Sokolow Podlaski is a town in east-central Poland, about 90 kilometres from Warsaw. The story of this town’s Jewish population and its 700-plus years of Jewish life is typical of many towns in Poland. That cultural treasure is lost forever. It is now but a memory.
Sokolow gained its status as a town 1424, by which time a Jewish population had already settled in the area. Like many other towns in Poland, the Jews here had their own language, religion, literature, music and even laws. By the end of the 18th century more than 70% of the world's Jews lived in Poland.
The old synagogue in Sokolow was build around 1650, the same year in which Jews were given various rights as traders and artisans by Bogusław Radziwiłł, the owner of the town. They were a highly literate group – both the men and women – and most spoke Polish as well as Yiddish. There was also a large Chassidic population in the town.
A new synagogue was built on Długa Street in 1845. That building still exists today, although it is now clothing shop.
One of the most famous rabbis in Sokolow was Yitzchak Zelig Morgenstern (1866–1939), who still known among Chassidim as the Sokolover Rebbe. He was also the fourth Kotzker Rebbe. In 1924, the Sokolover Rebbe visited Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, Tiberias and Tel Aviv. He was a self-taught medical expert and political diplomat, and most surprising of all was his outspoken support of the resettlement of the Land of Israel. He also ran the Yeshiva in Sokolow and students came from all over Poland and elsewhere in Europe to study with him.
With the beginning of 20th Century, the economic situation made life extremely difficult in Sokolow. There were numerous strikes by by both Catholic and Jewish workers. Many people worked 14-16 hour days in factories, earning barely enough to feed their families. The sugar factory in Sokolow, which was run by a Catholic convert from Judaism barred Jews from working there. During this period, many Sokolowers – Jews and ethnic Poles alike -- immigrated to the US and other countries in western Europe to better their prospects. Among them, infamously, was the father of Jack Ruby, the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Nonetheless, by the 1930s, some 60% of Sokolow’s 12,000 inhabitants were Jewish. A visitor to Sokolow in 1930s could not walk 10 feet down the street without bumping into a Jew. They formed a petty bourgousie of tailors, bakers, cattle dealers, shoemakers and shopkeepers in the centre of the town.
Between two world wars, there was a Jewish theatre in Sokolow, two Jewish libraries and sports team - Hapoel. The 1930s also saw growing economic hardship rise in tandem with increasing anti-Semitism. Encouraged by Poland’s new nationalist government amid an economic depression and the alarming events that were unfolding in Germany, Jewish shops and property were. At times, police from Lublin were called to Sokolow to protect the Jews against the actions local population, unhindered by the local authorities.
Jewish life changed totally as soon as the Second World War began. The Nazis established Sokolow's ghetto in 1939 in two streets around the main synagogue, cramming about 5,000 people into it. In the summer of 1941, the ghetto was bricked off and closed. Later, 2,000 refugees from the Łódź and Kalisz regions were also forced into it. Starvation and death were rife.
A year later, the Germans began deporting Jews to an unknown destination. Between September 22 (day after Yom Kippur) and 25, 1942, inhabitants of the ghetto were forced into the town square. Many attempted escape but were shot or handed over to the Nazis by collaborating Poles, according to testimonies logged at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Over those four days, 5,800 Jews were transported in sealed cattle wagons to Treblinka, where they were murdered upon arrival.
Almost whole Jewish community of Sokolow was killed by Nazis. Those who survived moved out from the town to Israel or US. Only a few are still alive who remember their "missing Jewish world" in Sokolow.