lived on Żydowska Street (192 families, 54 houses), at the Market Square (95 families, one house), the Green Market (37 families, 10 houses), Warszawska Street (36 families, 7 houses), Zakroczymska Street (32 families, 5 houses), Tylna Street (28 families, 9 houses) and Pułtuska Street (25 families, 5 houses). In order to obtain permission to live outside the Jewish quarter it was necessary to build a new brick house. However, in Ciechanów, despite the decision of the prince governor of 25 July 1825, a letter, dated 8 November 1826, of the Government Commission for Internal Affairs allowed Jews to build wooden houses, on the grounds of a lack of construction materials which would allow for the construction of brick houses within the vicinity of the town. Only wealthy Jews were allowed to live outside the Jewish quarter - bankers, who spoke Polish and send their children to Polish schools and whose garment did not stand out among Polish people, as well as Jews dedicated to science and liberated art, owners of real property important for the country who met the criterion of "Polishness" . Thus, the prohibition did not apply to the bourgeoisie and Jewish intelligentsia.
In the era of the Kingdom of Poland, the authorities continued their policy of removing the Jewish population from the countryside, which increased the number of Jews in towns. In 827, 1,644 out of the 2,640 residents were Jews; this accounted for 62.3% of the total population. In 1857, 2,241 out of the 3,338 residents of Ciechanów were Orthodox Jews (67.1% of the population of Ciechanów). Most Jews were traders, trade was the main source of income for 43 families in Ciechanów. The five richest merchants in the city were: Majer Bieżuń, Hersh Płonskier, Josef Kahne, Izrael Kahne, Mordka Groba. Hersh Blum and Abram May traded in leather. 36 Ciechanów Jews were stall-keepers. Crafts was the second most important source of income. Shortly before the outbreak of the November Uprising, 34 craft families lived in Ciechanów, constituting 34% of all craft families in the town. 19 Jews were shoemakers, 16 - tailors , 12 - bakers, 6 - furriers,5 – butchers. In addition there were three glassmakers in the town: Dawid Glasstein, Mordka Glasstein, Icek Janower; two hatters: Nuta Rembau, Abram Szreńsk; two rope-makers: Lejba Kręć, Lejba Bryn; two junk dealers: Josek Strusiner, Zelman Mądrzak, a bookbinder Mosiek Prassa, a cyclist Całko Rubinstein and a watchmaker Haskiel Zegarmistrz. Jews could not practice the profession of a cooper, blacksmith, miller, harness maker and stove-fitter.
In the years 1815-1849, Ciechanów organized three fairs a year. In 1819 the town obtained permission from the Administrative Council of the Kingdom of Poland to organize annual wool fairs. The entrepreneurship of the Jewish population also manifested itself in the fact that they took up construction and renovation works throughout the city. In 1845, Lejzor Grunberg won the tender for the construction of a new butchery (the old one burned down in 1842), the construction and repair of bridges - Mosiek Bronsohn, Szaja Amber repaired wells, and in 1850, Shmuel Silber won a tender for the lease of the proceeds from the bridge toll in Ciechanów.
In the era of the Kingdom of Poland, Lejbuś Harif Zunz served as rabbi in Ciechanów. In the years between the Uprisings, Abraham Landau performed the function of rabbi. He was known as Rov Abraham of Ciechanów – and considered one of the greatest Polish rabbis, "known for his sharp wit, steadfastness and vast knowledge”[1.2]. In 1850, the President of the synagogue supervision board in Ciechanów, Izrael Kahne, with the support of community members, asked the authorities to hire a lower rabbi, Enoch Perlemuter, who came from Ciechanów and had assisted the rabbi for 8 years. Ciechanów Jews probably gained the permission of the authorities, as the payroll lists in the budgets for the following years included the remuneration for two rabbis.
On 19 August 1842, a large fire broke out in Ciechanów destroying, among other things, 82 Jewish houses, a synagogue, a cheder and a Jewish bathhouse. All wool, goods and cereal warehouses were destroyed and 300 families were left destitute. A committee which was to distribute financial aid to the fire victims provided for by the government and private donors, included three wealthy Jews: Lewin Kahne, Abraham Land, Josek Tuchhendler and three poor Jews: Josek Sol, Ajzyk Syber and Abraham Tandytarz. Financial aid was then granted to 316 Jews and 19 Catholics. The Jews suggested that a quarter of the total sum was to be allocated for the renovation of the synagogue school and a special fund for rabbi salaries for a minimum of two years. One of the most urgent investments for the Jewish community was the construction of the synagogue, the cheder and the bathhouse. As the fire victims were exempt from paying the contributions for the construction of the synagogue, the school and the bathhouse, the synagogue supervision board managed to collect only a small fraction of the necessary amount – covering the cost of a new synagogue. The wooden synagogue erected in 1855 had the following dimensions: length – 40 ells, width – 23 ells, height - 10.5 ells. It was covered with pantiles and had 14 large windows and some smaller window panes. It was painted in 1857, and the final receipt of the work took place in 1860. Starting from 1822, the synagogue supervision board made continuous efforts to expand the old Jewish cemetery dating back to the late eighteenth century. They tried to buy the plot adjacent to the cemetery, which belong to Walenty Wąsowski. The price of land, however, exceeded the financial capacity of the community. Further attempts to enlarge the cemetery were made in the 1850s, when the number of Jews in Ciechanów clearly increased. However, once again efforts to buy land for the new cemetery, both outside the town, in a farm Starczewizna, and within the town itself failed, due to excessive prices.
