Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine


NN Theatre

Sejny - guidebook

Lith. Seinai, Rus. Сейны, Yid. סייני


It was blue here. Up there there were polychrome paintings. This is the balcony where my mother and younger brothers were standing.

Max Furmański
Sejny - guidebook

In 2000, a bespectacled man with a small moustache stopped in front of the White Synagogue in Sejny. Max Furmański had been born in Sejny in 1934. After surviving the Holocaust as a concentration camp prisoner and partisan, and loosing his whole family he left Poland in 1945, swearing he would never come back. But in 2000, he did come back here to show his hometown to his wife and son. Furmański remembered the synagogue very well: as a young boy he used to come here with his grandfather. Now, after a moment’s hesitation, he went inside again.

A group of young people dressed in the traditional clothes of Hasidic Jews were singing Hasidic melodies. Furmański, who had been a rabbi in Argentina for many years and then a cantor in the United States, had arrived in Sejny, and had entered the synagogue, just as a theatre performance based on S. An-sky’s play The Dybbuk was being rehearsed there.

Max started to talk with the young people in the synagogue. Afterward, walking around the town, he found the place where his family home had been and met his childhood neighbour. Two years later, he came back again to attend the unveiling of a memorial stone at the Jewish cemetery in Sejny. He performed at concerts together with the Sejny Klezmer Band.



Dominicans and the White Synagogue

As the town belonged to the Vilna (Vilnius) monks, the permission to build the first synagogue in Sejny was granted by the Dominican Order. As a means of promoting economic development, the Dominicans had been encouraging Jewish merchants and craftsmen to settle in Sejny stating in 1768. In the mid-19th century, Jews constituted more than 70 percent of the the town population.

The synagogue was erected in 1788, a year after the Jews settling in Sejny had been granted the right to do so. That original wooden “shingle-roofed synagogue with a colonnade” was replaced in 1885 by a new one – the White Synagogue, built on the initiative of Rabbi Moshe Betzalel Luria. According to unconfirmed reports, Wawrzyniec Bortkiewicz, Prior of the Dominican Order in Sejny, joined the rabbi in carrying the image of the Ten Commandments into the newly erected building.

Sejny. A view of the town from the tower of the Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1920; collection of the
Sejny. A view of the town from the tower of the Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1920; collection of the "Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations" Centre (


Two schools

In 2nd half of 19th century, the famous theologian and philosopher Moshe Yitzhak Avigdor became the town rabbi. He soon founded a yeshivah (Talmudic academy), next to which the community established a Hebrew high school run by Tuvye Shapiro – this school became one of the most important centres of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment movement) in Lithuania, bringing renown to the town. Apart from religion, the school offered classes in geography, mathematics, Russian, and other comprehensive subjects that were rarely found in the curricula of Jewish schools at the time. The most prominent Lithuanian rabbis, followed by students from all over the Russian Empire, came to study at the yeshivah, while many enlightened scholars visited the school or studied there. At the end of the 19th century, the gymnasium was closed, and the building was turned into a post office. The yeshivah, too, was closed by the Tsarist authorities, and Reb Avigdor was banished. Afterwards, the building housed a beth midrash and a cheder, and it may also have served as the seat of the rabbinate.

One of those who studied at the Tuvye Shapiro’s school was Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923), a poet born into the family of a Jewish fisherman in the nearby village of Boksze.

Morris Rozenfeld, zbiory Ośrodka „Pogranicze – Sztuk, Kultur, Narodów” -
Morris Rosenfeld, before 1923; collection of the “Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations” Centre (

In 1882, Morris Rosenfeld emigrated to the United States, where he became one of the so-called “sweatshop poets.” He published poems about the difficult fate of the workers. Written in Yiddish, they were translated into English, Polish, Russian, Spanish, German, and French. His poem My Little Boy became a popular folk song. Rosenfeld was called a “millionaire of tears.” He died in poverty, but his funeral in New York was attended by more than 20,000 people.


Hard times

At the turn of the 20th century, most inhabitants left Sejny because of difficult economic and social conditions. They emigrated mainly to the United States. As a result, the town’s population fell from more than 4,500 in 1895 to 3,412 in 1931, and the percentage of Jews decreased from 75 to 24 percent (817 people).


Bakers’ strike

In March 1930, bakeries in Sejny stopped working. Boruch Dusznicki, the owner of the largest local bakery, as well as his competitors, Walter Epsztejn and Michel Borowski, went on strike to protest against the government's decision to lower bread prices. After a few days, they were forced to resume work – it is not known whether or not they succeeded in negotiating for higher prices.

The Jewish organisations functioning in Sejny at that time included trade unions: the Jewish Merchants’ Union and the Jewish Craftsmen’s Union. A Sejny branch of the Jewish Sports Association “Maccabee,” with Joel Mącznik as chairman, was well known in the entire region. Its sports field was located where the municipal hospital now stands.


World War II and the Holocaust

On September 24, 1939, Soviet troops entered Sejny. They retreated after less than three weeks, only to be replaced by German occupying forces on October 13, 1939. As early as November 1939, the Jews of Sejny were deported to “the strip of no man’s land” between Poland and Lithuania, and from there they spread to nearby towns on both sides of the border, and shared the fate of other Jewish inhabitants. Most of them were murdered after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war (June 22, 1941).


Jewish cemeteries

There is no trace left of the old Jewish cemetery, which was founded in the 18th century on what is today Zawadzkiego St. But off the road to Augustów, just outside Sejny in the neighbouring village of Marynowo, there is another Jewish cemetery, founded in 1830. All its gravestones were destroyed during or after the war. In 2002, a plaque was erected there, with an inscription reading: “In memory of the Jews of Sejny – from the residents of Sejny.”

