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Tykocin, Poland

Tykocin (in Jewish sources, Tiktin; Rus. Tykotsin) is a village in Bialystok province, N.E. Poland. Tykocin was formerly a town on the border between the Kingdom of Poland and the Principality of Lithuania. In 1522 the noble family of Gashtold, who owned Tykocin, invited ten Jewish families from Grodno to settle there. They were given sites for homes and were later allowed to establish shops, a synagogue, a cemetery, and an autonomous community. A charter (1536) provided that the rabbi and the head of the town council should jointly judge cases between a Jew and a gentile. By 1576, there were 54 houses owned by Jews, who engaged in wholesale trading of salt, spices, and cloth. Their rights were confirmed by special royal privileges in 1576 and 1639. In 1642, a baroque synagogue was erected in place of an older wooden building. It was the second biggest synagogue (after Krakow) in Poland at the time, and until 1740, it was the finest building in the town (it still stood in 1970, preserved as a historical site, although the Nazis ruined the interior and the women’s section).

With the growth of the community Tykocin achieved independence from the kahal of Grodno. Between 1621 and 1654, Tykocin conducted a successful struggle with Grodno involving the hegemony over the communities of Choroszcz, Zabludow, Gorodok, and Wasilkow. In 1623, Tykocin severed its ties with the Council of Lithuania and instead declared allegiance to the Council of Four Lands. It became one of the most important communities in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. The communities of Podlasie (Siemiatycze, Wysokie Mazowieckie, Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Bransk) and eastern Masovia (Ciechanow) were under the jurisdiction of the Tykocin kahal, which was the chief community in the galil (province) of Tykocin. In 1660, the Jews of Tykocin suffered at the hands of the Swedish army and the troops of the Polish general, S. Czarniecki. In the 18th century, the Tykocin community weakened and its influence in the area diminished.

Tykocin’s rabbis until the end of the 18th century included some important halakhic authorities: Mordecai (1568); Menahem David b. Isaac, a student of Moses Isserles; Samuel Eliezer Edels (in the 1620s); Joshua b. Joseph, author of the talmudic commentary Penei Yehoshu’a (early 1630s); Isaac Aizik b. Eliezer Lipman Heilperin (1667–81); Elijah Shapira, head of the rabbinical court of Prague, who became nonresident rabbi of Tykocin in 1703; and Shalom ben Eliezer Rokeaḥ (1756–66).

In 1765, there were 2,694 Jews in Tykocin and nearby villages who paid the poll tax, and in 1808 there were 1,652 (56% of the total population). In 1815, the town was annexed to Congress Poland and the Russian administration allowed free Jewish settlement of the area. There were 2,701 Jews (64%) in 1827; 3,456 (70%) in 1857; and 2,484 (59%) in 1897.

In later years, the community was involved in the production and sale of beer and vodka, the meat trade, tanning, and the leasing of property. Under Russian rule, Jews were engaged in the timber trade. In the mid-19th century, nearly 3,500 Jews lived in Tykocin, comprising 70% of the population. The decline of the economy led many Jews to immigrate to North America.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Zionism became popular among Jews in Tykocin, and people began to emigrate to Palestine. Those who remained in the town engaged in various crafts and owned mills, breweries, a tallit factory, and a paintbrush factory.

Between 1919 and 1920 the community suffered at the hands of Russian and Polish armies which passed through the town. Between the two world wars, the Jews manufactured brushes and prayer shawls (Talitot Tiktin). In 1921, there were 1,401 Jews (49%) in Tykocin. Various Zionist parties, mainly He-Halutz, were active and there was a Tarbut school.

Approximately 2,000 Jews, roughly 44% of the population, lived in Tykocin at the time of the Nazi invasion. Some Jews escaped to North America and Palestine. When the Germans turned the city over to the Soviets in 1939 as part of the agreement to split Poland between them, Jewish refugees from German-occupied areas were allowed into the city.

