Exploring Old Mikvas in Poland

    June 2010            
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Fig. 1 Bocki mikvah, 2010


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"The Mikvah beside the Nurzec River: A Place of Remembrance"

By Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D.

About sixty-eight kilometers south of Bialystok and seventeen kilometers south of the regional district capital of Bielsk Podlaski in northeastern Poland is the small town of Bocki. The meandering Nurzec River and Highway 19 literally bisect each other on the southern edge of this town. The first Jews settled in Bocki by invitation at the turn of the 16th century, establishing one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. Bocki would remain a small Jewish town, with a predominately Jewish community until the turn of the 19th century. In 1676 the Jewish population was recorded at 44 (heads of household), by 1847 the Jewish population would peak at 2,567, then dropping to 1409 in 1897 and to 725 in 1921 due to two epidemics and emigration forced by economic restraints on Jewish commercial activity.1 The non-Jewish population would now increase. With the advent of the Holocaust, the Jewish community of Bocki would be no more. Of the 600 remaining Jews of Bocki, most were deported to Treblinka on November 2, 1942. A stone at Treblinka remembers this once vibrant but tiny Jewish community.

As for Bocki's Jewish material culture, by the 17th century Bocki had a wooden synagogue. In the very early 19th century a brick synagogue was constructed, housing a Torah and tzedakah boxes dating to the 18th century. The community also had a wooden house of prayer, a mikvah and two cemeteries – the old cemetery beside the baroque Catholic Church and the new Jewish cemetery south of town across the Nurzec River. Only a fragment of the old cemetery wall and a crumbling base of a single matzevah (tomb stone) still remain near the church. Concrete supports for matzevoth reportedly are still extant in the vicinity of the Nurzec River south of town. The brick synagogue with its Torah scroll and tzedakah (charity) boxes and the wooden house of prayer were burnt when the Nazis entered Bocki in June of 1941.2 These artifacts of Jewish material culture are no more. One landmark of Jewish material culture, however, yet remains and is quite visible in Bocki – the mikvah (fig. 1). Established in the early 19th century this brick and stone ritual bath is not difficult to locate. Heading southward out of town, the visitor will immediately encounter the bridge over the Nurzec River on whose northern bank stands the mikvah, tucked in some 100 meters west from the road. Beside the mikvah is a tall three story brick building used as a warehouse. Back at roadside the brick paved sidewalks adjacent to quaint homes and a sundry of shops mark the main street through Bocki.

On my first visit to Bocki in May of 2005 no sign indicated that this was the mikvah; no plaque upon the mikvah marked this structure as an artifact of Jewish heritage (fig. 2). No one was present to inquire if I might walk through the waist high grass and weeds beside the Nurzec River and visit the mikvah. Electric company workers engaged in repairing a junction box on the bridge with their entourage of youthful onlookers were oblivious to my presence as I made my way toward the mikvah. The mikvah's appearance had changed since the 1986 photo in my guidebook.3 Gone were the wooden shake roof and chimney. The vertical wooden planks and wooden roof that covered the mikvah bath proper were likewise gone. No remnants of wood remained on the ground; no doubt, they had been used for some other purpose. Halfway to the mikvah, I observed that the walls had begun to buckle inwardly in places. Yet 'brick and stone' was not a completely accurate description for the building materials of this mikvah, rather the exterior walls were of variegated fieldstones, expertly joined by mortar. The foundation was of red brick as were the window frames, jambs and the frame of an upper door that once must have exited to a small balcony. The front façade also held three small circular windows again bordered by brick. As I drew near the mikvah, the large wooden plank entrance doors still remained – the right one slightly ajar as if someone had just entered. And so, too, did I enter. The inside was as overgrown as the outside, tall shrubs as well as weeds and grass had reclaimed the interior. The mikvah proper was filled with shrubbery. The river, from which the mikvah once drew its water supply, was now blocked by a copse of shrubbery trees, suggesting that for a long time the proximity of the mikvah and river had remained distant. The wrought iron bands that created multi-squared windows beside and opposite the entrance still remained, the back window looking out to a farm field that very well may have been a farm field in the past (fig. 3). Inside, too, were the fallen remains of the brick window frames, yet in places the interior plaster whitewash still remained intact. Remnants of interior walls suggested a multi-room, two-story structure.