Max Furmański przy tablicy pamiątkowej na cmentarzu żydowskim w Sejnach,  2002, zbiory Ośrodka „Pogranicze – Sztuk, Kultur, Narodów” -
Max Furmański at the commemorative matzevah at the Jewish cemetery in Sejny, 2002; collection of the “Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations” Centre (

Present day

Today, the county town of Sejny has a population of 6,000, mainly of ethnic Poles and Lithuanians; there is no Jewish community. There are several small hotels and restaurants in town, and thanks to the picturesque location among the lakes of the Suwałki Lake District, agritourism accommodation is easily available in almost every nearby village.



Fotografia ze spektaklu „Kroniki Sejneńskie”, 1999, zbiory Ośrodka „Pogranicze – Sztuk, Kultur, Narodów” -
The performance of Sejny Chronicles, 1999; collection of the “Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations” Centre (

In 1990, a group of young artists looking for a place to hold meetings and events stopped in front of Sejny’s abandoned Shoe Manufacturing Plant – the building that had once served as a yeshivah – and the empty, newly-renovated White Synagogue nearby (used in the past as a fertilizer warehouse and a depot for municipal vehicles). It was here that they set up the “Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations” Centre. This has evolved into an experimental cultural centre combining reflection on identity and memory issues with hands-on cultural activism in the local community of the borderland.

Founded by Krzysztof Czyżewski and his associates, the Centre has become one of the most important places in Poland that encourage reflection on Polish and Polish-Jewish history. Together with local children, members of the Center created a performance piece entitled The Sejny Chronicles, an evocative theatrical portrayal of life in old multicultural Sejny, based on the memories of local residents. They also formed the Sejny Klezmer Band, whose musicians include young residents of the town. The publishing wing of the Borderland Centre was the first in Poland to publish Jan Tomasz Gross’s book Neighbours, which describes the murder of Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbours. These and other activities by the Centre have inspired continuing public debate on Polish-Jewish relations.

Written by Emil Majuk, based on the cultural heritage card by Michał Moniuszko.


Worth seeing

  • Former White Synagogue (1860–1870), now exhibition hall, 41 Piłsudskiego St., tel. +48 87 516 27 65, [email protected]
  • Former yeshivah (Talmudic academy) (1860s), 39 Piłsudskiego St.
  • Former Hebrew gymnasium (high school), now the seat of the Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations Centre (1850s), 37 Piłsudskiego St.
  • Jewish cemetery, 1 Maja St.
  • Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, former Dominican church (1610–1619), 1 Św. Agaty Sq.
  • Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa, former Evangelical church (1844), 4 Zawadzkiego St.
  • Bishops’ Palace, now housing the Museum of the Sejny Land (1850s), 28 Piłsudskiego St.,+48 87 516 22 12
  • Town Hall (1846), 25 Piłsudskiego St.
  • Lithuanian Cultural Center, 9 July 22nd St., +48 87 51 62 908

Surrounding area

Krasnogruda (8 km): a manor house (17th c.), the venue of cultural events organised in the summer by the Borderland of Arts, Cultures, and Nations Centre.

Krasnopol (13 km): a former synagogue, currently a shop (1850); a Jewish cemetery located on a hill, about 8 km southeast of the village.

Puńsk (23 km): a former wooden synagogue, currently a dwelling (19th/20th c.); the rabbi’s house in Mickiewicza St.; the former Lithuanian Culture Centre (20th c.); a Jewish cemetery (19th c.); the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1877–1881); a parish granary (2nd half of the 19th c.); a cemetery chapel (1820).

Suwałki (30 km): a former prayer house, a cheder, a Hebrew school and a rabbi’s house (next to residential buildings); a former Jewish hospital and a nursing home (the building of the former Municipal Community Centre); a Jewish cemetery surrounded with a memorial wall of matzevot (1825); the wooden All Saints’ Orthodox Church (1891–1892); the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity (1838–1841); St. Alexander’s Co-Cathedral (1825). Suwałki is the birthplace of Abraham Stern – a national hero of Israel.

Wigry (38 km): a Camaldolese monastery (1667); Wigry National Park (42 lakes, forests with a network of water, hiking, and biking trails).

Jeleniewo (42 km): a Jewish cemetery (18th c.); the wooden Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1878); a wooden bell tower (2nd half of the 19th c.).

Augustów (44 km): the former beth midrash (next to the Tax Office); a Jewish cemetery (1800); the Old Post Office (1829); a house at 28 Rynek Zygmunta Augusta (1800); barracks (1890s); the Augustów Canal (1824–1839).

Bakałarzewo (49 km): a Jewish cemetery (1850s) south of the town, near Lake Szumowo; St. James the Apostle Church (1936).

Szczebra (49 km): a plaque commemorating the Jews executed in the Suwałki region; mass graves of victims.

Filipów (54 km): a Jewish cemetery (2nd half of the 19th c.); a Mariavite cemetery (1906); the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1841–1842).

Przerośl (57 km): a Jewish cemetery (early 20th c.); a wooden bell tower (1790).

Bridges in Stańczyki (67 km): one of the highest railway bridges in Poland (1912–1918).

Augustów Forest: one of the most extensive virgin forests in Poland, straddling the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. It boasts approx. 100 species of vascular plants, 2,000 species of animals, and trees that are more than 200 years old. The most precious part of the forest is protected by the Wigry National Park. Another attraction is the 102-km-long Augustów Canal connecting the basins of the Vistula and the Neman Rivers.





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