The Great Synagogue at Tykocin is one of the oldest and biggest in Poland. No wonder, the Tykocin Kahal (Jewish community) came second in importance in Poland only to the Cracow one. Built in 1642, the synagogue was not only the house of prayer for the over 2000 of Tykocin Jews, it housed school rooms, small shops and women's rooms of prayer in the extensions. The building survived the war but was ruined inside. Restored in the years 1974-78, it now houses the Museum of Tykocin, with collections of Jewish memorabilia, which I will describe in separate tips. Inside, the synagogue looks as if prayers were about to start. And indeed three times a year rabbis come and celebrate Sukkot, Hanukkah and Purim and the whole town joins in the celebrations.
In the tower of the Synagogue there is also a rabbi's room and a room where the table is laid for Seder Pesah (special dinner eaten at Pesah) but we were unable to see either on our three visits. The staff don't inform the visitors of this possibility, probably because the tower is so small and too many visitors would ruin the place, and the last time I didn't want to ask as they were all too busy with the preparations for Hanukkah. But I do hope to see them some day.
The Museum is open daily, except Mondays and days following official holidays.
Opening hours - 10 - 17, tickets sold till 16.30
Admission - 5 PLN, concessions - 3 PLN, on Saturdays admission free
The wall opposite the entrance in the Tykocin Great Synagogue is lined with showcases containing old Judaic objects used for worship. However, it is difficult to take pictures of them through the glass so we managed to photograph just a few. The crown in the picture (Keter Torah) is put on Torah when it is in the Ark. There is also a beautiful embroidered cover there that you put over Torah but that picture did not come out. There are a few phylacteries - small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law. But again the picture was no good. A whole collection of candleholders was easier to take a picture of and my husband managed to take a picture of a beautiful ornate 19th century Hanukkah lamp (candelabrum with places for 8 candles and the shammus candle), to be lit one by one from right to left (the way you read Hebrew) on successive days of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
There are just a few old Jewish houses remaining in Tykocin, but they are not easy to find. However, the custodian at the Beit Midrasz, the study house, which forms part of the Museum at the Great Synagogue, kindly gave us directions how to get to one of them. This little timber house with some of the windows and door boarded over and the Star of David in the porch window (see picture 2) looks uninhabited, perhaps it's one of the museum exhibits. Looking at it, you try to imagine the people who lived there but you daren't even think of what could have happened to them, and why that house is now empty.
A separate room in the Great Synagogue is devoted to objects owned by the Tykocin Jews which remained after the Shoah. Here is a collection of old photographs of the Jews, both of those who died and those who had managed to survive the Holocaust, mainly by emigrating before it started. One of the photographs shows the fifth form of the Jewish primary school in Tykocin. When you look at the smiling or serious faces, you can see the tragedy of those people even more clearly, they are no longer anonymous but have names, jobs, families, biographies - they simply come alive. The few objects remaining from their households: candlesticks, chipped crockery, a pewter jug are a poignant reminder of the fate of their owners.
Some of the descriptions are in Polish and English, some are in Polish only.
The interior of the Tykocin Synagogue was ruined by the Nazis but renovation works in 1974-78 led to the discovery of real treasures: Hebrew and Aramaic polychromies covering the walls.
As the lighting of the synagogue was not sufficient in the past ages, it was difficult to read from the prayer books so whole pages of prayers and psalms were inscribed on the walls. The colourful lines written from right to left as is the custom in Hebrew look really wonderful.
In the first picture the lower circular inscription means 'I am ever mindful of the Lord's presence' (Psalms 17:8). This inscription is found in many synagogues over the lectern where the prayer leader or cantor stands, often to the side of the Aron Kodesh. When I see it there, I cannot help asking: Did the Lord see what was happening to His flock on the two terrible days of August 1941?
The 18th century Beit Midrasz, or the house where Jewish people came to study Talmud or other religious writings is part of the Museum at Tykocin. Re-built after the war, it now houses a collection of old Polish furniture, paintings and other objects connected with Tykocin. One of the most interesting exhibits there is the interior of an old provincial pharmacy, with all its paraphernalia. There is also a collection of paintings by Zygmunt Bujnowski and Gloger's study full of most curious objects from his collection. A small archaeological department displays objects discovered by archaeologists on the town site. And the central place there occupies the charter granting Tykocin civic rights by Prince Janusz of Mazovia, which dates back to 1425. After World War II, partly ruined and deprived of its Jewish community and the Polish inteligentsia, who shared the Jews' tragic fate, the town lost its civic rights to get them back only in 1993.
