My father’s cousin, Morris Biales, was raised in the town of Tykocin (“Tiktin,” in Yiddish). He emigrated at age 13, became a vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and died in 1997 at age 100. He lived longer into my adulthood that anyone else in that generation of my father’s family.
Tykocin, about 105 miles northeast of Warsaw and 45 miles from the Russian border, was the town where almost everyone in my father’s extended family lived and left around 1900. In the Pale of Settlement, it was part of the lands that were contested by the Russians, the Prussians, and the Austrians.
In a 1994 oral history, Morris Biales described the relationship between Jews and Gentiles: “In Tiktin, we lived in peace with the goyim.” He recounted his memory of the annual Kol Nidre service. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Tiktin’s Jews would mow the cemetery, carry the clippings into the synagogue, and spread the sweet-smelling grass on the dirt floor. Then everyone – including the non-Jewish town officials – would stand side-by-side and listen to the beautiful chanting of the chazzan.
Tykocin is visited today by thousands of young Jews from the U.S., Israel, and South Africa who go on the “March of the Living” and other programs designed to nurture a love of Israel. Tykocin’s great synagogue, a beautiful baroque structure built in 1642, remains much as it was: prayers are painted on the walls because not everyone had a prayerbook.
It is a destination today, however, for a different reason. In September 1939, the German Army invaded Poland and captured the land around Tykocin; a few weeks later they passed it into Soviet hands. In June 1941, the Germans invaded again and encouraged the non-Jewish residents of the town to loot the Jews’ property and give it to the Germans.
On August 25, 1941, the Germans ordered the Jews to gather at the market square for resettlement in a nearby ghetto. Instead 3,000 men, women, and children were taken to a forest, forced to dig their own mass graves, and then executed by SS firing squads. The Tykocin massacre was the first of many that the Germans were to repeat in other area towns.
The March of the Living visit to Tykocin is preceded by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The narrative of these teen trips is that Poland was a killing ground and Israel, where they go after Poland, is the land where the Jewish people was reborn out of the ashes.
This is not my narrative, and it is the reason I have been involved with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations. The Forum has had some success in arranging opportunities for Jewish and Polish teenagers to engage in dialogue about their shared history, but it’s not a high priority for those bringing groups to Poland, because it is not in their narrative.
The Forum’s Schools for Dialogue program that I described in a previous blog at least can help Poland’s teenagers – and their parents and friends and relatives and fellow townspeople – grow in understanding. Learning in depth about the role of Jews in their communities will help them become educated and compassionate citizens of the world.
Why should we care?
Poland’s economy is growing: it was the only member of the European Union to avoid the recent recession. Poland’s college and high school students are part of a global workforce that will be encountering others and shaping their communities wherever they settle. Poland is a democracy and an important strategic partner of the United States and Western governments. Poland is a loyal supporter and partner of Israel.
Based on the narrative of my family, I believe that it is possible for Jewish and Polish people to stand together and listen to beautiful music. It happened in Tykocin. It has been happening for 20 years in Krakow at the Jewish Cultural Festival. With the help of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, it can happen throughout Poland.