Kristiaan made immediately for the mountains, while I spent the morning in Suwalki. Thankfully, our hotel was located at the top of the thoroughfare- Tadeusz Kosciusko Street.
Designed in 1825, the town is of predominantly neoclassical style. Just across from our hotel stood one of the most impressive neoclassical buildings in Suwalki. It was designated the Russian field hospital in the 1830s and remained so during the early 20th century, when a garrison of 10,000 soldiers was stationed in the city.
Walked back across the street to snag a photo, which is when I noticed the plaque on our hotel. It was in Polish, but I was curious enough to translate it. Google provided me with the following: In tribute to the Polish patriots, tortured and murdered in the years 1939-1944, by Hitler’s Gestapo whose headquarters were in this place.
So I reacted in a couple different ways. On the one hand, I was disgusted that I had just slept there and I was angry at booking.com for not putting that important piece of information in their description of the hotel. On the other hand, there’s something poetic about a Jew being serviced in a place that once facilitated his destruction. But mostly disgusted.
Continued down Kosciusko to the Suwalki Regional Museum, located in the former Citizens’ Clubhouse, built in the early 20th century. They only accepted zloty, but they let me in nevertheless. I didn’t realize that Poland has yet to adopt the Euro (they’ve belonged to the European Union since 2004).
The exhibit was a piece of art. Honestly, the first time I’d appreciated or recognized the artistry that goes into building an exhibit.
It explored the history of Suwalki since time immemorial. The region was originally inhabited by Yotvingians, a tribal group with ties to Lithuanians and Prussians. I was beyond thrilled that the region was left uninhabited until the late 17th century. Less for me to understand.
In 1667 King/Grand-Duke John II Casimir (last of three Vasa) granted this wilderness to the Camaldolese Order, a monastic community with origins in Italy. They built their headquarters on nearby Wigry Island, but spent more time building settlements than in prayer. One of their first settlements was called Suwalki, named for the region it inhabited. The new town grew fast as it lied on the main trade route linking Grodno with Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg) and Warsaw with Saint Petersburg.
Suwalki was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw after Napoleon defeated the Prussians. Unlike his predecessors, Napoleon permitted Jews to reside in large cities- this is when my family arrived. Suwalki became the capital of Augustow Province in Congress Poland after his fall, and later the capital of Suwalki Gubernia following the complete incorporation of Congress Poland into the Russian Empire as a result of the 1863 uprisings. It was during this period that Suwalki underwent her finest development.
From the museum I strayed a couple blocks to a former prayer house, now inhabited by a public library.
I returned to Kosciusko where I walked past the State Archives. Their digital resources have been invaluable in my research.
I finally reached the old market, now occupied by a ‘romantic 19th-century park’ as described in my guidebook.
On one end of the park stood the neoclassic Cathedral of Saint Alexander.
On the other stood the modest town hall.
From there I walked across the Czarna Hancza River, which once divided Suwalki into two parts. Picked up a coffee on the way. I arrived at the cemetery by 10:40.
The cemetery is appropriately named the ‘Seven Faiths Cemetery Complex’ as it contains designated areas for interment by Roman Catholics, Old Believers, Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists, Jews and even Muslims. I ignorantly did not expect a Muslim presence in Suwalki, Poland…. Tartars, of course.
I read that there has recently been a good deal of vandalism in the Jewish section, presumably why it was locked. I looked both ways for cars and then hopped the fence.
The Jewish section was expectedly destroyed by Nazis, but it stood out more than usual because all other sections were intact.
The central monument incorporated pieces of destroyed headstones. It was both haunting and beautiful.
I spent some time looking for family names, to no avail.
The remainder of the cemetery was sparsely occupied. In one portion lied a row of nameless tombs. This is where I said Kaddish.
At another corner I found the Adelson family plot. They were the last Jews of Suwalki.
I stumbled upon a collection of broken stones cemented in the ground. They must not have made the cut for the memorial.
I passed a horse and buggy on the way back to center.
Walked one block past Kosciusko Street to Teofila Noniewicza Street. Once called ‘Jerusalem Street’, Noniewicza and her surroundings accommodated the vast majority of Jewish residents and structures. An 1808 census recorded 44 Jews living in Suwalki, within thirty years they were the majority.