In June 1941, Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht rolled east over the Polish plain, and the Germans returned to Tykocin. On August 25, the Jews were ordered to gather in the market for resettlement in a ghetto in Czerwony, but they got no farther than the Lupochowa Forest where they were shot by the Einsatzgruppen and buried in pits that had been prepared in advance. It is believed that 1,400 people were killed that day. Their names are on a plaque on the western wall of the synagogue in Tykocin. There is also a marker at the forest that says in Hebrew and Polish: “Mass Grave of the Victims of the Shoah in Tykocin.” There are also three pits surrounded by a fence with a large stone inscribed in Polish: “Here lie 3000 Polish citizens brutally murdered in the years 1941 -- 1943 by the Hitlerite thugs. Honor their memory.”

Memorial and mass grave of Jews from Tykocin in the forest near Lupochowa

After the war, a handful of survivors returned to Tykocin, but they were attacked by Polish nationalists and subsequently immigrated to Palestine. 

There is a display for the Righteous Among the Nations indicating at least two Poles in Tykocin took action to save the Jews. Jan and Władysława Smółko were recognized by Yad Vashem in 1984 for taking in two brothers, Michael and Menachem Turek, who had been smuggled out of the Białystok ghetto. The Smółkos provided them with “Aryan” documents and supported them financially for about a year and a half, until the city was liberated. After the war, one brother moved to Israel and the other to Australia. “In risking their lives to save the Turek brothers,” Yad Vashem recognized “the Smółkos were guided by humanitarian and patriotic motives, which overrode considerations of personal safety or economic hardship.”

The synagogue has been preserved and renovated and is now a Jewish museum. Inside are beautiful murals, illustrations of plants and animals, and pages from the daily prayer book, which apparently were done by an artist rather than a Hebrew scholar, because they contain some spelling errors. The synagogue was sufficiently impressive to be voted one of the “new seven wonders” of Poland in a contest sponsored by the Polish edition of National Geographic Traveler magazine. That’s quite remarkable considering Tykocin is not a major tourist attraction. In fact, the 40,000 visitors each year are primarily Israelis and other Jews.

The town also has a display with photos and biographies of the Jews who lived there.

Next door to the synagogue is a hotel—Villa Regent. The name of the hotel is written in Hebrew, the logo has a menorah and signs on the front of the building read “Restaurant” and “Rooms” in Hebrew to identify these amenities to the target demographic. The hotel restaurant—Tejsza— advertises itself as a Jewish restaurant, but it serves non-kosher and “Jewish foods.” The tables have candlesticks, a menorah, and wooden dolls dressed like Hasidim. A shtreimel, the fur hat worn by Hasidic Jews, hung in a corner, and Hasidic music played in the background.

The town cemetery, dates to 1522 and is one of the oldest in Poland. The last burial took place in the 1930s.


Halpern, Pinkas, index; idem, Yehudim ve-Yahadut be Mizraḥ-Eiropah (1959), 139–51; E. Schreiber, Abraham Geiger (Eng., 1892), 20, passim; S. Dubnow (ed.), Pinkas ha-Medinah (1925); idem, in: Sefer ha-Yovel li-Khevod Naḥum Sokolow (1904); M. Tolczyn (ed.), Pinkes Tiktin (1949); M. Bar-Juda and Z. Ben-Nahum (eds.), Sefer Tiktin (1959); H.H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (1959), index; M. Baliński and T. Lipiński, Starożytna Polska, 2 (1845), 533; B. Wasiutyński, Ludność żydowska w Polsce w wiekach XIX i XX (1930), 36; S. Zajczyk, in: Zakład architektury polskiej… Politechniki warszawskiej, Biuletyn naukowy, 1:4 (1933); I. Schiper, Dzieje handlu żydowskiego na ziemiach polskich (1937), index; A. Kubiak, in: BŻIH, 8 (1953), 81–84; Przyboś (ed.), Polska w okresie drugiej wojny północnej, 16551660, 2 (1957), index.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Tikochin Cemetery, Beit Knesset, and our first ‘death site,’” Israeli Eleni’s Blog, (November 9, 2010).
“Mass murders in Tykocin,” Wikipedia.
Anna Michałowska-Mycielska, “Tykocin,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, (October 2010).
Shmuley Boteach, Holocaust Holiday: One Family's Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, (NY:  Wicked Son), 2021.

Memorial Photo - Gripper, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.