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"To Bring Memory Back" edition 2006-2007

AUGUSTÓW - Gimnazjum nr 2 im. Sybiraków linia

Who are we

Sybiraków Middle School No.2 in Augustów.

Our school has over 400 students, grouped in 15 classes. We are working in a rather old, but recently refurbished 45 years old building. Before 2002 it was hosting a Primary School, and since then it is home of our Middle School.

Let’s now say a little about the students realizing the „To Bring Memory Back”; we’re 3rd grade students from the class 3a. Our integrative class has 20 students. The idea of joining the program came from our teacher, Mrs Barbara Koronkiewicz. Not all the students were interested in exploring the history of Jews from Augustow, so the number of people involved varied from time to time; the study of history books or of educational material gathered the smallest number of volunteers, contrariwise to the actions taken outside the school which apparently seemed more attractive.


Why we do this project

Why? When we were 1st grade students, our teacher has proved us that we don’t know much about our home town, where we have lived our entire lives. First trip around Augustow she organized for us definitely showed how poor citizens we are; we knew where to buy clothes, where the pubs or coffee houses are, but the history? Not a chance. We were tabula rasa- clean slates; the past of our town was unknown to us. Therefore we decided to fill those slates with information; we started from the basic info about the history of Augustow. Eventually we grew older and the subjects we studied became more and more serious. During our 3rd year at school we started exploring the story of the Jewish population in Augustow and the surrounding villages. 

We are but fourteen years old students, but it didn’t prevent us from encountering intolerance and anti-Semitism. Before we never reacted to such subjects, but then everything changed. During our work on the project we witnessed the deepest stupidity and rudeness imaginable from the part of none other that our pseudo colleagues, students of the same age. While we were cleaning the Jewish cemetery grounds during the day, they were organizing parties in the very same place at night. When we were asking the citizens of our town about the cemetery, no one seemed to remember its location. But after a weekend the results of our cleaning works on the new cemetery ground at Zarzecze Street were gone.

Jewish community in our town

Jews of Augustow – a brief history

In 1578 the Polish King Stefan Batory gave the Jews a permission to settle in the royal town of Augustow (former Zygmuntowo). Perhaps a year earlier a Jewish colony existed already in the vicinity, the first one in the entire region of Suwalki. Historical events occurring in the following ages resulted in its dispersion. A fully indispensable and legal Jewish Community was created in Augustow in 1674, and it already had a wooden synagogue and a mikvah (ritual bath). In 1765 there were 239 Jews living in the town. 18th century saw the creation of a “district kehillah”, extending its authority over surrounding settlements. In 1840, at the crossing of Polna and Zygmuntowska Streets an impressive classical Beth Kneseth Heggedol synagogue was located. From spring to autumn of 1840 the building of the synagogue, 208 feet long, 120 feet large, and 32 feet high was under construction, and wasn’t finished until 1843. The main building contractor was Jozef Fox. Nowadays on the fundaments of the synagogue a dairy stands, built in the fifties. An older prayer house was located on the junction of Zygmuntowska and Szkolna Streets. Today there are no buildings left there. 

The Jewish community was divided. Each religious faction had a prayer Mouse of their own. In 1860 there were 3.764 Jews living in Augustow, being 45% of the population. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 5 synagogues in the town. Apart from those named above, there are three others marked on the old town plan: one located far from Mostowa Street, somewhere on the back of the “Albatros” restaurant, the other one between 3 Maja and Skorupki streets, about half way the distance from  the Lesser Basilica to the Hoza Street. The third one was located on Zabia Str.- the former „Jatke Kalniz Beth Midrasz” prayer house is today part of the right wing of the Internal Revenue Service office. “Jatke” is a meat shop, which suggests that the prayer house was funded by the butchers and meat shoppers between 1925 and 1928.

The Jews engaged in most profitable trades; food (as bakers and butchers), clothes and leather (they were highly appreciated as tanners), small trade, fishing. As time passed, some of them became businessmen and traders, tenants of lakes and woods. At the end of 19th century, the Jews held the predominant majority- 97,7%- of production works in Augustow. Among them were: watermill, tanneries, breweries, brickyards, windmills, tile factory, mead factory, water factory, foundry, sawmill, soap factory and metalworker workshop.

Among most profitable professions were barkeepers and shop owners, and most profitable trades were salt, matches and tobacco trades. Property leasing also was a major source of income- in the middle of 19th century 62 Poles and 122 Jews have been leasing their houses in Augustow. A notable group of people made it’s living by working in administration, education, health service, communications and transport, police and jurisdiction. In this group Poles had advantage over Russians and Jews.

The relations between different nations were deprived of significant sympathy, but conflictless as well. The contacts were mostly official or commercial. The Poles, who were seeing themselves as the town hosts, often treated the new coming Jews (who often made notable careers), and the Russians (whom they perceived as occupants) with animosity. The Jews distinguished themselves among the town population, because of their religion, customs, language and clothing.

In the between the wars period there were 2.261 Jews living in Augustow. In 1939 their number reached 4000, due to the flow of refugees. During the World War II the town was occupied by the Soviet Red Army, and in 1941 it passed into hands of the Germans. The fate of Jewish population of the town was tragic. Right after taking the town under occupation the Nazis executed 1000 Jews in the woods near the village of Szczebra (north of Augustow); the largest extermination site in Suwalki region. Today there are mass graves and a memorial plaque on the execution site.

