07 November 2016

After another delicious meal at the hotel restaurant we started our tour of Bialystok, the largest city in northeastern Poland and center of the Podlaski voivodeship.

Bialystok was first recorded in the 16th century, property of the Wiesiolowski family near Tykocin. After the death of heirless Krzysztof Wiesiolowski, Grand Marshal of Lithuania, Bialystok was assumed by the state. Soon after it was absorbed into Tykocin, which was granted to the Hetman (top military officer) of Poland- Stefan Czarniecki. It was the dowry to his son-in-law, Jan Klemens Branicki, also the Hetman of Poland. Jan’s son, Stefan Branicki, obtained city rights for Bialystok thus dividing it from Tykocin.

Stefan’s son was Jan Klemens Branicki, Hetman of Poland and brother-in-law of Stanislaw II August (last monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Jan built Bialystok into a city worthy of a contester for the kingship, just before it was occupied by Russia in the late 18th century. The structures he commissioned are the basis for Bialystok today and were thus the basis for our route through the city.

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We started at city hall near the top of the cobblestone city square. It was endowed by Branicki in the mid-18th century, destroyed during the war, and rebuilt by the Soviets.

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An identical timeline can be applied to three Branicki buildings surrounding the bottom portion of city square. They were easily identifiable due to their consistent off-yellow color, red roof, and baroque-classicist structure. They were a former inn, the arsenal (now an annex of the National Archive), and St. Vincent de Paul Monastery of the Sisters of Mercy.

At the end of the square stands the oldest structure in Bialystok- the ‘White Church’, built by Grand Marshal Krzysztof Wiesiolowski in the early 17th century.

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We were only able to peak inside. The hearts of the earliest Branickis were laid to rest there, as well as the body of Izabella Poniatowski Branicki- sister of King Stanislaw II August.

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For nearly 300 years the ‘White Church’ was the only church in Bialystok, until one was built just behind it- the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1900).

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Neo-gothic in style, we spent a bit of time inside. It was rather magnificent.

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A few streets back we found the guest house, very easy to identify. Same timeline as the others.

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The gem of Bialystok is the Branicki Palace, where originally stood a 16th-century castle of the Wiesiolowski family. Stefan Branicki transferred the family residence there in the 17th century, and it was entirely renovated by his son Jan. It was heavily damaged during the War, but repaired soon after.

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For her imitation of French models, with an intricate complex spanning across the city, Bialystok earned the monicker ‘Versailles of Poland’. The palace now houses the Medical University of Bialystok.

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Dad kindly waited as I sat on a park bench and planned the Jewish portion of our tour based on a dense guide that I found online.

We started at the 19th century palace of Samuel Cytron, one of many residences erected by Jewish manufacturers in Bialystok. It now houses the Historical Museum. Unfortunately we could only peak inside. It is closed on Mondays, as are many of Bialystok’s attractions… not sure what that’s about.

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We continued down Warszawska (what is presumably the southern end of old town) to the Ludwik Zamenhof center. Zamenhof was born in Bialystok to a religious Jewish family in 1859. Bialystok at the time was a multilingual town of Jews, Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans, Tartars, Lithuanians and others. Zamenhof expressed frustration at the inability of these groups to coexist harmoniously, which inspired him to develop a universal language. Known as Esperanto, it is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world with anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000 speakers, as well as 1,000 or so native speakers.

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The gymnasium that he attended was just across the street.

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Nearby on Warszawska is the 19th century palace of Chaim Trylling, who belonged to a Jewish family that manufactured quilts and fabrics. Chaim’s grandfather was Joshua, a Seirijai native, whose aunt was Rose Trylling nee Ivry- a sister to my great-great-great-great-grandmother (Dora Avner nee Ivry).

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Made our way back towards city center where we found the headquarters of the Linas Challim Charitable Organization (1893-1943), meaning literally ‘one who heals the sick’. With an annual budget of no more than 6000 rubels, the organization supported over 12,000 of Bialystok’s Jews. They eventually opened an emergency facility and ambulatory. Many of the manufacturers whose homes we visited provided the essential funds to support the organization.

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It was a short walk to the statue of Ludwik Zamenhof near city hall.

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It took a little bit of investigation to find the site of the Great Synagogue. Her predecessor was built with assistance by  Izabella Branicki nee Poniatawski.  At the time of construction in 1771 it served a Jewish community of no more than 800. By the early 20th century, the Jewish community had outgrown the synagogue- they numbered almost 60,000. The old synagogue was demolished in 1905 and the construction of the Great Synagogue immediately commenced. The project was funded by the Jewish manufacturers of the city, but delayed due to the revolution. It was completed in 1912 and consecrated in 1913 by Rabbi Joseph Mohilever, grandson of renowned rabbi Samuel Mohilever, both of whom served as chief rabbi in Bialystok.

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The plaque reads: Our splendid sanctuary fell victim to the flames on June 27, 1941. 2000 Jews were burnt alive in it by the German Nazi Murderers.

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A few blocks down we found one of two remaining synagogues in the city. Named after its location in the Jewish district of Piaski, the Piaskower Synagogue was built in 1891.

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It now houses the Bialystok Association of Esperantists.

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Just a few steps away was the dilapidated marketplace of the district, where local Jews sold their crafts.

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Back on Lipowa we visited the former residence of Jacob Shapiro, who cemented Zamenhof’s legacy by establishing the Bialystok Association of Esperantists, which functions in the Piaskower Synagogue to this day. Shapiro died in Bialystok at the hands of the Nazis.

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Just next door was the magnificent palace of Chaim Nowik, another Jewish industrialist.

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Not far behind we found the former school run by the Tarbut organization, which promoted the Hebrew language and culture. It is described in my guidebook as the best preserved example of the ‘Bialystok school of masonry’, which drew inspiration from a variety of methods and cultures.

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We then walked a couple minutes to the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising memorials located on Zabia Street. They commemorate the heroic actions of around 400 Jews who revolted against German authorities upon the announcement of mass deportations.

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They were led by Mordechai Tenenbaum who was no more than 27 years old.

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While the Jewish rebels were unable to entirely liberate the ghetto as they had hoped, about 150 combatants managed to escape.  50,000 Jews from Bialystok and vicinity had been forced into the Ghetto in late July of 1941. By September 1943, all had been deported to Majdanek and Treblinka death camps.

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Our final destination was the nearby Cytron Synagogue. Built only in 1936 by the Jewish industrialist Samuel Cytron, it is one of only two synagogues that survived the war.

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With that we headed back to the hotel. We grabbed our things and made our way via taxi to Avis.

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They didn’t have the VW Golf as I’d ordered, so they had to upgrade us to a Lexus. No complaints.

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The drive to Siemiatycze was just over an hour. Dad agreed to drive so I could blog. It was already dark when we left at 4:30.

We had a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant. Our meal was described as traditionally borderland (Siemiatycze sits on the Poland-Belarus border).

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Blogged and then fell asleep after an exhausting day.

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