Blog  Tykocin: Memories of Thriving Jewish Life

Tykocin: Memories of Thriving Jewish Life

Maya K 2Maya K. is a junior from Truro, MA. She is an alum of Crane Lake Camp and belongs to the Cape Cod Synagogue.

Prior to 1941, the small city Tykocin was a thriving Jewish kehillah. At its height, two-thirds of the population of Tykocin were Jewish; the Jews lived harmoniously with Poles. However, Jewish houses lined the cobblestone streets; as we walked, the small wooden houses of the Jews stood out. Although we visited Tykocin on a Monday, you could almost feel the presence of the pre-Shabbat market in the town square. Even the small, overgrown cemetery was Jewish; each headstone had Hebrew carved in. When we arrived in Tykocin, we immediately went into the Beit Knesset. On the walls were hand-painted prayers decorated with flowers, designs and other kosher art.

Maya1The bimah stood in the middle; the ark was made of carved wood and grew out of the wall. The Beit Knesset in Tykocin showed evidence of lively prayer, and when we had t’fillah there later in the day, we helped bring that life back. As we walked through the streets on the way to the Tykocin cemetery, we could see houses that used to belong to Jews. Most of the houses were small and wooden. Although the cemetery was mostly vast, overgrown space, it was still reminiscent of former life. For the most part, the Hebrew on the headstone was so corroded you could not read it, but if you ran your hands along the indentations, you could feel the letters. This paralleled the overall atmosphere of Tykocin; you cannot see the Jewish life, but you can feel it in the air.

We walked from the cemetery through the streets and passed a small river. Almost all European shtetlach had a river running through or near them; rivers provided essential trade paths that boosted economy. In addition to the river, the most important economic aspect of TykocMaya6in was the vast market located in the town square. You could almost smell the marketplace; despite the empty square, you could hear the hustle in the streets. Despite the lack of Jews in Tykocin, the Jewish presence is great. During t’fillah, we brought life back to the Beit Knesset through prayer; we even sang some of the prayers that decorated the walls. We continued to dance, sing, and rejoice as the Jews of Tykocin once did. However, our happiness was cut short when we brought to the forest near the town where the people of Tykocin were shot in mass graves on August 25, 1941. There, in those woods, we learned about the lost life of Tykocin.

Maya7There were almost no survivors of Tykocin. We heard one story about a lone survivor who escaped before the Jews were rounded up in the town square and then made to run to a forest miles away. People were made to undress completely and then stand on the edge of one of three mass graves. The sight of these graves now remain a memorial to the town that was shot to death. Three square fenced-in areas are covered in memorial candles, notes, flowers and Israeli flags. Inside the fences there are small trees and other plants springing up from the wet ground. I decided to walk slowly around the perimeter of each grave, and as I walked, I thought about how each individual killed here brought something unique to the community of Tykocin. Every person that lay Maya8buried in these graves made the town special. Everyone gathered in front of the largest memorial, the center of the three graves, for a small ceremony led by our madrichim. Here we heard a song and the story of the lone survivor of the mass murder, the boy whose entire family was killed here. At the end of the ceremony, we raised our voices together in Hatikvah, and did something that the Jews of Tykocin never had the chance to do: we walked out of the forest alive.