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

Tykocin - guidebook

Bel. Тыкоцин, Yid.טיקטין

Sometimes we had to paddle across the prayer room in boats to take the Torah scrolls out of the aron ha-kodesh. This is what happened during the previous flood in 1938.

Account by the Rabbis Arie Rawicz, Shulman Simcha, and Menachem Tamir (Turek), in: Sefer Tiktin (Hebr.: The Book of Tykocin), Tel Aviv 1959
Tykocin - guidebook
Domy przy ulicy Piłsudskiego w Tykocinie, 2014, fot. Wioletta Wejman, zbiory cyfrowe Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"

The Holy Community of Tiktin

In 1522, the Voivode of Troki, Stanisław Gasztołd, invited nine Jews from Grodno to come and live in Tykocin. In the privilege issued on that occasion, the Jews were given a place to live in an area located “in the Kaczorowo quarter, beyond the bridge” and received permission to build a synagogue. Space was marked out for a cemetery “beyond the gardens, on the first hill across the river.” The Jews were also allowed to build trading stalls near the town hall where they could engage in all kinds of trade. From that time on, Jews could settle in Tykocin and, thanks to a variety of beneficial privileges, the number of Jewish inhabitants increased quickly.

In 1571, some 59 Jewish, 236 Polish, and 62 Ruthenian families lived in Tykocin, as well as one Lithuanian family. The town was divided into two parts: western – Christian, and eastern – Jewish, which were connected by a street running along the Narew River. The central point of the Jewish quarter, called Kaczorowo, was the synagogue complex. In 1642, the main synagogue was established. The building conforms to the traditional Polish style characteristic of that period: it is a nine-bay synagogue with a bridal canopy-like bimah whose four corner pillars support the vaulted ceiling. The massive brick structure, erected on a square ground plan, was initially topped by a concave roof with an attic. However, after a fire in 1736 the roof was replaced with a mansard-type one. On two sides the synagogue is adjoined by women’s galleries, and on the southwestern side, by a tower that once housed a prison for disobedient members of the Jewish community and also served as the rabbi’s dwelling.

 

Zespół Synagogalny w Tykocinie, obecnie oddział Muzeum Podlaskiego, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko. zbiory Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"
Zygmunt Zych Bujnowski, Old Synagogue in Tykocin, (oil painting, 1926), collection of of the Museum Podlaskie, branch in Tykocin

Muzeum

The beautiful synagogue was pillaged and destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt in the 1970s, and since November 1, 1976, it has been home to a branch of the Podlasie Museum, focusing on Jewish history and traditions. The museum’s head office is situated in the former yeshivah, or Talmudic academy, built in the 18th century and also rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II. Visitors to the synagogue can admire its painted interior décor and ornaments, while the women’s gallery has an area designated for temporary exhibitions. The museum is open six days a week, from Tuesday to Sunday, and attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year (tel. +48 85 718 16 13, +48 509 336 597, [email protected]).

Wnętrze synagogi (ekspozycja muzealna), 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"
The synagogue's interior (museum exhibition), Tykocin, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the ”Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” (www.teatrnn.pl)

There were other Jewish prayer houses in Tykocin, but they have not survived.

The “Hevrah Humash”Beth Midrash was located in a small building next to the synagogue (now it is an empty square between the Villa Regent Hotel and the foundations of the stalls in Piłsudskiego St.). The Jews who came here to pray were those unable to study the Talmud, so they limited themselves to studying the “parashat ha-shavua” (a weekly portion of the Torah). Most of them were hard-working labourers. It was only on the Sabbath that they could devote their time to these study sessions, and the only text they could comprehend was the Humash (Pentateuch). On Saturday, before dawn and long before the morning prayers, they would gather in their bet midrash and study the reading for that week. After studying all that there was to study, even before the morning prayer began, they would go to the house of their friend, baker Menachem Kobyliński, where they had some cake and a cup of hot tea. The building was completely destroyed during the Holocaust.

