“Knyszyn” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VIII
(Poland)

5319' / 2255'

Translation of “Kamionka–Knyszyn” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published byYad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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Acknowledgments

Our sincere appreciation toYad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 561-565, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem


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[Pages 561-565]

Kamionka–Knyszyn

District of Bialystok, Region of Bialystok

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Donated by Jacob Rabinowitz

 

Year General
Population
Jews
1878 3,336 2,823
1897 5,487 3,542
1905 6,000 4,500
1921 3,579 1,235
1939 4,400 1,450

 

Knyszyn is situated approximately 25 kilometers northwest of Bialystok, close to the railway line from Białystock to eastern Prussia, on the Jaskranka River that flows into the Narew. During the 15th century, Count Mikołaj Radziwiłł cleared the forests between the Narew and Biebrza rivers, and established communities in that area. The count built a palace and a church at the edge of that area, and the settlement of Knyszyn developed around them. His son and heir, the bishop of the Zmudź district in Lithuania, gave Knyszyn as a gift to King Zygmunt I. His wife, Queen Buna, developed it and set up in it a church, a hospital, and a market square from which several new roads spread out. Knyszyn received rights as a city in accordance with the Chełm law in 1537. In 1568, King Zygmunt August granted it the rights of a Magdeburg city[1], and permitted it to conduct four annual fairs. The kings set up his palace in Knyszyn at specific times, and instructed that a bathhouse and a city hall be built, that scales be established[2], and that the streets be paved. During the 16th century, the residents of Knyszyn earned their livelihoods from agriculture, trades, and commerce. There were 19 tradesmen in 1580, and 149 by 1619. At the beginning of the 17th century, the city had 310 dwellings, 33 inns, 15 taverns, a printing house, and a protestant church. When the Swedes invaded in the middle of the 17th century, Knyszyn was destroyed and abandoned. In 1632, it only had 540 residents and 52 houses. In 1663, King Jan Kazimierz gave it as surety to merchants from Italy in return for a large loan. Later it transferred to various Polish noblemen. With the third partition of Poland in 1795, Knyszyn was annexed to Prussia. It came under the rule of Czarist Russia from 1807.

During the first half of the 19th century, the Germans that remained in Knyszyn from the era of Prussian rule opened 40 sewing workshops, weaving workshops, and workshops for the production of lamb's wool. A textile factory was established in 1828, and the owner of the city, the nobleman Krasinski, set up a large cloth workshop in 1832. The German enterprises in the city were gradually closed until the 1860s, and only 20 textile workshops remained in Knyszyn in 1879.

With the retreat of the Russians during the First World War, most of the textile factories were transferred to Russia, and the rest were destroyed. During the time of the

[Page 562]

German occupation, from the autumn of 1915 until the end of 1918, the local economy ceased. After the war, Knyszyn and its area became part of independent Poland. Economic activity in the town was renewed, but only one textile workshop with 25 workers remained. With the renewal of the economic and demographic development, Knyszyn became a center of trade and small–scale industry in the heart of an agricultural region.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviets annexed Knyszyn. It was conquered by the Germans at the end of June 1941, and many of its gentile residents were also killed. The Soviet Army liberated Knyszyn and the area from Nazi occupation in the summer of 1944.

 

The Jews Until the End of the First World War

Individual Jews who settled in Knyszyn and earned their livelihood from leasing are first mentioned in a document from 1568. Several Jews are mentioned among the residents in the city lists from 1605. In February 1672, King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki responded to the citizens and granted them a privilege “de non tolerandis Judaeis” (a ban on Jewish residents within the city bounds) that states, among other things, “… The Jews shall not dare to live in Knyszyn or remain there for an extended period…” However, in a different edict, it was stated that a few Jews would be subordinate to the city authorities, and with their agreement and supervision they would be able to occupy themselves in commerce and small–scale business. It seems that after the Swedish invasion, when the king and the city owners aspired to rebuild the destroyed Knyszyn and the textile manufacturing, they were no longer particular about the ban of settlement, and the Jewish population grew continually. At the beginning of the 18th century, for the first time in their history, Jews were listed in the official documents as “citizens of the city.” (In the ledgers of the city council, the term “apostates” is listed beside their names.) The signature of Israel Solomonowicz “a citizen of the city of Knyszyn” appears in a document from 1726. In other documents, several large–scale merchants are mentioned, including Icko (Yitzchak) who conducted business with the head of the guild of the soap makers in Warsaw. Shabtai Wolf, whose business connections extended as far as Konigsberg, is also mentioned. In 1776, two Jewish merchants from Knyszyn imported merchandise worth 565 zloty through six tax depots. At the end of the 18th century, the number of Jews in the town grew, and the Jews had control of the local and external trade. Several large–scale merchants imported colonial merchandise – such as glass, wheat, cattle, salt, and the like. The wealthiest of them was the lessee and merchant Zecharia Chajmowicz. At that time, alongside the large–scale merchants, there appeared tradesmen (bakers, liquor and beer manufacturers, tailors, barbers, two goldsmiths, and others), and small–scale merchants (of food, liquor, haberdashery, cloth, etc.) The Jews played a decisive role in small–scale commerce as well, and almost all of them lived around the market.