After 1864, Ciechanów became part of the Płock Province (Government). The years 1865-1918 witnessed a further influx of Jewish migrants who were allowed to settle in towns and villages without any restrictions. In 1856, out of a total of 3,338 residents 2,241were Jews, constituting 67.1% of the population; in 1893, out of 8,847 residents of the town 5,113 were Jews (63.5%); in 1910 out of 8,929 residents of Ciechanów 5,341 were of Jewish origin (59.8%). The decrease in the percentage of Jews in the entire population was mainly caused by the migration of Poles from the countryside to towns. In the mid-1890s Ciechanów had the smallest percentage of Jews in the entire northern Mazovia.
Analysis of the professional structure of the Jewish population shows that Jews who concentrated on trade, crafts and small industry played a key role in the economic life of Ciechanów. In the 1880s in Ciechanów 12 merchants belonged to various guilds, 8 were their assistants. 233 Jews were stall-keepers, 17 were distillers, 2 innkeepers , 3 vodka manufacturers, 3 shop clerks, 1 bricklayer, 4 hoteliers , 4 dealers of timber, 8 leather dealers , 25 poultry and eggs dealers , 55 dealers of other goods. 3 Jews run soda water plants and10 followers of the Jewish faith owned machines for cutting straw. At that time Jews were engaged in many types of crafts, working as: masters and journeymen (of different professions) - 306, shoemakers - 360, hatters - 16, woodcarvers - 9, locksmiths - 10, tallit makers - 3, tinsmiths - 11, goldsmiths - 2 , watchmakers - 4, rope-makers - 9, bricklayers - 4, lamplighters - 2, bookbinders - 2, painters - 2, coopers - 19, furriers - 9, butchers along with helpers - 38, confectioners - 4, porters - 28, stonemasons – 2. Jews also performed other professions: musicians - 4, doctors and paramedics - 4, teachers - 3, printer - 1, writers of application forms - 3, melameds - 21, ritual butchers - 3, rabbis - 2, beadles– 5.
The Jewish community was extremely diverse in terms of financial standing. Half of the Masovia Jews lived below the poverty line. People who did not have any occupation were exempt from paying community contributions. The poorest earned their living as house servants and beggars, whereas Jewish women were also prostitutes. Jews founded charity organizations aimed at helping the poor and the sick. In 1886 the Association for the Care of the Sick was established in Ciechanów which was to aid the elderly and the orphans who lived in a shelter house located in the Ciechanów bet midrash. Most of the homeless usually slept on the floor. The Association united 140 Jews committed to help the poor, for example by keeping night watch with patients, supply them with medication. The most generous donor of the Ciechanów Association was J. Lach, who donated the amount of 50 rubles.
In the second half of the 19th century, Ciechanów became an important centre of Hasidism. In the period between1819-1875 the Ciechanów court became the seat of the rabbi and Hasidic leader Abraham Landau, known as Ciechanower. After his death, the post of rabbi, in the years 1875-1890,was held by his son Jakub Landau from Jeżewo. The next rabbis in Ciechanów were: Seidenfeld, Mordechaj Motel, Abram Icchak Jehuda Trunk, who in 1912, after the death of his father, took the post of rabbi in Kutno. The last rabbi in Ciechanów, before the outbreak of World War I, was the great-grandson of Abraham Landau - Samuel Isaac Landau. He was an uncompromising rabbi in religious matters. A conflict arose between a small group of Ciechanów Maskils and Landau concerning plans to establish a reformed cheder. As a result of a strong objection of the Rabbi the school was not built. Landau himself founded a yeshiva in Ciechanów, where poor young people from the surrounding area were taught in the spirit of Hasidism. At that time, several cheders operated in the town. One of them, the Flama cheder, had a relatively high level of education. The school had two rooms. Classes were held from 8 am to 12 noon. It offered instruction in mathematics, history of Russia and other subjects. The school had a total of 70-80 students. Attempts to modernize teaching in cheders, initiated by the supporters of the Haskalah, finally resulted in the opening of a "modern cheder" in Ciechanów. It was founded on the initiative of rich Ciechanów Jews, including, among others, Szloma Rubinsztajn, David Wajs, Fiszel Lachower, and its founder was Dywan of Sochocin.
