The Jewish settlement in the Bialystok, Poland dates back to about 1658. Bialystok grew to be a successful and predominantly Jewish community. However, anti-Semitism began to surface even before the Nazi insurgence in Poland. In 1906, the Czarists massacred many of Bialystok’s Jews. A black obelisk monument to the victims of those pogroms stands prominently in the center of Bagnowka cemetery. After the pogroms, Bialystok was once again a vibrant Jewish community.
World War II changed Bialystok forever. Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 decimating the population of 50,000 Jews, sending thousands to their deaths to Treblinka Extermination camp, murdering them in the streets of the enforced Jewish Ghetto, and killing more than 2,000 in a single day in the horrific Great Synagogue Fire of June 27, 1941.
Among those killed in the Great Synagogue Fire were family members of Amy Degen. The tragedy inspired Amy and husband Josh Degen to visit Bialystok where they discovered that the devastating destruction of the Jewish cemetery.
In June, 1943, the Nazis entered Bagnowka Cemetery to wipe out any remaining traces of the Jewish community in Bialystok. Over several weeks, the Nazis destroyed, knocked over, and dismantled thousands of headstones and monuments. Monument bases, blocks, obelisks, and pediments were scattered about.