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[Page 583]

Tykocin after the Holocaust

by Att. Menachem Tamir (Turek)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Halfway through August 1944 and after my brother Moshe and I had been released by the Red Army we made our way towards Bialystok. Although Tykocin, our birthplace, was closer we decided not to go there fearing the rabid spirit of anti–Semitism that was prevalent there and in the surrounding area. We thought also, that we were the sole Jewish survivors of that town. We had been witnesses to mass murder and of mass murders in other places from rumors we had heard while in our various hiding places; we heard of Jews being caught hiding and being killed but rumors of survivors we never heard… we had the feeling that we had arrived in another world, alien and strange from the world we had known before the terrible catastrophe.

That feeling took hold and grew as we proceeded on our way. Polish farmers left their work and hurried to come and see the people that they couldn't believe were still living. But beyond cries of surprised greetings we could sense their morbid in–bred hatred. I felt that had it not been for their fear of the Russians they would have killed us.

The Bialystok ghetto, where we had spent twenty months, was deserted and partially ruined. Within a few days some Jews had come together there but we were eager to see Tykocin and two days after arriving in Bialystok we left and arrived in Tykocin.

As we approached the town news of our arrival spread rapidly and as we actually entered we were met with wild greetings of joy and astonishment. Apparently they had heard in Tykocin that we had been caught by the Germans. I hardly knew my beloved town. The market square and surrounding houses that had in other days constituted the center of Jewish life in town

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had disappeared off the face of the earth. Of the row of houses that had been on the left of the street leading to the market just two survived: my parents' home and the corner house where previously had been the bakery of David Zolti. All the other houses, among them the house of the Toforovitz family, Shosheks and Shlomo Pines had disappeared. I discovered afterwards that the municipality had sold every Jewish house at a nominal price and the farmers in the district together with their wives and children simply invaded the homes and moved in, dismantled then piece by piece and transferred them to their villages and farms. We also discovered that the large timbered Study–House “The Mishneh Society” had been demolished, its timber taken to the nearby village of Sawino and there re–erected and lived in by a farmer.

Where the Study–House had stood, I found only the stone foundations. In contrast to that, I found that the great synagogue – the old “Shul” – that had been built like a fortress – stood on its foundations. But it, too, stood mourning and shamefaced, like a sad sentinel overlooking the destroyed, deserted surroundings. The small outbuilding at the entrance to the synagogue was destroyed and when I entered inside I had to clamber over the piles of rubble and rubbish that was deposited there. The Holy Ark and the steps leading up to it had disappeared entirely. The heavy doors – the gateway to righteousness, had been torn from their hinges. Tables, pews, chairs – everything moveable – had been taken. The red tesserae from the floor had all been torn up from the floor and thrown out smashed windows. Nothing remained to remind one of the grandeur that had graced the place for tens of generations. All that remained were the four walls with its depictions of biblical scenes and inscriptions of prayers and the sand floor. The spiral staircase leading up to the roof of the synagogue had also been destroyed. The thick solid wooden steps had been taken by the Poles and used to set the fires and that was the one good piece of luck that they were therefore unable to reach the upper level and destroy that too.

Our next stop was the cemetery. From a distance we saw a herd of cattle grazing there and as we got closer we could see no sign of the ancient tombstones marking the resting–place of our illustrious rabbis of the past. Only in the front rows where there were the simple cement gravestones did we find some isolated remnants. The enclosing fence, that had been erected just a short while before the war by donations from old Tykocin residents now living America, had also been destroyed. We found no sign whatsoever that this was a cemetery and had we not known of it we would not have believed that indeed it was. It was no wonder, then, that the lad tending the cattle stared at us with amazed eyes when we drove his herd out. At our requests the

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local police issued an order prohibiting people from trespassing there but the notice was not preserved for long. The place was open from all directions and herdsmen and shepherds continued to graze their livestock there and when they saw Jewish visitors approaching from a distance they hurriedly disappeared. There were three Polish families living in my parents' house, one of them, Poplawski had been a woodchopper before the war. That same day that we arrived we told them to leave and the following day they went. We were surprised to see the many crates and parcels that took him, a sturdy woodchopper like himself, half a day to remove. But not only the woodchopper; most of Tykocin's wretchedly poor residents before the war were suddenly wealthy and owners of property. We found no sign of any of our property from our family and of the silverware, gold articles and jewelry I had buried in my mother–in–law's cellar before we escaped, belonging to me, my brother and our family, not a sign was to be seen.