[Page 563]

When Knyszyn was annexed to Russia in 1807, the citizens demanded the renewal of several prior restrictions – to forbid the Jews from acquiring new real estate, to prevent them from gaining a foothold in the developing sewing and weaving industries, and to make Jewish residency dependent on official certification from the city and state. Their demands were accepted and certified in the senate in 1845, but the citizens retracted them after a few years – apparently when they realized that the activities of the Jews were beneficial to the economy. They approached the central government with a request to repeal the edict of 1845, to permit the settlement of newly arrived Jews, and to permit them to engage in work and to acquire houses. The senate edict of 1845 was repealed in 1857, and Jewish settlement in Knyszyn was renewed. In the second half of the 19th century, considering the increasing demand of the Russian Army for uniforms and blankets, government officials encouraged the Jews in the area to develop the manufacture of textiles for military use. In place of the German enterprises that had closed, 14 new textile enterprises opened under Jewish ownership. In 1879, 20 Jewish sewing and weaving enterprises operated, employing 308 employees. The flourishing of textile manufacturing also benefited other branches of the economy and led to a hastening of the demographic increase. In the second half of the 19th century, various new shops and workshops opened in Knyszyn, as well as a sawmill and flourmill. In 1883, the textile business of a Jew of Knyszyn went up in flames, along with its machines and materials. The business owner and the employees lost their source of livelihood. At the end of the 19th century, the first strike of textile workers broke out in eight workshops in Knyszyn, with a demand for higher wages.

The Jewish community arose in Knyszyn at the beginning of the 18th century. Despite the many restrictions, the authorities permitted the Jews to build a synagogue in 1705, and granted them a plot of land for a cemetery. In the “Ledgers of the State of Lithuania,” the community of Knyszyn is mentioned as a community dependent on Tykocin (Tiktin). A dispute regarding the high head tax imposed upon it by the parent community is noted. After about 20 years of deliberation, the “State Committee” obligated the community of Tykocin to return to the Jews of Knyszyn 600 zloty that had been illegally collected from them.

With the growth of the community during the 19th century, new Beis Midrashes [Houses of Study] and two brick synagogues were built – one “Or Chaim” was for the wealthy people and householders, and the second was for the simple folk. A bathhouse and community center with a dwelling place for the rabbi were also built in the synagogue compound. In 1879, Rabbi Binyamin Biszka Ladzman, the author of “Ben Oni” served as the rabbi. He was followed by Rabbi Eliahu Akiva Rabinowicz, who was at first a Zionist, but became a fierce opponent of Zionism after he moved to Poltawa; Rabbi Yosef Chaver, the author of “Chotam Tochnit” and “Zer Tifara”; Rabbi David Pajans, who established a Yeshiva in the city, later served as the rabbi and head of rabbinical court of Białystok (see entry), and was one of the heads of Mizrachi in Poland; and Rabbi Moshe Lencyski (born in Knyszyn in 1863). In 1897, the community employed eleven members of the clergy – a rabbi, shochet [ritual slaughterer], mohel [circumciser], a trustee of charity, and members of the Chevra Kadisha [burial society]. Linat Tzedek [Society for tending to wayfarers], Bikur Cholim [Society for tending to the sick], and a women's organization functioned in the community as well.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, haskalah [enlightenment] ideas penetrated Knyszyn, despite the spirit of the rabbis and those faithful to religion who had governed the community for generations. At that time, most of the boys still studied in traditional cheders and in the community–run Talmud Torah for children of poor families, but the minority already studied in the Russian public school. In 1882, the women's organization opened a school for the children of poor families, where Russian and Hebrew were taught alongside religious subjects. Trades such as sewing and embroidery were taught in separate classes for girls. In the modern cheder that was founded at that time, Bible, Hebrew taught in Hebrew, Russian, and several general studies subjects were taught. During the 1880s, local youths joined the Chibat Zion[3] movement, and general revolutionary movements. In the census of 1897, most of the Jews of Knyszyn were enumerated as Yiddish speakers, with only four families enumerated as Russian speakers. During the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, an increasing trend to immigration overseas was noted among the Jews of Knyszyn.

