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Visiting Szczuczyn Via Bialystok

Visiting Szczuczyn Via Bialystok (April 2003)
By: Larry and Olga Lichten

This spring, when we visited my father's birthplace, Szczuczyn, we chose Bialystok as a "home base" for two reasons: it is a relatively large and convenient train hub, and it was a major Jewish center before World War II. There are many trains to Bialystok from Warsaw and from other Polish cities; from Bialystok, several trains run daily north to Grajewo, which is only about nine miles from Szczuczyn. (Automobile and bus are the only practical means of transportation between Grajewo and Szczuczyn.) My father had spoken of Bialystok, and we had read Tomasz Wisniewski's "Jewish Bialystok and Surroundings in Eastern Poland," which describes the city and the remnants of its Jewish heritage.

Map: Bialystok to Szczuczyn

       

In Bialystok, we stayed at the Hotel Cristal, which is about a mile from the train station. We reserved in advance via the Internet, and it seemed incongruous that the hotel is now part of the Best Western chain. Hotel Cristal is excellent, its staff is competent and friendly, and its restaurant is exceptional, probably the best in Bialystok.

Since there is no train to Szczuczyn, we knew we would have to improvise, either from Grajewo or even from Bialystok. So after checking into the hotel, we began planning our next-day trip to Szczuczyn. Our first choice was to rent a car since the roads to Grajewo and then to Szczuczyn are quite nice and easy to navigate. However, the first rental car agency that the hotel contacted required a "local contact" in Bialystok to "vouch" for us. Somehow I doubt if many foreign visitors who stay in hotels meet this criterion. The second rental agency had a different requirement: in addition to the $30 daily rental, a $200 deposit in cash was necessary. We concluded that the actual cost would therefore be at least $230, and gave up. (There are no Hertz, Avis, or other large chain car rental agencies is Bialystok, despite the city's quarter million population.)

Olga Lichten at
the Train Station
on the way to Szczuczyn

       

Our next choice was a bus from Bialystok directly to Szczuczyn. The Bialystok bus station adjoins the railroad tracks on the south; several schedules were posted, but they were inconsistent. We finally determined that buses to Szczuczyn run only in the afternoon, which would not allow sufficient time to see the town and, most importantly, may have been too late for a return bus. Neither the information nor ticket agents knew if buses ran to Szczuczyn from Grajewo, which we could easily reach by train.

So we went back across the tracks to the train station, which is currently being rebuilt, leaving only a small office open just north of the tracks. We had previously accessed and printed Bialystok-Grajewo train schedules via the Internet and had determined that there were convenient morning trains to Grajewo, and afternoon and evening return trains to Bialystok. Neither the information nor ticket agents spoke English (or German or French or Russian, which exhausted our repertoire of languages); furthermore, as we learned later, despite Visa and MasterCard logos, no credit cards are accepted. We bought round-trip tickets to Grajewo, with a same-day return.

After about an hour's trip, we arrived at the Grajewo "train station," which appeared to be boarded up. We had assumed that the bus station would be near the train station, but it was nowhere in sight. After walking into the main part of Grajewo, we circled around and eventually found the bus station about mile south of the train station, just east of the tracks. We bought one-way tickets to Szczuczyn on the next bus from the ticket agent who spoke none of the languages we knew; however, we had prepared notes in our best-try-at Polish (e.g., "When is the next bus to Szczuczyn"), which made it reasonably easy. In about half an hour, a bus arrived, we gave the driver the ticket and handed him another note ("Please let us off in central Szczuczyn"), and, after about half-an-hour drive, we arrived in Szczuczyn. Jose's maps and pictures on Internet then guided us very well through the town.

We went back to the Szczuczyn bus station, took the next bus that had a "Grajewo" sign, this time buying tickets from the driver, and went back to Grajewo. We walked down the tracks back to the train station, where we could find no schedule or ticket office. But within five minutes a southbound train stopped, we boarded, and we arrived an hour later back in Bialystok.

So our visits to Szczuczyn and Bialystok went quite smoothly, despite the many unknowns and choices to be made. We found it extremely useful to have had train schedules in advance; the Deutsche Bahn maintains schedules for all of Europe, and its English search can be accessed at http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en . We found further helpful information for using these schedules at http://www.ricksteves.com/rail/trainschedules.htm#tips. Also, we chose to buy tickets for some Polish trains while still in Germany, from Deutsche Bahn offices, likely avoiding some language and credit card difficulties.

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