We knew there were two main gangs active in robbery and looting Jewish property. We spoke with them and they answered quite openly, “…but we drank it all and there's nothing left.”

One day I heard the noise of hammering from the direction of the synagogue next to our house. To my distress I saw a platoon of Russian soldiers busy destroying the rest of the synagogue. Deeply shocked I approached them and explained that it was a synagogue and asked them to stop but it had no effect. Even when I pleadings it didn't help – they just carried on. “We received orders and we have to carry them out. If we're ordered to stop – we'll stop.” I hurried to the army headquarters in Gershon Plonsky's house and only after I had insisted strongly was I allowed to see the officer in command. I explained to him that it was a synagogue, a holy place for us Jews and the only remnant that we, the Jews of Tykocin, had left to us. He replied that there had been no premeditated intent to harm a holy place he simply had a great need for bricks and so he had sent his soldiers to demolish deserted buildings. He gave me a document protecting the synagogue from harm and I used it on several occasions when soldiers came looking for bricks. Quite innocently and without bad intentions they sought to destroy the synagogue merely for the bricks.

At that time there were only three Jews in Tykocin: Bezalel Wiloga, who had arrived before us and had reopened his father's flour mill, me and my brother. To our good fortune, the rumor that we had returned spread quickly and people who were in need of treatment began to come to my bother, the doctor. They paid with chickens, butter other foodstuffs and from all that we lived.

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Each day brought with it another survivor of the Holocaust. Within a few days Eliezer and Arieh Fritz, Taybl and Fishl Silberstein, Mordecai Brener, Yitzhak Peler and his nephew Shmuel, Eliezer and Ziskind Olsztejn, Eliezer Choroshuka, Altar Katz, Khashke Yismach and her two children and others. Another week passed and we were twenty Jews in Tykocin. The Fritz brothers and Fishl Silberstein operated Khezkl–Berl Grodzinski's oil press, Mordecai Brener took over his father's house and operated the wool cleaning facility that had been his father's, Peler was busy in business and the others also found a living from various quarters. In the evenings we all met together, reminisced and sought mutual advice and more especially spoke about revenge.

On 25th August, the third anniversary of the terrible slaughter we all walked together to the common graves in the Łopuchowo forest. Standing there, in the forest clearing next to the three trenches, I suddenly noticed some freshly turned earth. I also noticed that round the edges of one of the trenches was a thin crack in the earth while around the second trench there were no signs of any disturbance. Taking a closer look I saw long iron bars of equal length sticking out of the ground around the trench. I suddenly recalled a memory I had of a meeting as I arrived in Bialystok after the liberation. There, I met two Jews who towards the end of the war were part of a much larger group transported hither and thither in closed trucks, by German officers who were constantly referring to maps. When the site they were looking for was finally located, the prisoners were ordered to open the grave and with long iron bars fitted with hooks dragged out the half–rotted corpses, laying them on logs of timber and piling them layer upon layer. When ready, the bodies were drenched in gasoline and set on fire. I immediately understood that they had done the same thing here in order to conceal the horrific crime that had been committed. Stooping down I dug my hand into the sandy soil and found bits of burnt and charred bones and ashes. It seems that the Germans only had time to burn the corpses in one of the trenches – the same trench that had the thin crack round the edges. The second trench showed no signs of burning. The third trench was not full. Several hundred Jews who were not in Tykocin on that tragic day and had escaped were missing and the Germans were not able to fill the trench and the piles of earth dug out of the ground three years previously and intended to cover them were still lying pile up alongside the trench. Only occasionally, whenever another Jew was caught, he was brought to the trench, murdered and interred there.

We asked a farmer living close by about the burning of the corpses and he told us that in the weeks before the retreat the Germans came to the place, placed a strong guard all round it and made sure that no one approached the area. But he had seen the smoke rising from the site.

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The same farmer gave us a few axes and we fenced the entire area and placed a sign in Hebrew and Polish reading “This is the common grave of the Jewish population of Tykocin who were exterminated and buried in this place on 25th August 1941 by Nazi murderers.” Crying and stunned we stood around the trenches. In a choking tearful voice I made some kind of a eulogy. Then we all recited Kaddish and returned to Tykocin. We all felt that if we had been survived it must be for a reason – we were saved to bear witness. We all thirsted for revenge.

