If you don’t know any better, Tykotzin actually looks like a decent place to live. A small town in northeast Poland, it’s just a nicelooking Polish village. Modest but wellmaintained homes, clean streets and a well-coiffed central square with a church at its edge. The people of Tykotzin are probably not particularly wealthy, but neither do they seem poor.
They’re reasonably well-dressed, and the town is actually pretty. Just a pleasant little place in the middle of nowhere.
Were it not for the extraordinarily beautiful synagogue that’s been turned into a museum (it’s cared for by non-Jews, of course, for there are no Jews in Tykotzin), you’d have very little way of knowing that a couple of thousand Jews once lived there. Yes, if you dared to venture up to the front doors of some of the homes, you might notice the now painted-over indentations on the right doorposts. But if you didn’t look that carefully, you’d find no indication of what happened there. Nothing about the people of Tykotzin suggests anything awry. They have nothing to hide. “Things happen,” their nonchalance seems to say as you try to take it all in. “And it was a long time ago, anyway.” But it wasn’t all that long ago. It was 70 years ago, precisely, this coming week. August 25 is the anniversary of the eradication of Tykotzin’s Jews.
Tykotzin – or Tiktin, as the Jews called it – isn’t a shtetl anymore. A town needs Jews to be a shtetl. Two months after the Nazis recaptured that area of Poland from the Russians in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, centuries of Jewish life came to an end. According to some accounts, the Nazis first required that all Jewish stores be labeled as such. The stores were then boycotted; long before the Germans eradicated the Jews, their non-Jewish neighbors shunned them. Then the Nazis encouraged the townspeople to loot Jewish property, a command that was apparently happily obeyed. By the time the Jews were rounded up in the public square in August 1941, no one even bothered to pretend they didn’t hate the Jews. Looking at the smiling, friendly natives today, you can almost feel their collective relief that finally the town is theirs, and only theirs.
You stand at the edge of the central square of Tykotzin and try to imagine that day in August. All the Jews of the town were gathered there. Their longtime gentile neighbors watched. Some jeered. Some used the moment to enter Jewish homes and steal more property even before the Jews were gone. But no one joined the Jews. No one said anything like, “We’ve lived together for centuries, and wherever you take them, you’re taking me.” Not a single soul, as far as we know.
Not the local priest, to be sure. But what would have happened, I asked myself, if all across Europe, as the Nazis gathered the Jews into central squares of shtetlach like Tiktin, parish priests had said, “Not on my watch. Our church stands for something.” What would have happened if, as the Nazis marched the men down the road and out of the village and took them to the verdant green of the Lupachowa Forest, all the other townsmen had joined and mingled with the Jews? Would the Jewish men, and the women and children who soon followed on trucks, still have been shot en masse and dumped into group graves? Might even minimal resistance have somehow unglued the SS Einsatzkommando firing squad, making them wonder if they could really do this? We’ll never know. The priest of Tykotzin didn’t say anything. Neither did priests in hundreds of other villages. The gentiles did not join the Jews, not in Tykotzin or almost anywhere else.
Will the residents of Tykotzin commemorate their horrific anniversary this week? I have no idea. But we, at least, ought to pause and remember.
Not only because of what happened, but because of why it happened. And because not enough has changed. It’s no longer politically correct to hate Jews too obviously, so the venom has morphed. Today, anti-Zionism is simply the newest avatar of that ancient hatred – and anti-Zionism flourishes in Europe. As Prof. Mark Lilla notes in his book,The End of Politics, “The Zionist tradition… remembers what it was to be stateless…. It remembers the wisdom of borders and the need for collective autonomy to establish self-respect and to demand respect from others…. Eventually Western Europeans will have to re-learn these lessons, which are, after all, the lessons of their own pre-modern history. Until they do, the mutual incomprehension regarding Israel between Europeans and Jews committed to Zionism will remain deep.” Jewish sovereignty, Lilla understands, is about Jews’ reestablishing self-respect and demanding respect from others. It is about Jewish normalcy. Is it any surprise, then, that the UN may well recognize a Palestinian state next month, before the Palestinians declare an end to their desire to destroy Israel, before they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, before they give up on the right of return, which would destroy Israel’s Jewish character? Sadly it’s no surprise at all. Because if and when the UN votes, the real issue will not be the Palestinians, but the Jews. Will anyone stand beside the Jews, insisting that the Palestinians first acknowledge Israel’s permanence, only then voting for Palestinian statehood? The people of Tykotzin know what you’ve come to see. But they don’t avoid your gaze in shame. They look you in the eye, and smile and wave. Life goes on, and so does hatred. If there’s a UN vote next month, there will be no shame, no embarrassment that the vote will have been a scantily concealed attempt to undermine the state that might just give the Jews a future. No, there will be just smiles and handshakes, a sense that real progress has been made.
But progress toward what? When all is said and done, what has really changed in Europe? Not enough. That alone is reason to stop and to weep this week, not only for the Jews of Tiktin, but for the hatred that lingers at the heart of the world that we still inhabit.