Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2008/22 posted by hidden europe on

Tykocin is a gem, a town that graciously captures the awful history of a thousand former Jewish shtetls across central Europe. This was a community, like so many in the region, that was Jewish to the core. Tykocin had its heart ripped out in August 1941, when the town's Jewish population was ordered to assemble in the main square. Most were marched into the forests just southwest of Tykocin where they were murdered.

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Dear fellow travellers

This is a beautiful time of year in the Narew valley in eastern Poland. Orchards hang heavy with plums and apples, the river sweeps in great lazy meanders past quiet villages, and storks survey the scene from their high vantage points. Along the roads there are magnificent lines of ash trees. A handful of canoeists paddle up the river past the small town of Tykocin.

Tykocin is a gem, a town that graciously captures the awful history of a thousand former Jewish shtetls across central Europe. This was a community, like so many in the region, that was Jewish to the core. Tykocin had its heart ripped out in August 1941, when the town's Jewish population was ordered to assemble in the main square. Most were marched into the forests just southwest of Tykocin where they were murdered.

Nowadays Tykocin is serenely tranquil. The seventeenth-century baroque synagogue, badly damaged and looted by the Nazis, has been beautifully restored and is today one of the finest in Poland. Sadly, it is no longer used for religious services, but serves instead as a museum that sensitively recalls the history of Tykocin. It was here in the synagogue that births and deaths, bar mitzvahs and marriages were recorded. In the early part of the twentieth century, Tykocin (known as Tiktin to its native Yiddish speakers) had a flourishing Jewish school and a workshop produced tallitot (prayer shawls) that were exported around the world.

Today, the old shtetl on the Narew river is bypassed by the main road and rail routes. It is a place of cobbled streets and timber cottages. It is unhyped, unsung, and a more painful evocation of Europe's lost Jewish population than many more formal memorials.

Belmonte (Portugal)

Wandering through the Serra da Estrela mountain region in Portugal, which boasts the highest peaks in the country, the last thing we expected to run across was a synagogue. Dropping down from the hills into the Zezere valley, you cannot miss Belmonte. It is an instantly appealing place. It has a castle, an old convent (now converted to a pousada), and a maze of narrow lanes. It is best known as being the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who is generally credited with having been the first European to step ashore in Brazil.

Less well known is that Belmonte is home to one of Portugal's most thriving Jewish communities. A new synagogue was opened here about ten years ago, and it was an event of such moment that the then Israeli president, Ezer Weizman, attended the event. There are well over a hundred practising Jews in Belmonte.

For centuries, following the official expulsion of the Sephardic Jewish population from Portugal in 1497, the Jews of Belmonte kept quiet about their faith. They became the country's hidden Jews, often derided as marranos. Such covert communities existed elsewhere across Europe in regions where Jewish people were persecuted. The Belmonte Jews retained many of the cultural trappings of Judaism, and when Jewish travellers from Poland arrived in Belmonte a hundred years ago, they were astounded to find villagers who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays and accorded special importance to the Torah. It is really only in the last thirty years that the Jews of Belmonte have adopted a more orthodox form of Judaism, re-establishing a link with the faith that was eradicated by the Inquisition.

hidden europe regularly reports on Europe's Jewish life and culture, as well as on the lost Jewish communities of the continent. We have, for example, reported on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) as celebrated each year by Hasidic Jews in Uman' in Ukraine. You can read the article online here. We have also carried articles on Europe's lost synagogues (hidden europe 10), and on many former Jewish shtetls, such as Grodna (hidden europe 14) and Zamosc (hidden europe 19).

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.