Translated from: Małgorzata Choińska, A Walk Around Jewish Tykocin – www.shtetlroutes.eu

 

Rabbi Maharam and Rebecca Tiktiner

The kahal (Jewish community) in Tykocin had jurisdiction over smaller communities within the range of several dozen kilometres: these included nine communities in the Land of Bielsk Podlaski (Tykocin, Białystok, Boćki, Orla, Jasionówka, Augustów, Goniądz, Knyszyn, Rajgród), four communities in the Mielnik Land (Konstantynów, Łosice, Niemirów, and Rossosz), and Siemiatycze in the Drohiczyn Land. As one of the 13 zemstvos (regions), it sent its delegates to the meetings of the Council of Four Lands (Hebr.: Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot) – the self-governing umbrella organization that decided on the internal affairs of Jewish communities in the entire Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and represented the entire Polish Jewry before the Polish king and royal treasurer. The lost protocols of the Council of Four Lands were neatly reconstructed by the 20th-century scholars on the basis of the copies preserved in the communal records of Tykocin (Pinkas kehillat Tiktin).

Menachem David ben Yitzhak, also known as the Maharam from Tykocin, was a local rabbi in the 16th century. He authored many commentaries and rabbinic responsa, among them the Sefer Mordechai (Hebr.: The Book of Mordechai), published in Cracow in 1597.

Another historical figure from Tykocin is Rebecca, daughter of Meir from Tykocin (b. before 1550 – d. 1605). She spent most of her life in Prague. Rebecca became famous as the author of a book written in Yiddish, entitled Meynekes Rivke (Yid.: Rebecca’s Nursemaid), published in Prague in 1609. Addressed to Jewish women, the book inspired piety and dealt with the role of women in the family and society as well as with the upbringing of Jewish children and the need to provide them with education, both religious and secular.

 

Grandfather with a mace

Plac i pomnik Stefana Czarnieckiego, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"
Monument to Stefan Czarniecki, Tykocin, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the ”Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” (www.teatrnn.pl)

In 1658, King John Casimir granted the estate of Tykocin to Grand Crown Hetman Stefan Czarniecki in recognition of his contribution during the Polish-Swedish War. Czarniecki’s grandson, Jan Klemens Branicki, redeveloped the town by giving it a more urban shape, which can still be seen today. In the middle of the town stands a statue of the Hetman. As mentioned in the Memorial Book of Tiktin (Tykocin), the local Jews nicknamed the monument Zeide mit bulave, meaning “Grandfather with a mace.”

The treasures of Tykocin include its numerous surviving wooden houses. One of them still has a colourful stained-glass window with an image of the Star of David, which was installed by the pre-war owner of the house – Haim Żółty. Also, the Zamenhof family comes from Tykocin. This fact is commemorated by a plaque on the family home of Markus Zamenhof, the father of Ludwik – the creator of Esperanto.

 

 

Firefighters and actors

At the end of the 19th century, the economic situation had become so bad that more than half of the inhabitants of Tykocin were forced to leave the town. Many emigrated to the United States, where they settled in big cities. As a result, the Vaad Yotzei Tiktin (Council of the Tykocin émigrés) association was established in Chicago. Meanwhile, social and cultural life revived in the town itself. At the end of the 19th century, Jewish and Christian inhabitants of Tykocin together established a fire brigade. This was soon joined by an orchestra made up of 30 musicians, with Abraham Turek as a conductor (1872–1954). New libraries were formed, theatre performances were staged, and new political parties were set up, including the Zionist Hibbat Zion (Heb.: Love of Zion) and also a local branch of the socialist Bund. In 1925, the Jewish community of Tykocin, together with a group of Poles invited for the occasion, celebrated the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Amatorska grupa teatralna z Tykocina przedstawia spektakl W. Szekspira „Król Lear”, 1920, zbiory Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, Photo Archive, Tel Awiw, dzięki uprzejmości Edny Meshulam
An amateur theatre group from Tykocin staging William Shakespeare's King Lear, 1920. Collection of Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv; courtesy of Edna Meshulam


In the mid-1980s, the Tykocin Amateur Theatre was established, with a view to revive the town’s interwar theatrical traditions. The performances revolve around the history and tradition of Tykocin, its former religious customs and traditions (observed at Christmas and during Passion Week) as well as Jewish culture and tradition. The performances staged so far include Leon Schiller”s Pastorałka (Pastorale) as well as Gorzkie żale (Bitter Lamentations), Purymowe łakocie (Purim Delicacies), and Sholem Aleichem’s Inside Kasrilovka, Three Stories. For many years, the curator and director of the theatre has been Janusz Kozłowski; the author of the performance pieces is Ewa Wroczyńska, the long-time director of the Tykocin Museum.

