Written by: Brandon Schoenfeld
Welcome to Tykocin! This quaint little Polish town is only a two-hour drive from Warsaw. If you park at the old shul (synagogue) like we did, you are at the center of the old shtetl (town).
Take a left down the main road. As you begin to walk out of the city, you will see a seemingly green field ahead of you.
What’s in that field?
As you get closer, you’ll see that the field contains remnants of a cemetery, a Jewish cemetery. This was the cemetery used by the Jewish community from its founding in 1522 all the way to 1939. You will find headstones that are, at best, barely legible. Almost none of those headstones stand up straight, the least fortunate are completely sideways. They sit on a mound of raised, browning grass as if screaming ”notice us.”
This handful of headstones represent the some 15,000 Jewish residents of Tykocin, a well-respected and educated community that served in local government and business. They also worked closely with the communities around them, all while practicing an unwavering devotion to their faith.
If you’re smart, you will pay your respects and leave. These were the lucky ones; they died and were buried with respect. For at least a generation, they had people to remember them.
Where to go next?
Next walk back the way you came, past the old shul towards the center of town. Go towards the town square, it once was the center of all life in Tykocin. Pass through the square and go see the new center of town. This section of town runs along a river, it’s so beautiful it could be in a movie. You will see a thriving town, full of life. You’ll see restaurants and people milling about. This is what a town should look like! Above you will be a beautiful Church, it looks like it comes straight from the 17th century. The whole town fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, everything seems like it was made for this place.
Look inside the shul, this is a place of beauty! The walls are covered in prayers, beautifully painted by the town’s finest artisans. In the center sits a large arc, whose pillars gracefully sweep from the ceiling to the floor. These halls now remain empty, with no echoes of prayer within.
Next walk back towards the town square; it served as the meeting place for shtetl Jews and the Christians who made up the other half of town. This was a progressive town; it had an interfaith school to prevent religious tension and was almost 50/50 in population. Today, this town square is silent and empty. The occasional car will drive by quickly as if running from history. Though sitting in the now almost forgotten town square you will think to yourself:
Where did all of this life go?
This was the place where prayer echoes fell silent. In 1941 the Nazi’s sent four elite military units of the Einsatzgruppen into USSR controlled Poland for Operation Barbarossa. They proceeded to enter the town, force most of the Jewish community into the town square and marched them out of town. Forty-five minutes later they stopped in front of three open pits in the Lupachova forest where they were systematically forced to undress and were shot into the pits. This systematic Shoah (destruction) by bullets continued for a few days until no Jews remained…