Polish-Jewish relations deteriorated after the fall of the January Uprising. This was the effect of an increasing cooperation of Jewish entrepreneurs with the Russians. Jews who came from the East were accused of fraud and contraband, as opposed to the "good Jews", namely locals, who lived in Ciechanów all their lives, knew Polish and whose attitude did not stand out. Representatives of the intelligentsia of both nationalities worked together in the professional field.
The first group of Zionists was founded in Ciechanów in the early twentieth century. Its founder was Samuel Jakub Kohen, and it included: Gershon Mławski, Tanchum Makower, Wowa Bursztajn, Chaja Milner, Rywka Robot and Debora Brajna and Mojżesz Kwiat. Starting from 1909, the Zionist Organization, led by Samuel Jakub Kohen, raised funds for the development of the Jewish settlements in Palestine. In the years 1909-1912 , a Zionist group called "Makabejczycy” (The Maccabeans) also operated in Ciechanów. It united young people from rich families and several workers. Its main aim was to teach Hebrew and conduct physical exercises classes. The organization also had a large collection of books in Hebrew. In 1912 the organization split. A group of workers, including Grinberg, left "Makabejczycy", and with the support of comrades from Mława formed a drama circle. Upon the initiative of the Kahane family, the city's first Jewish theatre was established.
On the eve of World War I, the Zionists grew more influential in the town, which was recognized by the headquarters of the Zionist movement in Warsaw. Ciechanów Zionists were represented at the Zionist Congress by the delegate Adela Windicka, and the board of the Jewish community in Ciechanów included two Zionists: Moshe Perach and Jakub Miszar.
During World War I, Ciechanów Jews suffered at the hands of Circassians and Cossacks, who entered the town in the autumn of 1914. The Circassians caught 21 Jews on the street, led them to the barracks, shaved their hair and whipped them. From that time Jews were afraid to show themselves on the streets. They only went out in the morning to go to the synagogue. One of the victims of the Don Cossacks was Rabbi Samuel Isaac Landau, who was kidnapped at night and tormented in a hotel room. This frightened the rabbi so much, that he left Ciechanów for some time. In the spring of 1915, when the Germans launched their offensive, Jews in many towns were ordered to leave their homes. Ciechanów Jews became famous for providing assistance to their brothers in Przasnysz who, in April 1915, had to leave the town during one day. Jewish coachmen from Ciechanów came to Przasnysz to save their belongings. Most of the displaced found refuge in Ciechanów. Upon the initiative of the Kahane family, an orphanage and kindergarten were opened, with the support of the Central Committee of the Zionist Organization in Poland. There was also a well-organized field kitchen for the poor, financed by wealthy Ciechanów Jews.
After regaining independence by the Polish state, the Jewish population in Ciechanów decreased. According to the census of 1921, a total of 11,977 people lived in Ciechanów, including 4,403 Jews (36.8% of the population). Compared with the year 1910, the percentage of Jews fell by 20%. This was a result of a number of factors, including the concentration of people in towns (where the birth rate was lower than in rural areas), decreasing religiosity (which favoured large families), economic migration (affecting people of childbearing age) and high mortality among the poorest parts of the Jewish community (tuberculosis). According to the census of 1931, Poles constituted 66.7% (9288), whereas Jews 32.9% (4572) of the residents of Ciechanów. The census showed a discrepancy between the number of people speaking in Hebrew (299) and Yiddish (4,222), and the number of people declaring Jewish faith (4,572). This could indicate the existence of a small group of assimilated Jews, however, such a conclusion should be treated with caution because of the unreliability of the census, which overstated the number of Poles and underestimated the number of ethnic minorities.
