Saturday, May 14, the 25th day of the Omer
I had told Lucyna that I would travel on Shabbat if it would include going to a synagogue. So that is why on Saturday morning, Rachel and I met Francesca, another conference participant, at the central train station in Warsaw to take the train to Marikinia. Lucyna would meet us there with her car and drive us to Treblinka and then go on to Tykocin, a town with a beautiful reconstructed synagogue, and from there we’d go to Bialystok, stay overnight, and then go to the Bialowiecza forest the next day. I found a 50 zloty note at the ticket counter, and Rachel announced that we’d use it for charity during the day. We bought some buns and fruit at the station, and Rachel purchased a challah for us – there it was, braided egg bread (in Polish it is chalka), and it tasted just like the ones at home! Shortly after establishing ourselves in the first class room in the last car, a man walked in and put two pens on the seat with a printed note and quickly walked away. The note explained that our purchase of these pens would help the deaf people selling these pens achieve self respect. Wow, I thought, I’m not at CSUN anymore! Yes, we bought the pens.
The countryside was not what I expected -- I expected lots of forest and shabby houses. Instead, we were riding through flat land, the fertile Polish plain, and trees were in stands of 20 or 30. When there were houses alongside the tracks, they were brick or stuccoed, many of them three stories high, and everything looked plain but very neat. No garbage strewn around, no advertisements or graffiti plastered on the walls, and nothing was in obvious disrepair. At the hour and a half mark we got up and stood near the door, and eventually the train slowed down and stopped. But the door wouldn’t open, so we went to another door, and then Lucyna reached up and pulled it open from the outside, but by then the train had started moving! What to do? Can you believe I jumped off a moving train!??? Yes, ‘tis true. It was not as dumb as it sounds, because the train was not going so fast that I fell down (though I went careening a bit and Lucyna and I had a good laugh at my idiocy). Rachel, right behind me, was not about to follow suit and she didn’t need to, because Lucyna started hollering to the conductor and the train came to a halt.
The double track lines that extend from Warsaw to Bialystok always passed through Marikinia, but the Nazis had added many more tracks in the town, because that’s where the trains were unloaded at first, I think. Then, leading to the village of Treblinka deeper into the countryside there was another track built to the death camp and the forced labor camp that were erected, but that track was ripped out by the Nazis when they tried to destroy the evidence. The countryside is beautiful in the spring, and this area has denser stands of trees so that these awful places could be hidden away within the woods – although of course there was much going on that would betray the truth: the trains, the traffic of miserable human prisoners, the personnel going back and forth, and the smoke from the open-air pyres. It was to here that the Jews of Warsaw were deported – the figures given are that 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw on the eve of the war, and 800,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka and 50,000 others, which in the case of Treblinka included a sizable number of Romani. Virtually nothing remains of the camp, and certainly nothing of the people. So there is an exhibition hall with photographs and explanations, and there is a beautiful memorial grounds with stones representing the Jewish towns and cities of the victims.
In the midst of them all is a huge stone structure, very powerful looking, very ominous looking, almost like a clenched fist, though it is decorated at the top with a stone menorah. We walked around and through the grounds. There were a few other people there – some that could have been foreign tourists, but also some that were obviously Poles, such as the youngish mother and father who had decided that this was an important thing to do together with their two children on a pretty Saturday in May.
We drove to the town of Tykocin, but before going into the synagogue we ate in the restaurant next to it called Tayesh – this means goat, and Jews would know that because of the folk dance? but in which language?? Rachel and I could not agree, but Lucyna did not think it is a Polish word. Sitting outside on the ground was an old Polish man carving little wooden statues of a Jewish man – because he had a beard, was wearing a yarmulka and a tallit, and held a violin in his hand. This is where Lucyna had purchased the one she gave me last year in Phoenix, and we were amazed to see a larger, polished version on the balcony of the house next store.
The restaurant is owned, operated, and staffed by Polish Catholics, but it has a Jewish theme. Among the decorations inside was a large doll dressed up like a religious Jewish man, some black and white copies of pages from the Szyk Haggadah, and a seven-branched menorah alongside a kiddush cup and fake challah. But the place also served regular Polish food and drink, and there were local people also in the restaurant. I managed to find a vegetable stew that tasted like something my grandma Rosie used to make: cabbage stew sweetened with raisins. Grandma's version would have benefited from the beets and the coriander seeds in this dish!
The Tykocin synagogue is gorgeous. It was built in 1642. Like the houses in this Jewish part of the town, it was boxy and white masonry, though it was far more massive than the dwellings. Clearly these Jews had been well-off and secure. The information in the synagogue explained that the best years were in the 18th century, and when a new route was made between Warsaw and Bialystok that bypassed Tykocin, the economy in the town suffered and the Jewish population decreased. Yet, there were about 2,000 on the eve of the war. In 1941 the Tykocin Poles agreed to Nazi orders to loot the Jews (this little fact was not in the synagogue handout), and then the Nazis came in, ordered the Jews into the town square, marched the men and trucked the women and children to nearby Lopuchowo forest, and they were quickly dispatched by the Einsatzgruppen – the mobile shooting units that accompanied the Nazi troops conquering Poland. About 150 men ran off along the way, but in the towns in which they found shelter they later were killed along with the other Jews. The few survivors who returned were met with hostility (this was also not mentioned in the handout). I wondered, what must it have been like in Tykocin after the Jews were gone? Think of the sudden loss of those businessmen, the empty Jewish neighborhood. Who would have managed to get possession of those lovely houses?
The town church was far bigger and more elaborately decorated than the synagogue, and the Polish houses were ample and handsome. We went inside the church and hung out for a while on the bridge over the Narew River, admiring the countryside.
There was more. We drove further to another place outside of Tykocin to Pentowo, a site along the Narew where there were dozens of storks. People here believe that having a stork living on one’s property brings good luck. Plus they are gorgeous birds. It is nesting season, and the storks build huge nests on platforms erected especially for them. This place was quite special, with a historic home, very carefully tended fences, and a view tower over the bog next to the river. As you can see, I found a canoe!
After this we drove to Bialystok, but that tale will have to wait.