The textile enterprises increased their manufacturing for military purposes as soon as the First World War broke out. With the advance of the Germans however, the commander of the front in Bialystok and district issues a command to empty the industrial enterprises and transfer them, along with their employers and equipment, to the interior of Russia. The Jewish entrepreneurs of Knyszyn acceded to the command. Those who were unable to transfer their enterprises were forced to destroy them or burn them to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Many Jews transferred to Russia at that time, and those remaining in Knyszyn could not find a source of livelihood.

At the end of 1915, when Knyszyn fell into the hands of the Germans, its economy was very low. The Germans rationed food with starvation rations, and forbade any economic activity without their certification. Many of the residents were drafted to forced labor. In 1916, many worked in the lumber and chemical manufacturing that the Germans had developed in the forests of Knyszyn. The Germans closed the local schools and opened a German school for all children of the town. Two hours per week were set aside for the study of religion and Hebrew for the Jewish students. During the period of German occupation, most of the restrictions that the Russian authorities had imposed on communal life and political action were repealed, and the Jews benefited from relative freedom in conducting their internal lives.

 

The Jews Between the Two World Wars

Some of the Jews who had fled to Russia returned to Knyszyn after the war. Even so, the community was one–third smaller than its pre–war size. With the establishment of the Polish government, Knyszyn began a gradual process of economic rehabilitation. At first, one textile enterprise, which employed no more than 25 workers, was re–established. With time, the branches of small–scale commerce, trade, and small–scale manufacturing, were also rehabilitated.

The community was also reorganized. Communal life was renewed, and there was an awakening to Zionist activity. A Hechalutz chapter was set up in Knyszyn immediately after the war, followed by a Shomer Hatzair chapter, and in 1929, a Beitar chapter. The Zionist parties that stood out in Knyszyn were Poalei Zion, and Young Zion (as time went on, the parties that merged with them and separated from them), General Zionists, and Revisionists (at the end of the 20th century). 117 electors from Knyszyn participated in the elections to the 17th Zionist Congress (1933). There was a Tarbut Hebrew elementary school in Knyszyn after the war. The final rabbi of the community was Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Miszkinski.

 

During the Second World War

In September 1939, Knyszyn suffered from heavy bombardment, and many houses were damaged. Several residents, including Jews, were killed. Many fled to the villages. On September 14, 1939, Knyszyn was conquered by

[Page 564]

the Germans, and pillage of Jewish homes and shops began immediately. Eighty Jews were captured and sent to a labor camp in Działdowo. They spent about five months there in backbreaking labor. Their food consisted of potato peels and beets intended for animals. The Red Army entered Knyszyn on September 18. The Germans retreated westward in accordance with the Ribbentrop–Molotov agreement, and Soviet rule was imposed in town. At the request of the families of the forced laborers of Działdowo, the Soviets proposed an exchange – the return of the workers in exchange for a permit for the residents who so desire to transfer to the German side. The Germans responded positively, but when the lads from Knyszyn boarded the train, they were shot. Only three of the 80 workers returned to the town alive.

During the period of Soviet rule in Knyszyn, new routines were set up: private business was liquidated, and a large cooperative store was set up in its place. The tradesmen continued in their work through the trade cooperatives (Artels), and the residents who were sent out from their previous jobs were assigned other jobs in exchange. The Sovietization also encompassed education and many other areas of life. Many youths were sent for higher or professional education outside of Knyszyn.

