A Polish paradox

A Catholic local historian preserves the history of the Tykocin Jews.

ewa wroczynska 88 298 (photo credit: )
ewa wroczynska 88 298
(photo credit: )
A group of parents from Ra'anana stand in a forest in northeastern Poland, their heads bowed as they commemorate the Nazi massacre of 2,500 Jews in that spot in 1941. Near them, a Polish TV crew's cameras are trained on a middle-aged woman who is explaining something, in Polish, about the area. The interview ends and the woman turns to speak with the Israelis, in fluent Hebrew. "We were in shock," says Dalia Nevo, one of the group that day in August. "We decided we had to bring her to Israel." And so Ewa Maria Wroczynska, a modest Polish Catholic historian who had never been in an airplane, found herself flying to the Holy Land for a visit, courtesy of the group from Ra'anana. "This is like a dream," said Wroczynska in fluent Hebrew. "It is the greatest experience of my life to see Israel." She sees no irony in being a Catholic who has been devoted to keeping the history of Jews in Poland alive. Born in 1952 in the small town of Tykocin near Bialystok, she studied history at university. In 1977 worked as a historian at the town's recently renovated museum. "I knew what had happened in Tykocin," she says. "My mother told me the town used to be full of Jews, and that they had been massacred by the Germans and now there were none left. But I didn't want to hear about that horrible thing. I just wanted to know about the town's ancient and medieval history." Pursuing religious matters was discouraged by the communist government. In fact, in 1976 the authorities had turned the old synagogue into a museum of local history. But Wroczynska could not escape the town's Jewish ghosts. "I saw strange writing on the walls, and there were a lot of books and documents in a strange language that no one could read." Her curiosity began to grow. "I walked around the town and felt a great emptiness. Here was this synagogue with no one to pray in it. There were houses and shops still standing empty since the war. I knew there had been a rich Jewish life before the war. Now there was just emptiness." She quietly began to investigate the history of the Jews of Tykocin, but it was only with the fall of communism in 1989-90 that she was free to pursue the subject. She studied Hebrew at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, as well as the Hebrew documents at the museum. When Yad Vashem sent her a copy of the Tykocin memorial book in 1991, she began to come to grips with the tragedy of the Tykocin Jews. "Before the war there were 4,500 people in the town. More than half were Jews; the rest were Catholics. They lived side by side. There was the synagogue and the church. Jewish and Polish children went to different schools but played together. Many Poles even spoke Yiddish." Then the Germans rolled into Poland. On August 24, 1941, the Germans rounded up all the Jews in the town square. The next day, they marched the able-bodied into the Lupochowa forest and shot them - some 1,400 people that day alone. Their bodies were thrown into a large pit and covered with dirt by local Poles, working under German supervision. The next day the women, the elderly and the infirm were taken to the forest and shot. Their bodies were thrown into a second pit and buried. Later, 150 Jews who had fled the massacre were caught and shot, and buried in a third pit. After that, there were no more Jews in Tykocin. Wroczynska decided something had to be done to commemorate the horror. On August 25, 1991 - the 50th anniversary of the massacre - she and the other museum employees held a memorial ceremony at the site of the mass graves. Tykocin's mayor decided to erect a memorial stone at the site. For Wroczynska, the desire to preserve the memory of Tykocin's Jews was natural. "In our house there were no 'Jews' or 'Poles' - only different people; it was important to respect everyone." She has turned the museum into a more fitting memorial to the Jewish history of the town, and Tykocin has become one of the sites regularly visited by high-schoolers on the annual March of the Living trip to Poland. Wroczynska says the highlight of her stay in Israel was praying at the Western Wall and visiting the Christian holy places. "It's hard to believe I'm here, and it's hard to believe that in such a short time people have built this country to be so developed and so beautiful. It really is a miracle."