Like many other Polish towns Będzin seems to be gazing nostalgically into the past. What used to be an important commercial centre in one of the largest industrial districts of the tsarist Russia is now an exceedingly run-down and unsightly witness of the decline and fall of the socialist economy. In the days of its prosperity, when the town was at the Western frontiers of the Russian Empire, Będzin had an elegance of a European metropolis. The hustle and bustle of its streets reverberated in several different languages, including Polish, Yiddish, Russian and German.
For many years Będzin had played an important commercial function; it was only during the industrial revolution that the town assumed a new role, that of a steel and coal producer. The Jews in Będzin were in the vanguard of capitalism in the area and soon took possession of the majority of the town’s plants and manufactories. Many of them abandoned their traditional businesses such as trade and took to the production of various goods. In a melting pot like Będzin the ethnic and religious boundaries were of lesser importance. A century ago the most prominent boundary was that of a class. Both social and economic differences were quite visible at the time. Jewish proletariat and craftsmen who occupied the unevenly cobbled streets of the old town area lived in the shadow of the factories whose chimneys and coal pits were in turn developed by the wealthiest members of the local community.
The tragic end of the old Będzin came in three acts. First, in 1939, when the local synagogue, with a number of Jews praying inside, was burnt. Second, when the Jewish ghetto was established and subsequently liquidated. Third, already after the war, when the beautiful historic centre of the town was ruined by the outrageous decisions of the Polish communist government.
Despite damage and social degradation, Będzin still remains a place where you can easily come across the traces of its splendid past. Jewish monuments in the area include: historic tenement houses, two cemeteries, partially preserved houses of prayer and, last but not least, Sukkah booths, a real rarity hardly to be found anywhere else in Europe.
In the summer of 2011 Paula Moloff and I visited Będzin and the adjacent Sosnowiec (her family had emigrated from the Zagłębie region to the US more than 100 years ago). Thanks to Jeff Cymblar’s book on the local cemetery, we managed to find the grave of Paula’s grandmother, whose Jewish name Paula has inherited.
Our visit to the Zagłębie region had its both sad and happy moments. Among the dilapidated streets and buildings of the town we came across people who care to preserve the old Będzin’s memory. We met two local activists who run an important spot on the cultural map of the town, the Cukerman’s Gate Foundation. These people devoted their time and money to the preservation of the former synagogue, which itself is located in one of Będzin’s quaintest yards. As we were having a walk in the area, we also discovered the former Mizrachi synagogue. Its interior, which for many years had served as storage space for coal, was under conservation works funded by the local municipality.
Despite numerous local initiatives to preserve the old Będzin, it is difficult to predict how much of it will survive to the next generation.
Family names researched: Krajcer, Percyk ( Bedzin, Sosnowiec )