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

Siemiatycze - guidebook

Ukr. Сім'ятичі, Bel. Семятычы, Yid. סעמיאַטיטש

Siemiatycze - guidebook

Thursday Fair

Since 1542, Thursday has been a market day in Siematycze. Situated on the bank of Mahomet River, the town was granted the privilege of holding these Thursday fairs in the town charter issued by King Sigismund II Augustus. On a summer Thursday in 1934, one of these market days was captured in a photo by Jankiel Tykocki (1881–1941), a local photographer, cultural activist and town councillor. He opened his photographic studio in the early 1900s, and for many years took photos capturing the life of the town and its inhabitants. Tykocki and his whole family were killed on June 23, 1941 by the Nazis in the village of Wierceń, near Siemiatycze.


Ban of Excommunication

Information about the first group of Jews to settle in Siemiatycze, who were brought there from Lithuania by the then owner of the town, Katarzyna née Tęczyńska, dates back to 1582. In the 2nd half of the 17th century, local Jewish community came under the kahal in Tykocin. However, as the town developed, this kind of relationship became more and more burdensome, and the community strove for independence. As a result, in 1691, during a session of the Council of Four Lands in Jarosław, the elders of the Siemiatycze kahal were publicly put under the ban of excommunication for insubordination:

In 1726, another ban of excommunication (herem) was issued against them (the reason, again, was tax matters). This was lifted after the rabbis of Siemiatycze expressed their apologies. Only four years later, in 1730, with the decline of the power of the Council of Four Lands, the Siemiatycze kahal gained independence from the Jewish community of Tykocin.

In 1697, brothers Gedalia and Moshe from Siemiatycze, followers of the crypto-Sabbatean sect, set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They were members of the so-called “Brotherhood of the Pious,” a group of several dozen supporters of a preacher and ascetic Yehudah the Hasid, who believed that Shabetai Tsvi a Jewish pseudo-messiah who had converted in 1666 to Islam and died ten years later, was still fulfilling his messianic role in a clandestine manner and was about to resurrect to lead the Jews to the land of Israel in the wake of redemption. The group, convinced that Shabbetai Tsvi, the messiah they belived in, was soon to come, set off from Siedlce to Jerusalem. While wandering through Moravia, Germany, Tirol, and Venice, they were joined by several hundred of crypto-sabbatean supporters, and, on October 14, 1700, they reached Jerusalem. Later, Moshe became a teacher in a yeshivah in Jerusalem, while Gedalia returned to Europe as an emissary of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Jerusalem. In 1716, in Berlin, he published a book in Hebrew titled Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim (Heb.: Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem), in which he described the history of Yehudah the Hasid’s pilgrimage as well as the living conditions of the oppressed and imporverished Jewish community in Jerusalem at that time.


The new order

When, in the second half of the 18th century, Anna Jabłonowska née Sapieha became the owner of the Siemiatycze estate, she undertook intense efforts to rebuild and re-order the town’s spatial structure. One of her undertakings was to establish a new Classicist-style palace and to build an alleyway connecting her new residence with the town hall and market square.

The palace has not survived: it was burnt down during the January Uprising of 1863. The only remnant of the grand residence are two sphinxes standing on the sarcophagus-shaped plinths of what used to be the palace gate.

The alley (now Pałacowa Street) connecting the palace with the market square ran through the Jewish cemetery, which was still in use at that time but was abolished to make way for the alley despite dramatic protests by the Jews. Instead, Duchess Anna Jabłonowska marked out a site for a new cemetery beyond the town, on the left bank of the Kamionka River.