Several days after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa on June 27, 1941, the Germans returned and conquered Knyszyn. That day, they murdered a Jewish teacher and four Soviet citizens. Immediately thereafter, special edicts were issued against the Jews – the requirement for the yellow patch, the ban on contact with gentiles and on walking on sidewalks, and drafts to forced labor. The work was difficult and back–breaking. The Germans and local guards who supervised the workers would beat them and treat them with cruelty. Many Poles cooperated with the Germans, tortured Jews, and pillaged their property. On Simchat Torah 1941, the Germans arrested 13 Jews with the accusation of Communist activity, transported them outside Knyszyn, and shot them. The Jews were ordered to set up a Judenrat. At the end of 1941, they were moved into a ghetto on a side alley, consisting of small, poor houses. Four or five families crowded together into a single house. The ghetto was not fenced off, but exiting it was only permitted during specific hours. From time to time, the gendarmes or Polish policemen arrested one Jew or another, and the Judenrat was forced to pay a fine to free them. High fines were imposed upon the ghetto residents – of cash, gold, jewelry, boots, furs, and other fine products – with the threat of the death penalty. The Jews suffered from want and hunger.

At the end of October 1942, Knyszyn was filled with German soldiers and gendarmes. On the night of November 2, tens of farmers were enlisted along with their wagons, and they stood prepared. In the morning, Gestapo men from Bialystok entered the town. Many people tried to escape, but all such attempts failed due to the heavy guard and many informers. The Judenrat members were commanded to gather the Jews within a quarter of an hour for a roll call with the gendarmes. When the time came, the Gestapo men and police broke into the houses of the ghetto, and shot 74 elderly and sick people, mothers with babies, and others who were not able to present themselves. The murdered people were buried in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery. The remaining approximately 1,500 Jews of Knyszyn were transferred to an abandoned barracks next to Białystok, which served as a transit camp for the Jews of the area as they were being deported. The Jews were held in that camp for three weeks, in crowded conditions with filth, hunger, thirst, and oppression. On November 23, 1942, the residents of the bunker camp, including the Jews of Knyszyn, were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. Approximately 80 male and female youths from Knyszyn escaped on the way to the train, despite the stringent guard. They hid in the forest, and later infiltrated the ghettos of Jasionówka (see entry) and Białystok. When the Jasionówka Ghetto was liquidated, some of the youths of Knyszyn along with others escaped to the forests or found shelter with farmers. With the passage of time, most of them were shot to death or were injured and turned over to the Germans. The few survivors, including the girl Mula Simana from Knyszyn, joined partisan units and participated in fighting.


Sources

Yad Vashem Archives, M 11/36, B63, B84; 022/50; 03.184, 3033, 3483, 3676.
Sh. Datner, “About the History of the Jews on the District of Białystok,” Pages of History, Warsaw, 1952, volume 5, issue 4, page 78.
Heilprin, Ledgers of the Council of the Four Lands, page 301.
Hatzefira, Oct. 31, 1882, Nov. 30, 1883, Oct 28, 1883.
Book of Tiktin, Tel Aviv 1959, page 542.
Book of Jewish Partisans, volume I, pp. 283, 288.
Pinkas Białystok, editor: A. Sh. Hershberg, New York, 1949–1950.
BKG vol. 8, Warsaw 1956, p. 127.
Datner, “Eksterminacja ludności żydowskiej w okręgu Białostokim” (Extermination of the Jewish Population of the Białystok District), BŻIH 60 (1966) pp. 9, 14.
––, “Szkice do studiów nad dziejami źydowskiego rucho partyzanckiego w okręgo Białostokim (1941–1944)” (Sketches to Study the History of the Jewish Partisan Movement in Białystok, BŻIH 73–76 (1970) p. 18.
Leszczyński, Żydzi ziemi biełskiej od połowi XVII w. do 1795 r., pasi. (Jews from the Middle of the 17th Century until 1795).
“––, Żydzi ziemi biełskiej w dokumentach XVII–XVIII w.”, (Jews Landed in the Documents) BŻIH 4 (116), Warsaw 1980, p. 122.
–, “Struktura społeczna ludności żydowskiej miast i miasteczek dawnego obwodu Białostockiego w latach 1864–1914”, (The social structure of the Jewish population of towns and cities of the former Bialystok region between 1864 and 1914) BŻIH 131 (Warsaw 1980)
Wiśniewski, Bóznice Białostocczyzny, (Prayers of the Białystok Region) pp. 161–163.

{Photo page 564 top: The former “Hachanasat Orchim” synagogue building in Knyszyn. Photographed after the war. (Photo archive of Yad Vashem).}
{Photo page 564 bottom: Gravestones in the cemetery of the community of Knyszyn after the war. (Photo archives of Yad Vashem).}


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A city in accordance with the Magdeburg charter.Return
  2. Seemingly for carrying on business.Return
  3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hovevei_Zion.Return


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