Remembering Tykocin
By Sarah Gorney
North Hollywood, CA


 

Poland is a beautiful country. There are grassy, rolling hills and acres and acres of thin trees coming together to make a forest. There are also amazing buildings with architectural elements unique to Poland. As I walked through a small village in Poland, I saw a man pass by in a horse drawn carriage. The people there were content with their lives as they wandered the weekly outdoor market in the town square. They seemed happy, vacuous actually, unaware of what they were really doing.
If you looked closely at one of the houses, you could see the outline of a mezuzah (a small scroll affixed at the doorpost of every Jewish home) on the doorway of many of the houses.

There are no Jews in this town, none at all, so why are there so many Jewish relics? Before the Holocaust, Tykocin, the small town, was a bustling Jewish community in Poland. Jews and non-Jews lived side by side, tolerating the other faction's traditions. But when the Nazis took over Poland, Tykocin changed.

Not far from Tykocin are three small fenced areas in the middle of a forest. The fences seem random if you don't know what they are there for. As I leaned against the rusted green fence, I read a sign that said, "Now you are free." I thought to myself and realized that the people "buried" below were not free; they were confined to the ground, confined to the fence, confined to Poland, confined to the Nazis.
About 65 years ago, at that very spot, the non-Jews of Tykocin marched the Jews to the forest and killed every single one of them and shoved the bodies into the shallow grave. As I stood at the fence, I realized I was standing on the blood of my fellow people.

I walked away from Tykocin and the forest that day with a new understanding of the Holocaust. I've always been interested in the history of the Holocaust, ever since I can remember. Not many 8-year-olds can sit through Elie Wiesel's Night but I did, three times. My trip to Poland was a culmination of all of my study.

My family was not directly affected by the Holocaust. As far as we know, no one in my family was killed. Three of my grandparent's families already lived in the U.S. My paternal grandfather, however, lived in Latvia, a country whose Jews were eventually sent to Auschwitz, the administrative capital of the Final Solution. The Gornitsky's, however, left before the Nazis came and moved to British Mandatory Palestine. I don't know what sparked my interest in the Holocaust, especially at such a young age, but something hit me. Maybe it was its gruesome facts, its horrible outcome, or maybe it was just the fact that the Holocaust is still completely unfathomable, even after I have visited the death camps of Poland.

After my trip to Poland, I spent six weeks in Israel. Those six weeks were instrumental in helping me forget what I had just gone through. I mean, I didn't want to remember, who would? It wasn't until I got back to the States and developed my pictures that I realized what I had seen.
At Majdanek, a death camp in the south of Poland, I stood on the blood of innocent people as I was told to say the Mourner's Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. The kaddish praises G-d but never mentions the actual dead. I didn't say it, nor have I said it since. What I realized as I stood there, 6 tons of human ash in a memorial on my left and three death ditches on my right, was that I was Jewish, this could have been me. As I stared at the picture of my friends crying beside the ditches, I realized that I could never forget and I could not let anyone else forget.

I go to a Christian school that just so happens to be 40% Jewish. I honestly don't think many people know anything about the Holocaust beyond the fact that 11 million people died. It's a sad realization that only 60 years after the war, society is already forgetting.

Justice Robert Jackson, the Chief U.S. Counsel to the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremburg Trials, said, "the wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated," and yet, people continue to forget (Annual Report, page 3). There are conscious efforts to keep the memory of the victims alive however, with Holocaust museums and the Shoah Project.

But somehow, the world is already forgetting. Genocides continue to take place as people kill one another not realizing that everyone is the same, everyone is a human. Some are Christian, some are Muslim, some are Turkish, and some are Armenian, but everyone is human. It is as if the Holocaust never happened, forcing the world to doom itself to a repeat. Maybe it won't be the same people affected or the same people doing the killing, but eventually it will happen again.

Holocaust museums across the country preach tolerance but what does that really mean? The Encarta® World English Dictionary defines tolerance as "the act of putting up with something or somebody irritating or otherwise unpleasant" (MSN, page 1). It bothers me that educators are teaching the future generations to just put up with people that bother you. Instead, we should be taught to respect other cultures and try to learn about them instead of just acknowledging their presence and moving on. I believe the key to preventing future mass murders is education; we need to learn about what happened in the past and begin to understand that the Holocaust was awful, completely devastating, and preventable. We need to learn about other culture's histories, traditions, and languages. We need to stop blaming each other for the world's problems and focus on a solution. We need to allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them. We need to know one another before we can begin to work together.

As I walked through Tykocin just before leaving, I passed an old cemetery in ruins. I walked over to one of the gravestones that looked like a rock and turned it over to find someone's name, date of birth, and date of death, all in Hebrew. I was standing in an abandoned Jewish cemetery destroyed when the Jews of Tykocin were killed. I lifted the tombstone, propped it up, brushed it off, and walked away. Whoever is buried beneath was remembered then. Long after being forgotten and left behind, that grave was rediscovered, the first step in remembering and commemorating the millions killed in a generation of ignorance.

Works Cited

"Annual Report 1995." Physicians for Human Rights. [http://www.phrusa.org/about/arl995.html] (Accessed March 22, 2005).
"MSN Encarta - Dictionary - tolerance." MSN.
[http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_/tolerance.html] (Accessed March 22, 2005).
 

 


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