The Great Synagogue

Synagoga w Siemiatyczach, lata 30. XX w., fot. Jankiel Tykocki, zbiory Antoniego Nowickiego, udostępnione przez rodzinę Nowickich -
The synagogue in Siemiatycze, 1930s. Photo by Jankiel Tykocki, private collection of the late Antoni Nowicki, made available courtesy of the Nowicki family (
Synagoga i dom talmudyczny w Siemiatyczach, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"
The synagogue and the Talmudic house in Siemiatycze, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko
Wnętrze synagogi w Siemiatyczach, pocz. XX w., zbiory YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Inside the synagogue in Siemiatycze, early 20th century, collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Situated in the southwestern part of the town, about 150 m away from the main market square (today Jan Paweł II Square), the synagogue was established to replace the wooden synagogue destroyed during the 1797 devastating fire. Decades later, it was one of the few buildings that did not burn down during the battle of Siemiatycze at the time of the 1863 January Uprising.

The synagogue is a two-storey, Classicist building with a rectangular plan (25×19.5 m) and a hip roof. It had a square, two-storey men’s hall on the east side and a vestibule for men on the west side (with the entrance from the south). The upper part of the men’s hall was surrounded on three sides (all but the eastern side) by open galleries resting on columns and posts. These served as women’s galleries. The interior of the synagogue was decorated with polychrome paintings, whose remnants were still visible as late as 1958. During World War II and afterwards, the building was used as a warehouse. In 1961–1964, it was renovated and turned into a local community centre and gallery. The original fittings and furnishings of the synagogue have not survived, except for the Torah scroll, which can be seen in the Diocesan Museum in Drohiczyn (20 km from Siemiatycze). On both the inside and outside of the synagogue, plaques commemorating the Jewish community have been placed. At present, the building is the property of the Municipality of Siemiatycze.

In one of the rooms of the former women’s gallery there are paintings by Józef Charyton (1909–1975), a self-taught painter from Siemiatycze who, after the war, created a series of about 500 paintings and drawings that depict scenes of the Holocaust as well as document the everyday life of the Jewish community before World War II. Charyton was born in the village of Krupice near Siemiatycze, but the family moved to Wysokie Litewskie (Vysokaye) – a village situated a dozen or so kilometres away. His father had a mill there, and Józef worked as a photographer, a local official, a portraitist, and a church painter. In 1938, he prepared the vault where the exhumed corpse of the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, was deposited. More information about Józef Charyton can be found in Marian Brandys’s short story Strażnik Królewskiego Grobu (The Guard of the Royal Tomb. A Story of Józef Charyton from Siemiatycze),Warsaw 1984.

Around the synagogue

Next to the synagogue stands the former Talmud-Torah, which used to house a school, a kahal meeting room, and the central office of the kahal court. The building was erected in 1893 in the neo-Baroque style with elements of Seccession decoration. At present, it houses a vocational training school.

Other former Jewish prayer houses operated in Wesoła, Fabryczna, Drohiczyńska, and Małopolska Streets. There was also a prayer room in Belkies’s tile works. In Ciechanowska St., by the Mukhavets River, there was a mikveh.

The tile capital and the “clay Eldorado”

That is what Siemiatycze used to be called before the war, because of the Jewish-owned tileries. The Jews of Siemiatycze contributed greatly to the development of the industry producing tile and functional pottery. The owners of these plants included people named Belkies, Radzyński, Gorfajn, Dajcz, Maliniak, Szyszko, and Małach. The first tile works opened in 1890, and eventually about 30 tileries operated, both in the town itself and in the vicinity: currently there are only three. Dajcz’s tile works, which opened in 1906, was the biggest of its kind in Siemiatycze and, at one time, the biggest tilery in Poland (five storeys tall, covering several hectares, and with an underground conveyor belt). Today, only its ruins remain, near the cemetery.


The “Jutrzenka” kibbutz

In the 1920s, Zionist organisations founded the Shaharia (Yid.: Morning Star) kibbutz-hakhsharah. It was a centre meant to prepare young halutsim (pioneers – agricultural settlers), through hard physical work, to emigrate and settle in the British-mandate Palestine. About 130 people (30 women and 100 men) underwent training there. Young Jews from Siemiatycze and the vicinity worked in the fields of Polish farmers and in the Wertheim brothers’ sawmill. They grew crops and raised animals on an independent farm created by the halutsim. Some of the hakhsharah (training camp) members earned a living by transporting goods and materials on horse-drawn carts or by working in tileries. Their earnings were collected into a common fund. The residents of the kibbutz lived on a frugal diet; for example, they ate meat only once a week. However, despite the tough living conditions, the Memorial Book of Siemiatycze recalls that the hakhsharah was filled with a joyous atmosphere.


