Old pictures presented a bustling market, creating a mirage in the square in front of me, not identifiable with today. Jewish ghosts lined the marketplace, congregating, gossiping, haggling, debating. Small sparrows flew in circles around the synagogue off in the distance, with giant lamps hanging over the doors. We wanted to step inside, but it was closed at the time. Usually, the synagogue is open to tourists, and there is a museum across the street. Around the corner, there are two Jewish restaurants. Around 40,000 tourists visit Tykocin each year.
The synagogue was one of the most imposing buildings in the town. It lies on the main road and has a wonderfully simplistic yet thought-provoking design. There is a certain charm about the synagogues in Poland, because for the most part this country is populated with churches. The churches can be monotonous because they carry similar grandiose styles, bent on making you awestruck by their magnificence. Sometimes you can come across some ill-advised 20th century construction that surprises your senses, usually not in the best way. The churches are especially monotonous because they represent the same thing. A perspective. When you experience 98% of the same perspective spiritually, and as an extension aesthetically, it can become too commonplace, and less eye-opening. The synagogues on the other hand provide a highly distinct alternative to the ubiquitous church, and they are a testimony to the pre-war amalgam prevalent across Poland. This is something that you must think about while visiting a place like Poland. Understanding the path to a homogenous present sheds light on the deeper reasoning and identities that currently exist, and allows you to fully grasp the consequences of the past. The Tykocin synagogue is a beautiful representation of difference, with its bulging roof and oversized windows. It casts shadows on the buildings around it, but not in an attempt to dominate, rather with the intention of providing importance. I am quite disappointed we didn’t have the chance to enter, because the interior is supposedly a wonderful example of synagogue artwork, with painted walls of verses from the Torah, and a decorated Bimah taking its place in the center of the room.
The Jewish community arrived to Poland in the 13th century. From then on the Jewish people started developing special relationships with the landlords of the realm. When Jews were being persecuted in other parts of Europe during the 15th century; notably Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, and Germany; Polish nobles welcomed them in. Independent privileges were given to them, and districts were developed where Jewish life was able to flourish. Up until the mid-17th century, a symbiotic relationship occurred, where both communities profited from working with the other. Then the Khmenetsky revolt happened. It was the first major atrocity perpetrated against Jews in Poland. Life for the Jews was never the same, and a prevailing anti-Semitism culminated in the most organized mass murder in the history of mankind, perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII. Just before the war, the Jewish population in Poland stood at around 10%, but that shot way up when you entered the cities, where the average percentage of the Jewish population was around 33%, and sometimes even up to 42% as in Lviv and 45% as in Vilnius.
Today the Jewish community is having somewhat of a revival. The Kazimierz district in Krakow is one of its most flourishing tourist destinations, and through this conduit of appreciation other facets of Jewish life are reappearing. The Museum of Jewish History, known more colloquially as Polin, was recently opened in Warsaw and has an incredible permanent exhibition of the long and complicated relationship that the perennial European “outsider” has had on Polish soil. Learning that history is vital for Poland’s future. It is necessary to have perspective outside of your own, and to understand that all agendas are relevant, because they are the agenda of another human being. Of course, in the vitriolic muck of an agenda of someone like Trump, you can understand that it is an attempt to feed a sociopathic ego, but this is an individualistic agenda at its core, and it will not catch on as a movement or a way of life. What I am talking about is an agenda nurtured by a group, or a culture, or a religion, or a community. Tolerance is the most important virtue in today’s world, and understanding cultural agendas outside of your own is the path towards this. Poland’s insistence to continuing promulgating a myopic view of Polish catholic martyrdom for the development of the nation is driving Poland and Poles towards isolation, and boosting tension both at home and abroad. In fact, Poland’s diverse path is its needed future.
Visiting three faiths, besides the major catholic one, was like visiting relics of a resplendent past, revealing the heterogeneity of Poland’s history. It’s a special experience in country that is hot-headed over issues of reviving Europe’s Christianity and being the protectors of its heritage. One can overlook Poland’s historical diversity, but if you are able to be informed, then it’s vital that you at least contemplate about the significant impact that these ghosts haunting the market place in Tykocin have had on contemporary Poland.