Ciechanów Jews worked mostly in trade and crafts. There was a Jewish Merchants Association in the town, which had a hundred members. Wino was the chairman. The following people, among others, were engaged in trade: W. Urbane (gallantry), S. Rubinsztajn (fur and clothing materials), D. Goldsztajn (clocks, jewellery, small leather goods), Ch. Skórnik (fruit dealer), N. Caitak (sale of bicycles manufactured by "Łucznik"). According to a 1931/1932 telephone directory of the Warsaw Province and ads in the Ciechanowska Chronicle there were at least ten Jewish food shops in the town, four butchers, two fruit shops, two shoe stores, two bookstores and stationery. This list is incomplete as it does not include small shops that did not advertise and stalls run without a patent. Ciechanów Jews included mainly small traders and market sellers. Market day was on Tuesdays and Fridays and Jews traded with peasants from the surrounding villages. Agents bought, for example, grain for the mills. One of the biggest mills in the Warsaw Province belonged to Wajnsztok, smaller mills were located on Nadrzeczna Street and belonged to Lubieniecki and Mundsztuk. Craft was equally important as trade. Most Jewish workshops were located on Żydowska Street, where a number of small tailors, shoemakers, craftsmen making shoe uppers and craftsmen of various professions worked, ready to take on any job, any little repair for the smallest amount of money. In 1921, a survey was carried out in the town, which showed the existence of six leather industry stores, 193 clothes and hat stores, 10 metal industry stores, 5 – machine stores, 3 – wood stores, 4 – textile stores and one stone industry store. Jewish stores employed an average of two employees - the owner and a member of his family working as an assistant, rarely hired worker. Characteristically, out of 153 hired workers employed in Jewish stores only 4 were not of Jewish origin. Minor Jewish craftsmen who had no means to pay for patents were engaged in cottage industry. They were mainly tailors and shoemakers, and produced mostly shoddy "trash". Jews also dominated among Ciechanów horse carriage drivers. A colourful portrait of horse carriage drivers and their profession in the interwar period can be found in the novel Rodowód by Stanislaw Łukasiewicz: “The train stopped... all horse carriages lunged forward, like military quadrigas set free to run like mad. Wild, hoarse screams, the rattling of wheels, the grunts of oncoming horses, stark blows of whips fiercely landed on the back of opponents...Suddenly, after a moment of turmoil, the first victorious quadrigas emerged... There were no more passengers left for the carriages that came last in the battle. They went away very slowly to dress their wounds. Often the damage was quite grave: shattered boards, broken spokes, crushed shoes."[1.3]. There were two printing houses in Ciechanów, one of which belonged to a Jew, L. Hendel.
The Jewish population in Ciechanów lived mainly around the Market Square, and religious life revolved around the synagogue on Zakroczymska Street. In the interwar period the Ciechanów Kahal was initially based at the home of Wajss at the Market Square, then at the home of Lipszyc at 5 Pułtuska Street. Later presidents of the community included Nathan Cajtog, AS. Lichtenstein and Herszt Kirszencwajg, whereas Chaim Morthaim Braumrot held the post of rabbi throughout the entire period – he was also an honorary president of the community board, a member of the administration and various community institutions. Until 1926, the community was governed by four "guardians": Dawid Wajss as president and Jakub Miszor, Mojżesz Rakowski and Abraham Nathan Skórnik as members. Then, a 12-person Community Board was elected by the rabbi and the Council of the Jewish Community in Ciechanów, which, starting from1926, was elected in democratic elections. In 1938 the community had 1,200 adult members, of which 424 were obliged to pay community contributions. At this time, the community funded the activities of, among others, Talmud-Torah, Bet Yaakov, Religious Evening Courses, savings and loans fund, the "Linat Hatsedek" shelter house, "Hachnaset Orchim" which provided aid and a field kitchen for the most needy. In that year, the property included cemeteries and a synagogue and was estimated at 82 thousand zlotys.
A number of Jewish political parties and related cultural and educational organizations operated in Ciechanów. The revival of the Zionist movement in the town took place after the announcement of the Balfour Declaration (1917). At that time Rabbi Chaim Baumrot founded a Party of Orthodox Zionists - the Spiritual Centre "Mizrachi". They believed that a Jewish state should be rebuilt in Palestine, under theocratic rule, following the rules of Judaism. The first Mizrachi seat was located in the apartment of Noach Gruba, then at Salomon Rubinsztajn. The youth wing of the party was called "Tseire Mizarchi", and had a reading club and a field kitchen at its seat at Warszawska Street. The founder of the organization was Michael Szaft.
A branch of another Zionist party, Poale Zion, also operated in Ciechanów presenting a socialist-Zionist outlook. The party put off the question of the principles governing the functioning of the Jewish state until its establishment in Palestine. In the short run it demanded cultural and national autonomy for Jews in Poland. On the fifth conference of the Poale Zion Association, as a result of different views on the international labour movement, the party split into Poale Zion Left and Poale Zion Right. The former emphasized its ties with the global labour movement and planned to join the Comintern; whereas Poale Zion Right identified itself with general Zionism and was associated with the World Zionist Organization.
Poale Zion Right in Ciechanów was organized by: Issachar Berko, Daniel Gogol, Chaim Lala and Zysko Berko. The seat of the party was in the home of Isajasz Robot on Żydowska Street. The main aim was to adapt young Jews for future work for the construction of the Jewish state and the colonization of Palestine. One of the training centres was located in the home of a gardener, Berl.