The Jewish cemetery

The cemetery was established in the 18th century in the eastern part of the town, in what is now Polna St. (The road leading to it is marked with a signpost in Wysoka St.). The cemetery is surrounded by a wall which still has its original gate made of so-called tsarist red brick. On it there are four brick Stars of David and memorial plaques commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. The dozen or so tombstones that have survived were used to build a lapidarium wall commemorating the Jews of Siemiatycze. The rest of the cemetery is overgrown with trees. Searching in and around town for Jewish gravestones, the Siemiatycze Bioregion Association has found dozens of fragments, which have also been built into the lapidarium. Members of the Kotler and Kramer families who survived the Holocaust have funded a commemorative plaque. Today, the cemetery is the property of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Obraz olejny Józefa Charytona przedstawiający rynek w Siemiatyczach w okresie międzywojennym, 1974, fot. Marcin Korniluk, zbiory Stowarzyszenia Bioregion –
The gate of the Jewish cemetery in Siemiatycze, 2014. Photo by Marcin Korniluk, collection of the Bioregion Association (
Cegiełka na budowę hebrajskiej szkoły powszechnej Kadimah w Siemiatyczach, 1935, zbiory śp. Antoniego Nowickiego, udostępnione przez rodzinę Nowickich -
Donation certificate for the construction of the Hebrew Kadimah primary school in Siemiatycze, 1935, private collection of the late Antoni Nowicki, made available courtesy of the Nowicki family (


World War II and the Holocaust

Before the outbreak of World War II, some 4,303 Jews lived in Siemiatycze. In the autumn of 1939, this number increased to more than 7,000, after the influx of refugees from western Poland. In August 1942, the German occupation authorities created a ghetto in Siemiatycze (within the square formed by Górna, Wysoka, Koszarowa, and Słowiczyńska Streets) for the Jewish inhabitants of the town and neighbouring areas. The ghetto functioned for a little more than three months. On November 2–9, 1942, all the inmates of the Siemiatycze ghetto were deported to the Treblinka II death camp (approx. 90 km away from Siemiatycze) and killed there.

Dzielnica Kaczy Dołek w Siemiatyczach, widok z wieży kościelnej, lata 30. XX w., fot. Jankiel Tykocki, zbiory Antoniego Nowickiego, udostępnione przez rodzinę Nowickich -
The Kaczy Dołek district in Siemiatycze, view from the church tower, 1930s. Photo by Jankiel Tykocki, private collection of the late Antoni Nowicki, made available courtesy of the Nowicki family (

In July 1944, when the German occupation was over, the few Jews who had survived – about 100 people – began to return to the town. The time was far from peaceful, however, there were cases of robberies and murders. After April 6, 1945, when 28 Jews were attacked in Yuda Blumberg’s house in Berka Joselewicza St. by an armed group (probably associated with nationalistic anti-communist resistance movement NSZ), claiming that they are attacking Jews because the Jews allegedly cooperated with new communist government, all the remaining Jewish inhabitants of Siemiatycze left town. The history of the Jewish community of Siemiatycze, which had made up 60 percent of the town pre-war population, thus came to an end.


Present day

Present-day Siemiatycze is a county town in the Podlaskie Voivodeship, where about 15,000 people live. Each Thursday market day, the area next to the Jewish cemetery is filled with people. If you are a Polish-speaker, the place is worth visiting not simply to buy something but, above all, to hear people speaking the beautiful Podlasie dialect. Another interesting fact is that, just beyond the wall of the cemetery, there is a small, dilapidated house built entirely from stove tiles. It is one of several buildings of this type in the town.

Anyone wishing to explore this area may turn for help to the various tour guides at the Tourist Information Centre (3A Jana Pawła II Square, tel. +48 780 158 959), which is open from May to September. The centre offers information about accommodation and catering in the town and its vicinity, as well as about tourist routes and local cultural offerings.