In the middle of the market square stands the monument to hetman Stefan Czarniecki, the Polish national hero mentioned in the Polish national anthem, famous for the defense of the Polish cities at the time of the Swedish 'deluge'. Czarniecki was presented with the Tykocin estate by the king in recognition of his great contribution to Poland's independence. The monument was erected by Jan Klemens Branicki, Czarniecki's great-grandson in the years 1761-1763. The sculptor and designer was Piotr Coudray. A few years ago the monument was surrounded by beautiful old trees, which, however, were all rooted up by a violent gale. Amazingly, the monument itself and the surrounding houses did not suffer any damage. The houses in the cobbled market square, with their wooden verandahs look more like cottages, just as they looked years ago. In fact, the whole square looks as it must have looked at the time when the whole Jewish population of the town were ordered to gather here before being marched to Zawady and then murdered in the Lopuchowo forest.
Founded by Jan Klemens Branicki in the years 1740-1750 and designed and built by Józef Sekowski and Jan Henryk Klemm, this magnificent late baroque church occupies the whole east side of the market square. Its facade with two symmetrical arcaded hemispheric wings, each with a tower at its end, is truly imposing. The gate is decorated with sculptures of saints.
The Lopuchowo forest, just a few kilometres SW of Tykocin, was the final stop for the Tykocin Jews on the 5th and 6th of August 1941. On this date, under the command of special delegate Wolfgang Birkner of the Warsaw Gestapo, police units 309 and 316 - "Kommando Bialystok"- together with local police drove the Tykocin Jews out of their homes and then on to Zawady, from where they were transported by trucks to the forest near the village of Lopuchowo. There, over 2000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered and buried in three mass graves. It was a big 'operation', which the Nazis were unable to carry out in one day, so they told some of the Jews to come back the next day. Just imagine waiting to be killed for two days!
Today, an obelisk commemorates the tragic fate of Tykocin's Jewish community. The inscription on it says in Polish: 'Here lie 3000 Polish citizens brutally killed in the years 1941-1943 by Hitlerite murderers. Honour their memory.'
The photograph of the graves was taken by my vt friend Adi (adin) on his latest visit to Poland. Thank you, Adi!
One wall of the synagogue is occupied by what looks like an altar - the Aron ha Kodesh, which is the most important place in a synagogue. Here behind the 'parokhet', as the curtain is called, is the Holy Ark, the cabinet where the Torah Scrolls are kept. A scroll is taken out at services on the Sabbath, and on Monday and Thursday morning and a portion of it is read aloud.
Unfortunately, the interior of the synagogue was ruined during the war so these elements are not original. The beautiful 'parokhet', for instance, was donated by the Lauder Foundation.
Founded by Krzysztof Wiesiolowski, the Great Marshal of Lithuania and subprefect of Tykocin, this building was erected in 1633-34 on the plan of a square with a yard in the middle and two towers facing the river, which are no longer there. It looked like a small castle but was destined for war veterans, who had spent their life in the service of their country. Not any veterans though, they had to be officers, of noble birth and, for some reason, Catholics.
It served this purpose until WWI, then was converted into flats for poor families. It now houses a hotel and a restaurant.
The interior of the Holy Trinity Church at Tykocin is truly magnificent: the walls and ceilings of the 3-aisle church are decorated with splendid polychromy, some of which, painted by Sebastian Eckstein, dates back to 1749. The rest, by Wladyslaw Drapiewski and matching beautifully the 18th century paintings, comes from 1912. The main altar is all gilded and there is a lot of gilding in the side altars and other architectural details of the church as well.
All the altars, the pulpit, the confessionals and the fount date back to 1750.
The organ, founded, like the whole church, by Jan Klemens Branicki, was restored to its former glory in the years 1997-1999, so that nowadays organ concerts can take place there. We were not given the chance to listen to one, but if you visit the place on the last Sunday of July or August, you may have more luck.
Opposite the Great Synagogue you can see a few old Jewish tenement houses, which used to be divided into flats. A plaque on one of the houses informs us that it was here that Marek Zamenhof, an author of textbooks and teacher of French and German, used to live. Born in Tykocin in 1837, he was the father of Ludwik Zamenhof, a doctor and creator of Esperanto, the international language. Having left Tykocin, Marek Zamenhof moved to Bialystok, where his son was born, and finally to Warsaw, where Ludwik Zamenhof is now buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Okopowa. The father's interests and the idea that the new universal language could stop the hatred between the nations and bring the people closer together, had a great impact on Ludwik Zamenhof's life and work.
The central place in the Great Synagogue is occupied by bima, a kind of ornate platform, here taking the form of a chapel, from which scrolls of Torah are read and prayers are conducted. When we visited the Synagogue for the second time, there was a group of Israeli youth seated in front of it, listening to a lady who must have been telling them the history of the place. It was in Hebrew so we didn't understand a word but the talk was interspersed with Jewish music, which could bring tears to your eyes when you looked at the young people listening so attentively and remembered the fate of their ancestors.