From 1925 another Zionist organization was set up in Ciechanów, Ha-Shachar. It was founded by: S. Frid, M. Konarek, M. Lipski, the Schlifman brothers and Nowogrodzki brothers. The board of the organization, elected on 9 January1932 included: Saule Fryd – the head, Chil Skórnik – secretary, Chaskiel Pyzner – treasurer, Mordka Lipski and Josek Kac – members. Shortly afterwards Ha-Szachar began to lose its members who joined the paramilitary Brit Trumpeldor, associated with Zionist Revisionists, which eventually led to its dissolution, announced 19 November 1932.
In the early 1920s, the Zionists organized a scout youth organization of Ha Shomer ha-Tsair, called “The Regiment of the Young Guardian Maccabi”, which through physical and agricultural training, lectures and literature meetings prepared young Jews for the emigration to Palestine. The founders were: Hershel Finkielsztajn, Trąbkowie brothers and Hreal Miszor. The characteristic attributes of the young scouts included colourful flags, banners and uniforms, which was an important psychological factor for young boys and girls. As a result, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsair was very popular among young Jewish people in Ciechanów.
Another Jewish Zionist youth organization operating in Ciechanów was He-Halutz (“Pionieer”). Its aim was to prepare young Jews for settlement in Palestine through vocational and military training. Its members underwent training called hachshara where they acquired skills necessary for colonization. The course was completed with an English certificate for the journey to Palestine.
There was also the Association of Friends of Working Palestine in the town, which was under communist influence. On 25 March1937, the district governor suspended the activities of the Association on suspicion of being influenced by the Polish Communist Party. Their base was sealed.
The Zionists in Ciechanów closely monitored the situation in Palestine. On 16 May1930, 300 Jews protested against drastic limitations in the number of emigration certificates to Palestine. Rabbi Chaim Braumrot, Jakub Myzior and Abram Nawro, among others, made a speech. Five days later, the board of Poale Zion Right organized a protest rally, which gathered 70 people, mostly young people related to the youth wing of the party called "Frayhayt". There was also a Jewish Cultural and Educational Association "Tarbut" operating in the town, which was under the influence of Zionists and aimed to develop a Jewish national attitude through educational activities. For example, in 1932 it organized a lecture entitled Zionism. The Jewish Cultural and Educational Association "Yavne", which was established on the initiative of “Mizrachi”, also carried out an extensive educational campaign. In 1934 it organized a lecture dedicated to the role of women in the reconstruction of a Jewish state in Palestine. The speaker, Szpigielsztejn from Warsaw, presented the view that women and men should have an equal share in the building of a Jewish state, assigning women with a unique role in educating children in the national spirit.
In the first years after World War I, a branch of Orthodox Jews, Shloyme Emune Yisroel, was established in Ciechanów (from 27 June 1932 a new name, Agudat Israel, was in force). Its founders included the following rabbis: David Wajngarten and Jakub Student. The main objectives of the party were the defence of the religious rights of Jews, the defence of the economic interests of the Jewish population, the education of young Jews in the spirit of Judaism, through establishing religious schools and preserving the religious character of the Jewish community. The Orthodox stressed the need for educating young Jews in the spirit of loyalty to the state. Agudah opposed the Zionists, treating their efforts to popularize the Hebrew language as a religious desecration as the Orthodox regarded the language as sacred, claiming that it should remain the language of liturgy. Three other organizations, closely related to the party, were established in Ciechanów in order to implement the above-mentioned goals: Tseire Agudat Israel – the youth wing, Poale Agudat Israel – the working class wing and Agudat Israel Benaus – the women’s wing. Young Orthodox Jews from Tseire Agudat developed large-scale activities by: organizing meetings, lectures and presentations in their own library. They also funded a loan society. The members of Poale Agudat Israel joined their efforts with great enthusiasm.
The image of the political life in Ciechanów also included the activities of the socialist Bund. The party had a negative view of the Zionist movement and opposed the attempts to popularize the Hebrew language. The Bund was of the opinion that the native language of Polish Jews is Yiddish. It also fought against clericalism and the domination of the rabbis. This meant that Bund was opposed by all organizations - from Orthodox Jews to the Zionists. Its seat was located in Ciechanów at Nadrzeczna Street, and then at Przasnyska Street. For many years, the party leaders were: Wolf Kostrzewa and Idel Bronsztajn. The Perec library was under the influence of the Bund, "the busiest Jewish cultural and educational organization" – as reported in a situation report from 1927. The library was situated in the house of Izajasz Robot at 4 Żydowska Street. Apart from discussions about the works of Orzeszkowa, Żeromski or Dostoevsky, the library was also the venue of dances, theatre performances and readings. The library board consisted of: Wolf Kostrzewa (Bund), Ita Wiatrakówna, Henoch Grzebieński, Samuel Tchórz and Szmul Gutman (all from KPP).