On the ground, too, I discovered the fractured pieces of a once simple but delicate soft gray lintel that no doubt graced each window (fig. 4). It lay where it had fallen when the window frames gave way, in pieces like a puzzle that could easily be connected. But they would not be connected. For though they lay undisturbed the elements would slowly break down this composite substance, returning it to the earth from where it had once come. How soon, too, would the remaining walls give way of their own accord, or perhaps by the farmer whose electric wire line extended past the back side of the mikvah towards the river, or to construction needs of the tall brick building nearby? Twenty years had passed since the guidebook's photo and great changes were evident.

Fig. 2 Bocki mikvah, 2005

Fig. 3 Interior window, 2005

Fig. 4 Fragments of the delicate gray lintel, 2005

Two springs later – May of 2007 – my travels once again took me through Bocki. The mikvah still stood frozen in time looking nearly as it did in my snapshots two years earlier save the bush that had grown beside the front façade (fig. 5). Several fieldstones had fallen from the front and side facades; the front right door was still ajar. The wrought iron window bands were still in place. Fragments of the delicate gray composite lintels still lay amidst the interior shrubbery, still awaiting reconstruction. The only sounds were that of an occasional vehicle crossing the Nurzec River bridge and the wind softly passing in and out of the mikvah's paneless windows. No sign or plaque had yet been erected to remember this structure of Jewish material culture so vital to Bocki's weekly religious ritual.

Fig. 5 Bocki mikvah, 2007

Three springs later – May of 2010 – my travels once again brought me to Bocki. The mikvah still stood but changes were instantly evident (fig. 1,6). The mikvah appeared to have a roof – but not of wood! In the three years since my last visit three trees had grown within the mikvah. Their height and verdure created a canopy of leaves that offered the allusion of a roof. A tree - just a bush in 2007 – likewise had grown lush and tall at the mikvah's front façade, obliterating any view of its doors from the bridge. On approaching the mikvah, however, the front right door was still ajar. On entering the mikvah the interior was so overgrown that entrance was limited to just the area adjacent to the doors. More delicate gray lintels had fallen from the windows and were partially hidden amidst the shrubbery, along with more fieldstones, joined now with red brick from the foundation and window framework. The mortar of this structure was likewise eroding. No traces of the white plaster interior walls remained. The wrought-iron window bands were gone. Outside of the mikvah, the grasses and stinging nettles grew so tall as to make circumventing the mikvah nearly impossible. Yet someone now brought greetings. Cows from the nearby farm grazed on the grasses about the mikvah, literally drawing near to my greeting of "Dzie Dobry". From the mikvah's window facing the river, a tiny white and burnished- red barn cat peered out. The red of its fur nearly blended with the window's red brick frame.

Fig. 6 Bocki mikvah, 2010

Fig. 7 Bocki mikvah cat, 2010

Approximately 109 kilometers north of Bocki in the urban city of Sokoka a mikvah still remains, preserved because it was converted into partly apartments and most recently a television and computer repair shop (fig. 8). No plaque or sign likewise reminds the visitor of this structure's historic significance. Throughout Poland occasional mikvot can still be found. For example, in southeastern Poland the town of Rzeszow still preserves an old mikvah. In Zamosc, the mikvah is now a jazz club, while in Tarnow the mikvah is a therapeutic spa. Within the lower level of the Chachmai Yeshivah Lublin, too, there still exists a mikvah (fig. 9). The yeshivah was renovated and rededicated in 2007, the mikvah in 2009.4 Each of these ritual baths, however, is located within large to major urban centers (Lublin). Bocki's mikvah by contrast is a rare example of pre-Holocaust Jewish material culture in northeastern Poland that stands unique as perhaps the sole artifact of a simple shtetl mikvah.