 

The Siemiatycki brothers

Tykocin was the hometown of the Siemiatycki brothers: Haim and Zeidel, both of whom received a traditional rabbinic education at the local yeshivah.

Haim (b. 1908) became a poet and writer. In his poems, he praised the beauty of nature. In 1929, he moved to Vilnius, where he published volumes of poetry: Oysgeshtrekte hent (Hands Reaching Out, Warsaw 1935) and Tropns toy (Dewdrops, Warsaw 1938). In 1939, Haim received the I. L. Peretz Literary Award. In September 1943, Haim was shot dead in a mass execution in Ponary near Vilnius. At this place German SD, SS and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators murdered approximately 100,000 people in the period between July 1941 and August 1944. The victims were mainly Jews (70,000) but also Poles (between 2,000 and 20,000), Russian POWs (8,000) and people of various other nationalities.

Zeidel Siemiatycki returned to his hometown after completing his rabbinic studies in Tykocin, Łomża, and Mir and became a local teacher. Later, he moved to Warsaw, where he served as a rabbi and an activist of the Agudas Yisroel party, which represented Orthodox Jews. In 1938, Zeidel became a rabbi at the famous Volozhin (Wołożyn) yeshivah, and during World War II he moved back to Mir. In late 1940, together with several hundred students from the Mir Yeshivah, he travelled by Trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok and then by ship to Japan. In 1943, he found himself in London, where, known as Zeidel Tiktiner, he continued his activity as a rabbi and lecturer.

 

World War II and the Holocaust

At the end of 1939, Tykocin was occupied by Soviet troops, which were stationed there until June 1941. Part of the Polish and Jewish population of Tykocin was deported to Siberia. When the German-Soviet war broke out, the town found itself in the German occupation zone. As a result, on August 25–26, 1941, almost all the 2,500 Jews of Tykocin were marched to the Łopuchowo Forest, located 6 km from the town, where they were killed by an SS Sonderkommando from Białystok. Their mass graves are now marked with symbolic matzevot. Every year, the place is visited by thousands of people, mainly by Jewish youth from Israel.

 

Las Łopuchowski - miejsce pamięci w miejscu egzekucji tykocińskich  Żydów, 2015, fot. Monika Tarajko, zbiory Ośrodka „Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN"
The memorial at the site of the mass execution of Tykocin’s Jews, the Łopuchowo Forest, 2015. Photo by Monika Tarajko, digital collection of the ”Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” (www.teatrnn.pl)

 

The cemetery

One of the oldest and largest Jewish cemeteries in Poland is located in Strażacka St. in Tykocin. It is believed to date back to the 16th century, but only a few matzevot survive, with the oldest legible stone from 1754.

 

The old Jewish cemetery was covered with heavy old matzevot from hundreds of years back; there were graves of rabbis, geonim, and all the other eminent figures of their time. They were graves that one would approach after taking off one’s shoes, with fear and great respect. They were graves that gave rise to various legends, with matzevot half-ruined with age, and with cracks where those in need put their kvitlech with their trembling fingers and instantly felt great relief in their aching hearts.

Menachem Turek, “The Life and the Holocaust of the Tykocin Jews during the German Occupation,” in Sefer Tiktin (Hebr.: The Book of Tykocin), Tel Aviv 1959

 

Present day

Today, Tykocin has a population of about 2,000 people. Thanks to the charming atmosphere of this small town, its well-preserved urban layout, its beautiful natural surroundings, and the museum located in the former synagogue, Tykocin stands as an important centre of cultural tourism. It serves its visitors with several restaurants, small hotels, and many guesthouses scattered around the area. One of the local hotels, Villa Regent (3 Sokołowska St.) even offers its guests a mikveh.

Authors: Małgorzata Choińska, Emil Majuk

Worth seeing

  • Synagogue complex (17th c.), now a museum, 2 Kozia St.,tel. +48 85 718 16 13, +48 509 336 597, [email protected]
  • Jewish cemetery (16th c.), Strażacka St.
  • The urban layout with low, richly ornamented buildings (18th c.).
  • Baroque parish Church of the Holy Trinity (1742–1749), 2 11 Listopada St.
  • Former military boarding school (17th c.), 1 Poświętna St.
  • Catholic cemetery (1792) with the Gloger family chapel (1885), 2 11 Listopada St.
  • Former Bernardine monastery complex (1771–1790), now the Social Welfare Home, 1 Klasztorna St.
  • Castle (15th c., partly reconstructed in 21st c.), 3 Puchalskiego St.