Education, especially religious education, played a key role in the Jewish community. Numerous private Jewish religious schools played an important role. Several old-school cheders operated in Ciechanów, which did not release students from the obligation to attend regular school. A reformed cheder was not established in the town due to the strong opposition of the Hasidic Rabbi, Samuel Isaac Landau. There was also a small yeshiva, named after rabbi Abraham Ciechanower, led by Abraham Aaron Kelman. Most Jewish children attended State Primary School No. 2 at 13 Nadrzeczna Street. In 1928, there were 460 students in the school, which meant that classes were run in two shifts. The Mizrachists established the “Yavne” school and a cheder led by Moses Kirszenbojm in order to promote Hebrew culture and religious self-education. The school also organized a prayer room for children and adolescents. It was created with the support of the cultural and educational association "Tarbut". Rabbi Chaim Braumrot organized a religious school, "Talmud Torah", offering courses in Hebrew and Judaic teachings for children from the primary school. Agudah, thanks to the backing and financial support of Rabbi Joel Wajngarten, organized a religious school for Jewish girls "Bet-Yaakov", headed by Mordechai Nojer. Trollen’s Cheder was located on Żydowska Street.
The relationships between Jews and Christians were good, which is illustrated by the fact that Zionist organizations won little support. Subsequent elections to the Jewish Community Council in the years 1926, 1932 and 1936, were won by the Orthodox, who favoured loyalty to the state. It was only in the mid-1930s that the Zionist ideology gained popularity due to anti-Jewish demonstrations of the Christian part of the population. However, in 1936, General Zionists, Poale Zion and Zionists-Revisionists, won only one seat each, while Agudah won three and Mizrachi two. In the second half of the 1930s, the Jewish community became more radical as a result of the deteriorating financial situation and due to a shift in the state policy towards ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, there were no major anti-Jewish actions that would go beyond boycotting Jewish stores in Ciechanów.
Ciechanów was seized by Germans on the night of September 3rd/4th, 1939. Immediately after entering the town, Germans started to persecute the Jewish population. The commander of the town ordered that the liquor store run by Pokorski, a Jew, be opened and its stock given to Germans and Poles. The same happened with a Jewish confectionery owned by Jakub Siano. The Jewish bakery was banned from distributing bread for free. On 7 September the commander called a Jewish meeting at the synagogue and tried to persuade all those gathered to voluntarily leave the town. Jews did not agree. On the following day the Nazis demolished the synagogue. Jews were forced to burn their books and fifteen scrolls at the market square. Afterwards, at night, they secretly stole into the market square and took the remnants and ashes to the cemetery where they buried them. The synagogue remained empty for some time and was later turned into a car repair shop.
The Germans ordered Jews to pay inordinate contributions, which were very difficult to pay as most of the wealthy Jews had already left town. On 23 September, the men were herded into market square, where they had to stand in a half circle with their hands up for three hours. At that time, a group of soldiers plundered Jewish stores and apartments. Abram Wolf Holcman and Hersz Miller were then killed. Afterwards, Jews were engaged in forced labour, which consisted in a senseless transportation of stones from one place to another, and had only one aim – humiliation. At the turn of September and October, religious Jews had to shave their beards, cut their sidelocks and were forced to dress in ‘European’ clothes. Otherwise, they were to be punished with death. In order to have this order met, Germans took twenty hostages, including a rabbi. From that time, Jews in Ciechanów did not wear gabardines, beards, sidelocks, did not bake matzo, nor celebrate the Shabbat or light liturgical candles.
At that time, the town constantly received news that the Jewish population was being brutally expelled from nearby cities and towns. Every day, Ciechanów Jews were ready to leave the town. However, for the time being, the occupier had other plans. On 8 September 1939, under Hitler’s decree, northern Masovia was annexed to Eastern Prussia. However, it was not before 26 October that this decree became effective and the civil administration seized power in the town. One of the first decisions was to appoint the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, which included pre-war community board members and Bencjon Erlich, appointed by the Germans, who was elected as chairman. Judenrat received orders to carry out a census of the Jewish population. The results of the census remain unknown. According to the estimates made by a clerk at the Municipal Board there were about 15,000 Jews living in Ciechanów in 1938. According to Dariusz Piotrowicz, this number is greatly overestimated. Based on data obtained from censuses, he concluded that in the years from 1921-1931, the number of Jews increased by approximately seventeen people a year. Assuming that the population growth did not change much, approx. 4 650 Jews lived in Ciechanów in 1939, constituting 28% of the town’s population and, in the autumn of 1939, after resettling Jewish families from the countryside to the town, there were a maximum of 5,000 Jewish residents.