Fig. 8 Sokolka mikvah, 2007

Fig. 9 Lublin mikvah, 2007

As a once student of Near Eastern archaeology, the archaeologist in me insists that the Bocki mikvah be reconstructed, marked as a historical site along with any other artifacts of Jewish past in Bocki. The realist in me acknowledges that throughout Poland, not to mention deeper into Eastern Europe, there are countless other Jewish heritage sites in need of this same attention. Financially, who can pay for this undertaking and even if the funds were raised for restoration, who will continue to care for these sites? Today unbeknownst to many people the Bocki mikvah sits forgotten near the banks of the small meandering Nurzec River from which its water was drawn. Five years ago I first saw a 1986 photograph of the Bocki mikvah. Just a few weeks ago in May of 2010 I beheld this mikvah for the third time in five years. Its deterioration is ever increasing. No doubt its bricks, its fieldstones, its mortar and the delicate gray lintels will continue to deteriorate, returning to the earth. Yet I am fortunate to not once but thrice have walked about and within this mikvah, to have touched its smooth fieldstones, its course bricks, its sandy mortar and the delicate gray lintels, and to have gazed from within through its now paneless windows upon the Nurzec River and the plush green fields beyond. I have been privileged to experience – if only for a moment – this vestige of Bocki's Jewish material culture and imagine the shtetl that once was. In doing so Bocki's mikvah now becomes a place of remembrance rather than a forgotten structure from a community that is no more (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 Bocki mikvah – a place of remembrance, 2010

Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D. is a Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Central Washington University (Ellensburg, Washington), currently writing a book on the Jewish epitaphs from Bialystok, Poland, with an intense interest in the preservation of Jewish material culture. Her most recent journal articles on Jewish epitaphs include: "With Whispers, He Spread Torah in the Jewish Magazine (April-May 2010); "Esther of Bialystok" in The Jewish Magazine (February 2010); "In the Bloodshed of Their Days" in The Jewish Magazine (January 2010); "Wooden Matzevoth" (with Tomasz Wisniewski) in The Jewish Magazine (October 2008); "He Walked Upon a Wooden Leg: Epitaphs and Acrostic Poems on Jewish Tombstones" Legacy of the Holocaust Conference 2007 Conference Proceedings. Jagiellionian University Press. Krakow, Poland (May 24-26, 2007), 2008; "'And in Their Death They Were Not Separated': Aesthetics of Jewish Tombstones." The International Journal of the Humanities. Vol. 5 (2007): 165-178; and "Oh Earth, Do Not Cover My Blood!": Eastern European Jewish Identity and the Material Culture." The International Journal of the Humanities. Volume 4.4 (2006): 7-18.

Photograph copyrights: Heidi M. Szpek (photographed by Frank J. Idzikowski).

1 "Bocki." Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland. Vol. VIII. Yad Vashem, 2005: 136. "Bocki." Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust. New York University Press, 2001: 163.

2 "Bocki." Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland. Vol. VIII, pp. 136-138; Tomasz Wisniewski, Jewish Bialystok and Surroundings in Eastern Europe: A Guide for Yesterday and Today. Ipswich Press, 1998: 66-67; and Tomasz Wisniewski, Synagogues and Jewish Communities in the Bialystok Region: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe before 1939. Dom Wydawniczy David, 1992: 141-142.

3 Wisniewski, Jewish Bialystok, p. 66.

4 "Lublin – The Chachmej Lublin Yeshiva". Virtual Shtetl. http://www.sztetl.org.pl/? a=showCity&action=view&cat_id=11&city_id=304&lang=en_GB and "Lublin mikveh renovation completed." Virtual Shtetl. November 2009 http://www.sztetl.org.pl/?cid=17&id=255&lang=en_GB


from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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