Surrounding area

Tykocin lies between the Biebrzański National Park to the north and the Narew National Park to the south. The Podlasie Stork Route runs through the area.

Kiermusy (5 km): European bison breeding farm; the so-called Manorial Labourers’ Living Quarters; the reconstruction of the 1832 Polish-Russian border; the reconstruction of the 15th-c. Amber Castle.

Choroszcz (21 km): a Jewish cemetery (early 19th c.); the Branicki Castle, now the Museum of Palace Interiors (1745–1764); the water tower (19th c.); the Dominican monastery (18th c.); the Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Mother of God (19th c.).

Białystok (30 km): Jewish cemeteries (18th c., 19th c., 20th c.) among which only one, so-called Bagnówka (19th c.), is preserved with about 2,400 tombstones; Piaskover Beth Midrash Synagogue, now the head office of the Zamenhof Foundation (19th c.); Beth Samuel Synagogue, now the training centre of the Provincial Police Headquarters; the Cytron Synagogue, now the Sleńdziński Gallery; the Białystok Manufacturers’ Trail (19th/20th c.); the Branicki palace and park complex (18th c.); St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church (18th c.); the Metropolitan Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (17th c.).

Łapy (33 km); the grave of a Jewish girl who was thrown out of a train bound for the Treblinka extermination camp, along the railway line between Łapy and Osse; “Osse” railway housing estate; “Wygwizdowo” railway housing estate.

Suraż (40 km): the urban layout: the Polish (lacki) marketplace, the Ruthenian (ruski) marketplace (15th/16th c.); a Jewish cemetery (1865); Władysław Litwińczuk’s private Archaeological Museum; the Legacy of Generations Museum; the Museum of Chapels.

Jedwabne (42 km): a Jewish cemetery (19th c.) next to the scene of the 10 July 1941 pogrom, when hundreds of Jews were herded into the local synagogue and burned alive by their Polish neighbors.

Wysokie Mazowieckie (44 km): a Jewish cemetery with about 60 tombstones (1st half of the 19th c.); Church of St. John the Baptist (1875); a former Uniate Orthodox Church, now the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1798).

Zambrów (48 km): a Jewish cemetery with about 100 tombstones (19th c.); a memorial to the approx. 2,000 Jews from Zambrów executed by the Nazis in the forests near the villages of Kołaki Kościelne and Szumowo; a Catholic cemetery (1795); Holy Trinity Church (1879); the Regional Historical Chamber.

Łomża (54 km): the Jewish hospital, now the 3rd General Secondary School (1857); the former “Centus” Orphanage for Boys and Girls, 7 Senatorska St.; two Jewish cemeteries (19th c.); the town hall (1822–1823); St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral (1504); the cathedral cemetery: Roman Catholic, Augsburg Evangelical, and Orthodox (18th c.); the Capuchin Church and Monastery (1770–1798).

Giełczyn (62 km): a memorial place to the approx. 12,000 Jewish victims of the mass murders carried out by the Nazis in 1941–1944; the Giełczyn Forest.

Czyżew (62 km): the synagogue in Piwna St., currently a warehouse (19th c.); the Jewish cemetery (1820); the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1874); a wooden villa, 12 Mazowiecka St. (early 20th c.); the manor park (2nd half of 19th c.).

Szumowo (63 km): a wooden synagogue moved from Śniadowo, now the parish house (circa 1933).

Nowogród (68 km): Adam Chętnik Heritage Park (30 buildings moved from the Kurpie Forest); a Jewish cemetery; the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (19th c.).

The Biebrza National Park: The largest national park in Poland, it encompasses one of the most pristine peatbogs in Central Europe.

The Narew National Park: The park protects the marshy Narew River Valley with its abundant fauna and flora, a region sometimes called the Polish Amazonia.

The Podlasie Stork Trail: The trail is inspired by the white stork presence and combines trails available on a bicycle or horseback, in a kayak or traditional push-boat, or even by car.