* the Nazi mass murder of the Jews of Tykocin, a former shtetl in Poland

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 5, 2012

one of 3 mass graves near the former shtetl of Tykocin


2,500 Jews comprised 50% of the population of the Polish village Tykocin on August 25, 1941. Until that day they were a vibrant shtetl community full of the joy and learning of Polish Jewry. Two days later they were gone.


mass graves of Jews murdered in a forest near Tykocin


The Nazis first had Polish Christians dig large pits in a quiet forest about 3 miles from Tykocin.

A week later, all Jews were ordered to appear at 6:00 am in the old market square roughly half way between the synagogue and the Catholic church. German lorries arrived and heavily armed men sealed off the square. Jewish women and children were loaded onto the lorries and driven off to their burial pits. The Jewish men were formed into columns and marched after them.

The Jewish women and children were lined up in small groups at the edge of the pits and shot. Their bodies fell into the pits.

The Jewish men were held overnight and then marched into the forest the next day. They too were lined up along the pits and shot. Their bodies were dumped on top of the women and children murdered the previous day.

This incident, as described in a publication honoring those who died, raises many questions which are relevant for my novel-in-progress.

  • The Christian Poles of Tykocin obviously saw the Jews leave, and they certainly knew they did not return. Yet our guide insisted they did not know what happened to them. How can that be true?
  • “And if they did know,” the guide said, “so what? What could they have done?” I disagree with that characterization of impotence.There were many opportunities, other than committing suicide by confronting the Nazis, to protest the mass murder of the Jews.
  • Did the parish priest, for example, report the incident to his superiors, and if so, what did they do?
  • Did the Christian citizens of Tykocin report the incident to former Polish government authorities or resistance groups?

Either of these notifications might in turn have triggered a broader international public awareness

of what the Nazis were doing. They might have helped to mobilize international opinion and action

at a time when most of Poland’s 3 million Jews were still alive?

  • After the war, the mass graves were found, by whom and how I don’t (yet) know, but it seems likely that some of the Christians still living in Tykocin were the ones who identified the grave sites in the midst of dense woods 3 miles from town. Which means they very likely knew what was there.
  • The synagogue has been restored by Jewish sources including the Lauder Foundation. and is now a moving museum. The town bakery makes excellent challah bread. 
  • But other than the synagogue and a single marker at the old Jewish cemetery for those who were buried from 1522 until the day in 1941 when the mass execution took place, there are no memorials to Jews in Tykocin. 
  • The Christian Poles act as if the Jews were never there.

On the day of our visit, not a single Jew was living in Tykocin. Many Jews, however, visit every day. Within the two hours we were in Tykocin, there were four different tour groups with at least 30 Jewish young people in each group. Several groups prayed and sang in the synagogue.

  • What do the Christian Poles now living in the homes of the executed Jews think of all this? 
  • Do they ever reflect on the Jews who were their neighbors for over 400 years? 
  • Are these Jews ever mentioned by the priest in the large church just a few meters from where the Jews were collected for annihilation?

The synagogue at Tykocin is beautiful. Photos of it and the shtetl homes near it can be seen at our travel blog … 




12 Responses to “* the Nazi mass murder of the Jews of Tykocin, a former shtetl in Poland”

  1. ExpatInvader said

    “There were many opportunities, other than committing suicide by confronting the Nazis, to protest the mass murder of the Jews.”

    Er what were these opportunities exactly? What would you have done in their situation? Brazenly ignore the death penalty imposed foe assisting Jews? Might want to think about these questions before completing a novel that sounds like it will make wild negative generalisations about another group that was victimised by the nazis.

    • Lew Weinstein said

      There are many reported instances of people who did very courageous things to save the lives of innocent people, at great risk to themselves and their families. Others didn’t. Many were enthusiastic collaborators of the Nazis in the murder of Jews. I agree it is very important to try to put myself in the position of people who had to make life or death decisions. But understanding the pressures that people faced does not excuse the decisions they made. My guess is that the people who made decisions to look the other way or to actively help the Nazis understood, or came to understand, the nature of what they were doing, and carried their sense of guilt with them ever after. At least I hope so.

  2. According to my mother, Sima Wasser (Inwentarz/Gleichgewicht), who was saved by a Christian Polish friend, the Germans didn’t always recognize or know who the Jews were. Many poles would point them out if they weren’t wearing the “Star of David”. There were some good people, who risked their lives. There were also many who were glad to see the Jews gone.

  3. Renee said

    I wonder if people didn’t report this because they simply could not believe anything like this on such a mass scale was even possible. That surely no world they lived in could contain people that would give themselves the rights to simply exterminate other people as though they were vermin. I wonder too, how much of it was self-protection, a sort of “if I don’t say anything, it won’t be me who goes next” mindset.

    I’d like to think they could have been stopped had anyone known, but I’m not sure anything would have stopped them, not really. They were hurrying forward with this plan so fast and with so much conviction, and it was so insane, that I don’t think anyone could really believe it was happening until it was far too late.

    I’d be curious to know too why some helped the Jews, and other assisted the Nazis – some of it must have been sheer political belief, and deeply held prejudice and fears about people who were different in any way from themselves. A global sort of NIMBYism and that final shred of human decency being torn away, “Well, if the Nazis are rounding up the Jews anyway, I can finally admit that I never much cared for them…”

    Perhaps it was hiding in plain sight that got some to help the Nazis – as though by helping they were protecting themselves with a good cover story – throwing someone else to the wolves to protect themselves from harm or suspicion.

    The people who helped the Jews, I think, must have seen past all the propaganda to the BS behind it. Religion, class, skin colour, sexuality, political leanings – all these things stopped being a barrier and those who helped simply saw fellow human beings about to be ordered to their possible (if not actual) deaths on the flimsiest of excuses. Those who helped must have had to work through a great deal of fear of being caught and killed themselves, but did it anyway because it was right.

    I hadn’t meant to write so much, but this is a thought-provoking topic. :)

    • Anne Trieber said

      The woman who saved my mother’s life explained to me that they were a good Christian family, and they couldn’t in all good conscience not help. Poeple were simply that, and that no one deserves to die because of their religious beliefs. Apolonia Nikodemska and her family helped many Jews at their own peril. She was in the underground, and helped Jews who posed as Aryans acquire Kennkards, the equivalent of a passport. Without this identification paper, they did not have a chance to survive. Her family hid several Jews in their home. They are the true heroes of the war. They are recognized at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as Righteous Gentiles.

      • Lew Weinstein said

        ANNE … Thank you for posting that. There were many good people who helped Jews, and there would have been many more if the Catholic and Lutheran churches had provided moral leadership. … LEW

  4. Lew Weinstein said

    You have raised a whole series of questions all of which I hope to portray through my characters in my new novel-in-progress. The main character, Berthold Becker, is first met as a 13 year old boy in Munich with no antisemitic feelings. Yet he becomes a Nazi who is important enough to be among those tried at Nuremberg. How and why he came to support Hitler, and what he thought about what the Nazis were doing, will be the central themes of my novel. The other major character is a Polish girl, Anna Gorska, who meets Becker in the early 30s and forms what I hope I can show to be an unusual relationship that leads to some surprising and profound results.

  5. Dan said

    I will have to ask my Grandmother more about this, a Catholic who lived in nearby Zawady. I have heard brief stories over the years about various things that happened then. To be honest, the local Catholic population (at least in my Mother’s village and my mother’s paternal granparent’s village of Sierki) were in terror as well. Various members of my family had been rounded up on and off during the occupation…everyone was in fear.

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