Before the war, a young Pole named Vitek Kachinski, the son of a butcher in Tykocin, was much involved with Jewish life in Tykocin to the extent that he spoke fluent Yiddish. Later he was among the leaders of the National Youth Movement of Poland which was basically anti–Semitic and with the conquest of Poland by Germany he informed on all the Jews of Poland for collaboration with the Russians. We know that on the 24th August 1941, the day before the slaughter a car containing several high–ranking Gestapo officers arrived in Tykocin asking for the home address of Vitek Kachinski. A few hours later the fateful order commanding all the Tykocin Jews to report to the market place the following morning. We passed that information on to the Russian authorities who immediately arrested him and exile him to a forced labor camp in Siberia and about six months later we heard that there he died.

At the time the Polish administrative authority had not yet been organized. There was property in every Polish home in Tykocin. Some of the Jewish people had placed their trust in the Poles and deposited their property with them, while the major portion of the property had been stolen after the slaughter. The Poles were worried about us because they recognized that if Polish Jewish survivors – or any anonymous Jewish survivor of the Holocaust returned to Tykocin then they would have to return all the stolen property to the rightful owners. We wanted them to get it out of their minds that the property was theirs and we told them: “There are many other Jews who were hiding in different places throughout the war and they will all come back to Tykocin.” We also organized ourselves as a community and declared ourselves the heirs of the community and claimed rental from every Pole who was living in apartments and houses rightfully belonging to a returning Jew or his heirs. The rent we asked was minimal but in any case was intended to make clear unequivocally that we considered the stolen property as belonging exclusively to the Jewish community.

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In the meantime the far Right Nationalist underground was resurging and now had no enemies other than the Jews. Life for us again became precarious. From time to time we heard rumors of the murders of Jewish survivors. When we heard of the murder of twelve Jews in the nearby town of Sokoli we began to take careful precautions. My brother and I lived in our parents' house and the others had formed two groups. In the evenings we carefully locked and bolted our doors and refused to open them until we recognized. We were all armed and occasionally we fired a shot in the air to indicate that we were armed. But for as long as the Soviet army was still stationed in town we felt that little bit more secure.

One night the Jews suffered their first victim. A young Jewish women name Bilha Bialistotzky who had spent the war hiding in the care of a Tykocin Polish woman had come from Bialystok to visit her savior. She was ambushed and shot while walking in the street and later died from her wounds. It was a warning to all of us and we all took it very much to heart.

On one of the last nights of 1944 a bomb was thrown at the flour mill of Bezalel Wiloga. At the beginning of February 1945 we received information the Soviet army was going to leave Tykocin. That same day we decided to leave and within a week Tykocin was empty of its Jews. It was twelve midday. While we were in Bialystok we heard that the Tykocin area was swarming with Polish hooligans who were creating mayhem at will in the town and even the Polish authorities, in their fledgling stages of reorganization, were helpless. It took them about six months to bring about a measure of order.

Because of our hasty and untimely departure, we couldn't erect suitable memorial gravestones to our loved ones, something that we had intended to do. Neither did we have time to repair the damage to the synagogue. There was another thing we wanted to do and were unable to do so: in the courtyard of one of the old buildings that had been partially used as a prison, we buried two young Jews, a brother and sister. They had escaped from the market square at the time of the round up, caught by the Germans after hiding in the area for a long while and then murdered by the Germans on the very day of their retreat from Tykocin. We wanted to bring their bodies from the courtyard and rebury them in a proper Jewish grave but for

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a while we were too exhausted from our own experiences; then we delayed it because of the hot summer months and because we left Tykocin so precipitously were unable to perform this last rite and bring them to rest in the cemetery.

The only action which brought with it some success and satisfaction was the collection of remnants of holy items from the destroyed synagogue. I asked the local priest to tell his congregation that if they were holding any property from the synagogue they must return it to us and I also started a rumor that anyone not doing so can certainly expect a heavy punishment from heaven. One evening a Polish woman living close to the synagogue appeared at our door and gave me the upper section of the curtain that hung in front of the Holy Ark and a few Hebrew letters that had adorned it but had been torn off. The letters are at present in my keeping and the remnant of the curtain I gave to Eliezer Fritz because he was going to immigrate to Palestine before me. We thought that the appropriate place for both these items was some organization dedicated to the establishment of an eternal memorial, together with this book, to our beloved town and our brothers and sisters who had been martyred.

 

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