In August 1941 a ghetto was established in the Baraki district of Augustow, where later the entire Jewish population of the town was moved by force, along with those of Lipsk, Sztabin and other surrounding settlements. Everyone, regardless their age, was administratively forced to work. The Jews had to work even on Shabbat, and during Jewish holidays, hurting in that way their traditional religious rights. They were allowed to leave the ghetto only with a pass, and by walking in the middle of the street. They were forced to do many different works. By their hands the small hill between the school No.1 and the river was leveled, the Jewish cemetery destroyed and the matzevot used to road repairs.

The ghetto was plagued by famine and diseases. Some members of the Polish population of the town, witnessing the tragic fate of their Jewish neighbors, facing certain death if caught, brought them help by giving them food, medicaments and clothing. In autumn 1942 the Nazis organized a massive deportation of the Jews to the concentration camp in Bogusze near Grajewo, where 7000 Jews from the surrounding settlements were already massed. Within the next few weeks 1700 people died. On November 2, 1942, the Nazis carried out an operation of liquidation of the Augustow ghetto. All remaining Jews were transported to the death camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the operation started, around 2000 people were still living in the ghetto. Only the few managed to survive. Among them were the Rechtman family, harbored by Józef Babkowski, and doctor Efraim Szor.

What we do in the project

We aimed to discover the history of Polish Jews living in Augustów by analysis of available documents and the interviews with senior citizens of the city. This point of the plan was not yet realized, because our families did not provide us with enough information, and the strangers did not want to talk. Recently we’ve met, and that was a lucky shot, someone deeply interested in the history of Jews in Augustow, but we’ll have to meet him again.

We also wanted to prepare a tourist route connecting the places related to the Jewish culture.

Here’s our proposition:

Start from the Zygmunt August square- a central place, named as as such in 1900 to commemorate the benefactor and founder of the town, a marketplace before the war. Around it stand old brick houses, often belonging to Jewish owners before the war. The crossing of the Zygmuntowska and Rajgrodzka streets are place where the remains of fundaments of a brick synagogue may be seen under the dairy building. On Zabia Street, the right wing of the Internal Revenue Service office is a rebuilt former prayer house. 3 Maja Street, a halfway between the church and Hoza Street, was location of another, wooden prayer house. On Baraki (between the Limanowskiego, Bohaterów Westerplatte and Waryńskiego streets) an older Jewish cemetery (and later ghetto) was located, while the new one was built on Zarzecze Street. The newer cemetery is a burial place for 5000 Jewish citizens of Augustow, and a monument of black stone commemorating their fate was erected there in 1981 thanks to the efforts of a movie director and a journalist, Naomi D. Zeavin, supported by 5 Jewish families from New York (descendants of the Jews from Augustow). Finally on Mostowa Street (behind the Albatros Restaurant), a place might be seen where another wooden prayer house was before the war.

(The above route was designed thanks to the tourist guide „Po Ziemi Augustowskiej. Przewodnik dla turysty i wczasowicza." By Irena and Wojciech Batura.

Take care of the Jewish cemetery in our town

The old Jewish cemetery in Augustow (Warynskiego Str.) was funded in 17th century. It was closed at the beginning of 19th century and later devastated by the German Nazis. Today there is no tombstone left on the 0,1 ha of cemetery ground.

At the end of the years 80, foreign Jewish organizations have financed the cleanup of the cemetery ground. A metal fence and a gate were also built.

The new Jewish cemetery in Augustow (Zarzecze Str.) was established in 1820. During the World War II it was devastated by the Germans, in result only 8 tombstones remained until today. The matzevot, dating back to the break between 19th and 20th centuries, were made of sandstone and limestone. Some typical carved decorations and Hebrew inscriptions are still visible.

A monument in memory of the Jews from Augustow murdered by the Nazis was erected on the cemetery. At the end of the years 80, foreign Jewish organizations have financed the cleanup of the cemetery ground.

There is a pre-burial house standing on the cemetery ground, today used as a living house.

What we do on the cemetery is mostly cleaning up the empty vodka bottles. Ironically, a clean and raked cemetery seems to attract those who dislike the tidiness.

 In April 2007 the swastikas were painted with grey spray paint on both sides of the granite monument on the new cemetery. Some matzevot were painted as well. Well aware of the fact that the cemetery and the matzevot are historical objects, we made contact with the Monument Curator in Augustow and asked if we can do something to remove those shameful “ornaments”. We were redirected to the authorities in Augustow responsible for taking care of such acts, and we are currently waiting for the specialists to come. We want to help them as volunteers.

Luckily, we managed to remove some paint spray from the monument- the paint did not stick to the granite and the shameful symbols are now barely visible. The still remain on the matzevot though.

 The synagogues in Sejny, Tykocin and Knyszyn. We planned to visit them, but the 3rd year is a difficult time for a student. Will we be able to realize this part of the plan with the exams coming? We’ll have to see.

What we are going to do next

It’s hard to make plans when we’re about to finish our Middle school soon. Our Professor gave us good motivation for this project. Will we met anybody like her in High School, another teacher as determined to wake up our sympathy for the place where we were born and where we live? As for now, our Professor is helping us. She’s being helped by the Foundation. 

What are we proud of

We are particularly proud of the fact that we are the only school in Augustow to join the „To Bring Memory Back” program. We discovered our past.


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