As early as October, the Germans deprived Jewish merchants and craftsmen of their workshops, and under a decree issued on 1 November 1939 Jews were banned from running any type of business activity. Also in November, a work duty for all Jews aged 14-60 and Jewish women aged 14-50, became effective. Everyone was registered at the Arbeitsamt (labour office). They had to come to the market square every day and greet the mayor with the words ‘Guten Morgen Herr Burgermeister’ (“Good morning Mayor!”), who would reply with ‘Guten Morgen Schweine’ (“Good morning pigs!”). Then they were forced to perform work which involved sweeping streets, moving piles of debris and emptying rubbish bins. The work had no economic value, the only aim was to torment people. The Judenrat was responsible for assigning tasks and granted exemptions in exchange for bribes. The poor had to work until they were exhausted. The Judenrat was also in charge of marking Jews, which took place until December 1939. Everyone above twelve years old had to wear a yellow Star of David on the left side of the chest and another one on the back. The authorities issued other orders, such as the ban on walking on pavements and a duty to bow to Germans and take off their hats. A special post office for Jews was set up to limit the information flow from other regions of the country.
Closing down the ghetto in the autumn of 1940 was a final act of excluding the Jews from society. In October, Mayor Folke issued a decree prohibiting Jews from appearing on the streets: Ragniterstasse (from Friedrichstrasse to Pultuskerstrasse), Waeschaustrasse, Marktstrasse and Marktplatz. This area coincided with the boundaries of the Ciechanów ghetto. The exit, which led directly to these streets, was bricked up and new streets were paved on the back. The ghetto was not fenced but Jews were completely isolated from Poles. Any attempt to trespass the boundaries, which were modified several times during the war, was severely punished with fines, arrest, heavy beatings, placing in re-education labour camps or even public executions. Only those who had a street pass issued by the mayor were allowed to go to work by the shortest route. Jewish police formed by the Judenrat was responsible for keeping order in the ghetto. A curfew was introduced in the first days of the German occupation. At first, people were not allowed to leave homes from 9 pm to 6 am. Then, under a decree dated 4th April 1940, the curfew was changed from 9 pm to 5 am from 1 April to 30 September and from 7 pm to 6 am in the remaining months.
Due to its central location, Ciechanów became the capital of the entire region. Hence, an effort was made to impose a German character on the town through hanging large sheets with swastikas and Hitler’s portraits on building facades and distributing posters showing Chamberlain and wounded Polish soldiers with the slogan ‘England! This is all your work!’. The name of the town was changed to Zichenau, and at the turn of October and November, street names were modified. For instance, 3 Maja Street became Hermannstrasse, Plac Kościuszki became Grunplatz, Piłsudskiego Street was changed into Ragniterstrasse and Sienkiewicza became Bahnhofstrasse. Afterwards, the town was redeveloped in order to transform its image to become a ‘representative, functional colonial Eastern Prussian town of a concentrated nature.’ The redevelopment plan included the destruction of old Ciechanów with the exception of a Gothic parish church and castle ruins. In the spring of 1940, construction works were launched in the new Gartenvorstadt (suburbs-garden) district, and a year later, the centre of the town was rebuilt. The Jewish district was destroyed and large-scale remodelling and construction works of new houses and extensions and regulations etc. were carried out. New land and mortgage registers were created with new square boundaries and owners. A ‘Jewish workforce’ was hired to do the works. Jews were engaged in excavation, construction and paving works. Despite poor wages, Jews were eager to work because this awakened their hopes to remain in the town. When a decision to pull down a house was made, its owner was notified an hour earlier. If he/she did not leave the house on time, Germans took over the property. Such actions affected mainly Jews. Homeless Jews walked around the town in search of shelter.
As the ghetto was getting smaller, lodgings became more and more scarce. Three to four families lived in one room. Prosperous Jews bribed Judenrat and received flats, but those who had no money lived in stables or basements. Many people lived in shanties or outdoors. Another problem was hunger. After being closed in the ghetto, Jews could buy food from farmers only on market days, but from October 1940, they were allowed to do the shopping at the market only on Fridays from 11 am till 1 pm during their working hours. The system of food coupons, introduced in early 1940, did not satisfy people’s needs due to small food portions. In 1942, Jews began to die of hunger. A natural consequence of the lack of space, hunger and dirt (Jews could only obtain water supplies at the time when most of them worked), were diseases. The Judenrat bribed the Mayor and obtained a permit to organize a hospital at the house of Wasilewicz, at the intersection of Zagumienna and Pułtuska Streets. An elderly physician, doctor Baran, took care of patients.