Authors: Marcin Korniluk, Emil Majuk


Worth seeing

  • Former synagogue (1797), now the gallery at the Siemiatycze Culture Centre, 1 Zaszkolna St.
  • Former Talmud-Torah School (1900), 10 Pałacowa St.
  • Jewish cemetery, Polna St. (18th c.).
  • Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the former Missionaries’ Monastery (1719–1727), 2a 3 Maja Street.
  • Orthodox Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1866), 3 Gen. Władysława Sikorskiego St.
  • Statues of sphinxes at the former entrance gate to the palace of Duchess Anna Jabłonowska and at the General Secondary School building.
  • Orangery (1860), burnt down during the January Uprising of 1863, rebuilt in the 1980s.
  • Classicist houses, Pałacowa St. (nos. 14, 19, 25, 28).
  • Ruins of the tilery complex (19th c.).
  • Multi-denominational cemetery (1805): Augsburg Evangelical Chapel (mid-19th c.), St. Anne’s Chapel (1826–1827), Romana Rogińskiego St.
  • World War I cemetery.

Surrounding area

Sarnaki (13 km): a Jewish cemetery (1742); a parish church (19th c.); Church of St. Stanislaus (wooden, 1816); the Podczaski manor house (2nd half of the 19th c.); Józef Szummer’s brick brewery (1903–1905); historic crosses and chapels (about 250 examples).

Góra Grabarka (Mount Grabarka) (14 km): St. Martha and Mary Convent (1947), 3 monastery Orthodox churches, more than 7,000 votive crosses.

Drohiczyn (16 km): The Diocesan Museum with the Torah scroll from Siemiatycze; a Jewish cemetery with about 70 tombstones (16th c.); the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1682–1715) and the Franciscan monastery (1737–1751); All Saints’ Church and the Benedictine Convent (1734–1738); St. Nicolaus Orthodox Church (1792); The Holy Trinity Cathedral (1696–1709); the Jesuit Monastery and the Jesuit College (mid-17thc.).

Mielnik (20 km): a synagogue, currently an art gallery (1st half of the 19thc.); a Jewish cemetery (19thc.); the castle hill with the remains of the castle’s Holy Trinity Church (15thc.); the Church of the Transfiguration (1912–1920); the Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God (1825); an Orthodox cemetery; the Chapel of the Protection of Our Lady (wooden, 1776).

Milejczyce (23 km): a synagogue, now disused (1927); a Jewish cemetery (1865); St. Stanislaus Church (wooden, 1740); the cemetery; Orthodox Church of St. Nicolaus (wooden, 19th c.); Orthodox Church of St. Barbara (1900).

Łosice (33 km): a Jewish cemetery (17th/18th c.), renovated at the beginning of the 21st c.; a lapidarium made from a few dozen matzevot retrieved from the town’s squares and streets; Church of St. Sigismund (1906–1909).

Ciechanowiec (38 km): a synagogue, now the head office of the Culture and Sports Centre in Ciechanów (2nd half of the 19th c.); the old Jewish cemetery with about 30 tombstones; the new Jewish cemetery (19th c.)with a memorial to Holocaust victims; the Orthodox Church of the Ascension of the Lord (1864); Holy Trinity Church (1731–1737); the monastery and hospital complex (18th c.); The Fr. Krzysztof Kluk Museum of Agriculture; the Mazovia and Podlasie Open-Air Museum.

Treblinka (77 km): The memorial and Museum of Combat and Martyrdom in the former death camp.

The Podlasie Bug Gorge Landscape Park encompasses part of the Bug Valley stretching from the Toczna River to the estuary of the Krzna River in the village of Neple – a perfect area for cycling and canoeing.

The Bug River valley and the slightly undulating Drohiczyn Plateau are criss-crossed by tourist routes, such as the Moszczona Valley Trail, the Molotov Line Bunkers Trail, the Bug River Trail, and the January Uprising Trail.





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