The patriarch of the Avner family (and perhaps first to use the surname) was Leib Avner, born circa 1740. Along with his three sons (Joshua, Eliezer and Hirsch) Leib presumably moved to Suwalki soon after her incorporation into Napoleon’s empire. His grandson Isaac married a woman from Seirijai. Other descendants include Yehoshua Zeev Avner, a disciple of Rabbi Salanter and later of Rabbi Diskin. He served as an emissary to Israel in the late 19th century, where he was a founder of Yesud HaMa’ala colony. He was the author of an acclaimed discourse titled Tsir Ne’man. Yehoshua was the great-grandfather of Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel.
According to an interwar map that I found online, at the corner of Noniewcza and Wigierska stood the Talmud Torah and Yeshiva. There was no plaque, but I imagine this was the structure.
Continued up Noniewcza and ventured to the left where I found the birthplace of the militant Zionist Abraham Stern: leader of Irgun, founder of Lehi, and namesake of the ‘Stern Gang’.
Back on Noniewcza I found the newly erected memorial of the Great Synagogue, built in 1820 and destroyed by Soviets. Across the street once stood the Beis Midrash.
Further up the road I found the New Market, where my peasant ancestors probably sold their crafts.
It now hosts a statue of Maria Konopnicka, a Suwalki native.
Further up the road I found the former Jewish Old People’s Home, now the Youth Center of Culture.
Got in touch with Kristiaan at noon, he had an unfortunate morning. He took the morning bus to Krzywe, but the tourist center was closed. He couldn’t rent a bike. He’d spent the last hour trying to hitch a ride in the freezing cold, without success. We decided that I’d take a taxi to him and continue on from there. Meanwhile, I couldn’t feel my hands or ears. I quickly went into Suwalki Plaza (shopping mall), which is sadly known as one of the city highlights. I bought gloves, a toboggan, and picked up lunch.
Walked to the bus station where I hailed a taxi to Krzywe. I initially told the driver (upon inquiry) that I was from Canada, but I clarified after he expressed his love for America. He’d spent twelve years there, but particularly loved West Palm Beach where he worked for three months. I told him that my grandparents lived there. He said his name was Rumwald, but that I could call him Ray. Ray and I picked up a frigid Kristiaan at the Krzywe bus stop, and then drove a couple minutes down that road per Ray’s suggestion.
He dropped us at the Wigry Museum in Stary Folwark and then charged us an exorbitant amount for the ride. I’d thought he was my friend.
With the assistance of a ranger, Kristiaan and I built a hiking path through Wigry National Park. We started just outside the museum.
After briefly traveling in the wrong direction we made our way to Lake Wigry, the largest and deepest in the region.
We had an incredible view of the historic Camaldolese monastery on Wigry Island, built in the late 17th century.
We continued along our path until we reached the wilderness. Wigry National Park encompasses the northern portion of Augustow Primeval Forest.
An ‘old-growth forest’, Wigry has retained an impressive amount of biodiversity. In early times it was a favorite hunting ground of Polish royalty. Kristiaan and I were hoping in particular to see a wild hog.
The autumn colors were spectacular.
Kristiaan directed us to a river that he was interested in seeing. It did not disappoint.
We trekked back through the forest until we reached Krzywe. We’d hiked at least ten miles. Waited until the bus picked us up at 5:00.
Got off at Suwalki Plaza. I blogged for a couple hours and then we grabbed dinner- KFC and Subway.
Our bus left from the station at 7:50. We arrived in Vilnius just after midnight.
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JUST SAW THIS TODAY–I AM A LITTLE OLDER THAN YOU-77–MY PARENTS WERE BOTH FROM SUWALKI-IN 1999 WE WENT BACK TO SUWALKI-I WROTE AN ARTICLE IN ONE OF SUWALKI MEMORIAL BOOKS IN ABOUT 2000- CALLED “THE LAST JEW OF SUWALKI” -WHO WAS NAHUM ADELSON-WHOM WE MET AND WHO GUIDES US AROUND SUWALKI, ON THE TRIP.
I FOUND MY GRANDMOTHER’S TOMBSTONE -SHE DIED IN 1910 ! -ON THE WALL IN THE CEMETERY, WHICH YOU SHOW IN YOUR SLIDE SHOW-IT WAS AN UNBELIEVABLE EXPERIENCE.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN MY ARTICLE I CAN SEND IT TO YOU
WE (MY WIFE’S FATHER IS ALSO FROM SUWALKI) ARE OF COURSE MUCH CLOSER IN TIME AND RELATIONSHIPS TO SUWALKI THAN YOU ARE BUT IT IS NICE TO SEE THAT SOME YOUNG PEOPLE ARE STILL INTERESTED.