Heller High Poland Pilgrimage: Tykocin

By Mikayla Snead, 10th grade, Dallas

Recently, I was on the journey of a lifetime traveling around Poland. Out of the many places we went to and traveled around, Tykocin stands out the most. My experience there was very special, and I know I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

A tombstone in the Jewish cemetery of Tykocin

Our first stop when we arrived in Tykocin was a very old Jewish cemetery. I remember there being very few gravestones, and the cemetery was not very well kept. The few stones that were there had writing on them, but it was so eroded that it was almost impossible to read. I remember being told that it was a cemetery that was never destroyed. It was left as it was when the Nazis came through in 1941 and the people who were left after the war purposely left it alone so the people buried there can lie in peace underground. This cemetery is no longer active.

After visiting the cemetery, we walked around the old shtetl that existed before World War II. Out of all the information I learned, one thing really stuck out to me: even though there was so much anti-Semitism in Europe during – and even before – World War II, the Christian and Jewish communities lived side by side as if there was nothing going on outside of the town. It was so interesting to me that during everything going on outside the community, these two different sets of people were living their lives happily together, side by side. To this day, there is still a community living in Tykocin; however, there are no Jews, only Polish Christians.

Inside the shtetl of Tykocin, there was an old synagogue. It was incredibly beautiful inside. My all-time favorite part of being in the synagogue was the fact that we were bringing life back into it. I remember we had a very short service inside, and immediately after had a song session to remember. We sang some songs people knew from camp, which made me feel more connected than ever with this group of people I’ve been surrounded by for the past three months. It truly felt special. But then we suddenly had to stop…

After all of the joy and fun we were having, we were told that in one day, the entire Jewish community in Tykocin was taken away. We got on the bus. Silently. We drove until we got to a wooded area. I didn’t think anybody knew what was going on when we got there – I know I didn’t. We started walking through the woods, and we eventually we got to a space with three mass graves, all fenced around. There was a memorial at each grave with candles, flags, letters, flowers, and so much more. My heart dropped when I realized what I was looking at. There were hundreds of dead bodies in those graves and I was walking on the same trail that these innocent people walked. We learned that they were forced to sing Hatikvah, and then told to strip naked and walk to the edge to meet their fate.

We learned so much about what happened to the Jews of Tykocin during the Shoah during our trip to Tykocin. It’s sad, tragic, heartbreaking, but most of all, real. It was very difficult to see these graves, but I knew that we needed to be there so that we could really understand the lives of these people and the tragedy they experienced, and so that we can keep their story alive.

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