Cut off from the outside world, Ciechanów Jews were looking forward to an improvement of their situation. The outbreak of the German-Soviet war brought great hopes but the success of the German army at the Eastern front soon deprived them of hope. There was a general belief that everyone would die. At the turn of summer and autumn, a great number of wounded German soldiers were transported to Ciechanów. In September, when there were about 2,000 wounded in the town, the authorities in Berlin issued a decree replacing the Jewish service with Poles. Shortly afterwards, another decree was issued, removing weak and old Jews, who were unfit for work, out of town. On 11 December 1941, Jews were herded by Germans to the castle for deportation. There they were beaten and packed into a special train. Germans informed the Judenrat that if they found anybody from the list of 1,200 people who were to be deported to Nowe Miasto, such a person would be executed. Those who were deported were replaced by Jews moved from Dobrzyń, Raciąż, Żuromin and Sierpiec. Jewish hopes revived once again in the winter of 1941/1942, when German soldiers with frostbitten feet, hands, noses and ears arrived in the town. Jews were happy that Russians beat their greatest enemy. Germans quickly learned of the mood among Jews and increased their persecutions in order to suppress any Jewish resistance in the future.
The persecutions involved mainly massive executions. At the end of June, Ciechanów Jews found out that Aeron Gelbard, Aaron Kirszenbaum and Ryfka Kirszenbaum were hanged in Modlin for illegally leaving the ghetto in Nowe Miasto and that Benjamin Kirszenbaum and Eliasz Lindberg were also hanged for helping them. On 14 July 1942, Szmul Goldcyer, Dawid Mołckier, Lejb Rumianek, Symcha Sadek and Izrael Tajblum were hanged at the market square in Ciechanów for ‘inappropriate behaviour towards the occupier.’ The destruction of the Jewish district was followed by plundering of the Jewish cemetery. The fence was dismantled and tombstones were used to make pavements. When arranging the building site for the development of new houses, the level of the necropolis was decreased by two meters. During the levelling works, Germans found the remnants of scrolls and the Torah. They ordered the Judenrat to identify those responsible for hiding the sacred books. Mordechaj Apel, Szmul Jakub Pazdziorek, Józef Sztyfenholc and Kelman Bergeber were hanged in the castle yard. On 3 September another public execution was held. Józef Frydman and Izrael Klenic were hanged. Upon the order of the head of the local German police named Mainer, Klenic’s son was told to hang his own father. The son refused. Meiner then threatened to kill his entire family and other Jews. The father begged his son to kill him. Jews from all over Ciechanów were brought to watch the execution. Children watched as their fathers were hanged. Any act of crying was punishable by death.
After Yom Kippur, everyone talked about displacement. At the beginning of November, the Judenrat received an order to prepare Jews to leave the town. This was treated as a death sentence. On 6 November Jews gathered in the castle, where they were divided into two groups, fit and unfit for work. That day, a group of 1,500 men were transported to Upper Silesia to work. On 7 November the remaining Jews gathered in the castle, women were parted from men, the old were taken to the hospital where they were shot along with the patients. Sixty-eight people were killed by Meiner and his assistant, Gotzman. The order was passed by the Eastern Prussia Oberpräsident, Erich Koch. The remaining Jews were packed into carts and transported to the ghetto in Mława.
- Memorial Book of the Community of Ciechanów (Ciechanów, Poland), translation of Yisker-bukh fun der Tshekhanover yidisher kehile, ed. A.W. Yassini, Tel Aviv 1962 [online] https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/ciechanow/Ciechanow.html [access: 09.04.2014].
- D. Piotrowicz, Ciechanowscy Żydzi, „Gazeta na Mazowszu. Dodatek do Gazety Wyborczej” no. 277 dated 25.11.1992.
- D. Piotrowicz, Ciechanów w latach Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej. 1918–1939, (1998).
- D. Piotrowicz, Zagłada Żydów ciechanowskich, "Rocznik Mazowiecki” 2000, vol. XII, 81–89.
- J. Szczepański, Społeczność żydowska Mazowsza w XIX–XX wieku, (2005).
- [1.1] Va'ad Arba Aratzot - The Council of Four Lands, the central body of Jewish autonomy in the Republic of Poland in the 16th-18th centuries, dissolved in 1764 - ed. note.
- [1.2] M. Fuchs, Overal History of the Jews of Ciechanów, in: Memorial Book of the Community of Ciechanów (Ciechanów, Poland), ed. A.W. Yassini, (1962) [online] https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/ciechanow/Ciechanow.html [Accessed 09 April 2014].
- [1.3] S. Łukasiewicz, Rodowód, (1985).