Orla - Cultural Heritage Card
Once a town, today a village, it is the seat of a gmina in bielski powiat, in Podlaskie voivodeship. Orla, situated on Wysoczyzna Bielska, is located a fair distance away from the more important routes – 5 kilometres to the South there is road 689 from Bielsk Podlaski to Hajnówka, 6 km to the South–West road 692 Bielsk Podlaski–Kleszczele, 2 km to the North an inactive since the 1990s railroad Lewki–Hajnówka (PKP station Orlanka). The larger towns in the area are: Bielsk Podlaski – 12 km North–West, and Hajnówka – 21 km West. The voivodeship's capital – Białystok – is located around 57 km to the North. From the West and South–West, Orla is surrounded by river Orlanka (a tributary river for Narew).
In the archives, the first records concerning the territory of Orla come from the 1490s. Around 1500 AD, king Alexander Jagiellon grants it to Jasiek Iwanowicz to manage, giving him the right to found a town there, at the same time. The lands adjacent to the Western part of Białowieża forest were uninhabited at the time. This law was then confirmed by king Sigismund I the Old in the document from 1507. In 1512–1513 these lands are a property of Michał Buhusz Bohowitynowicz, later a treasurer of the land and a hospodar marshal. At the same time, Podlaskie voivodeship is created. In 1516 there was a division of his Orla lands from the Białowieża Forest. On Podlasie he also owned Siemiatycze lands. Bohowitynowicz built the first court in Orla and funded two Orthodox Churches: of St. Simeon Stylites, a parish church, and a court church of St. John the Theologian.
After Bohowitynowicz's death, Orla and its lands including more than ten villages pass to his daughter Anna, who in 1538 married Stanisław Tęczyński, who later became a Kraków voyvode. After his death in 1561, the quickly developing town and nearest area were assigned to his daughter Katarzyna Tęczyńska, married to Jerzy Olelkowicz–Słucki, governor (starosta) of Bobrujsk, duke of Kapyl, and one of the richest citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the rule of Olelkowicze in 1569, the Union of Lublin was signed, by the power of which Podlaskie voivodeship was included in the Rzeczpospolita. Orla lands at the time were worth 180 tithes (over 3 thousand ha.), which gave them the status of second largest territory in Podlasie, after Sapiehas' Boćki lands. After the death of Jerzy Olelkowicz in 1578, Orla lands returned to his wife, Katarzyna of house Tęczyński, who was married a second time, to Krzysztof Radziwiłł "Piorun" [Thunderbolt], a castellan of Troki, and later a Vilnius voivode. Since 1585, for over two centuries Orla had belonged to the house Radziwiłł.
In 1614, Krzysztof II Radziwiłł (1585–1640), Vilnius voivode and Great Hetman of Lithuania gave Orla its town rights, allowing for the settlement of "folk of all sort, both Christians of all confession and Jews as traders, craftsmen, merchants, innkeepers". The town became one of his favourite holdings, as evidenced by the preserved letters sent from Orla. In the 1620s he also erected a brick court in Orla, defended by a system of bastions. He also founded an Italian Renaissance garden, a grange, and, as a Calvinist, a congregation. In 1634 he also issued a document regulating the rights and obligations of the residents. In 1643 these right were confirmed by his son and subsequent town owner Janusz Radziwiłł, who also granted Orla its crest. This persona is especially notable for the Calvinist tradition of the town. During his day, several Dissenter Synods took place here (the Calvinist tradition survived in Orla until the first decades of the 18th century). During the Deluge, the town was largely destroyed and the number of residents dropped significantly.
In 1694, Karolina Radziwiłł transferred Orla lands along with "the brick palace, with court buildings, and the grange buildings and barns (...) with town Orla, its townfolk, Jews and village Citizens, with village Boiary and the subjects living therein" to Benedykt Sapieha. Subsequently the lands were in deposit with the Fleming family, after which for almost a hundred years they were held by the Branickis of Białystok. In 1775, as a consequence of a fire, this "poor one–horse town" had only 90 houses paying chimney tax. During that time a former Orla mansion was destroyed, while the fire of 1800 destroyed the grange buildings. After the Third Partition (1795) Orla was placed under the Prussian jurisdiction as a part of the so–called New East Prussia, and since 1807 in the Białystok circuit in the Russian Empire.
In 1808, after the death of Izabela Branicka of house Poniatowski (king Stanisław August's sister) Orla lands – on behalf of the Radziwiłł house – were returned to Dominik Hieronim Radziwiłł, the 9th Feet Tail holder in Nieśwież and Ołyka. After his death in 1813, they passed into the hands of his daughter, Stefania, since 1828 a wife of general Ludwik Wittgenstein, a Tzar general. After her premature death in 1831, Orla and its lands for over half a century became a property of the Wittgensteins. In 1856, Ludwik Wittgenstein passed the lands to his son Peter Wittgenstein, who also was a professional Russian soldier. He, in turn, gave them to his half brother Fiodor in 1882. The last two decades of the 19th century were a time of a gradual selling of Orla lands. The largest part of them was purchased in 1894 by Alexander Paton, the director of Warsaw division of the Russian National Bank. One part of the former Radziwiłł inheritance was purchased by a local Jewish family, the Wajnsztejns. According to the census in 1897, Orla had 3003 residents, including 2110 Jews.
The town suffered considerably during World War I, mostly due to the authorities' decision from August 1915 concerning a mandatory evacuation of the Eastern Orthodox residents deeper into Russia. The so–called "bieżeństwo" (exile) was a result of a German offensive and aimed at leaving 'burnt ground' for the Germans. Orla Jews stayed in place, however, and most of the Eastern Orthodox folk returned after several years.
The emigration and wartime destruction caused the impoverishment of Orla after Poland regained its independence. Orla's population dropped by almost a half – to the number of 1518, including 1167 Jews, in 1921. It was one of the reasons it lost town rights. In the following years, the number of residents grew gradually – in 1932 there were 2222 of them (1389 Jews, 680 Eastern Orthodox, 153 Catholics). Orla kept its semi-urban character, there were many craftsmen active in the town (almost exclusively Jews), as well as three restaurants. The largest employer in town was a tile factory owned by the Wajnsztejns. On 18 May 1938, Orla fell victim to a terrible fire – 550 buildings burned down, including 248 residential buildings, 220 of which were owned by Jews – 75% of the total. During hasty reconstruction works, the urban shape of the town was partially changed.
After 17 September 1939 Orla was put under the Soviet occupation, during which several families were transported to Syberia. After the outbreak of the German–Russian war, the town was taken over by the German army on 22 June. During the German occupation, the Jewish population became subject to many restrictions. In March 1942, in the centre of Orla, a ghetto was created, where all Jews were imprisoned, while Christians living there were relocated. On 2 November 1942 the ghetto was liquidated. Jews, constituting 70% of all residents, were transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka, while some of them to the ghetto in Białystok. As a result, the town's population dropped dramatically, to just several hundred people. After the war, many people from the nearby villages came to Orla, and the former township lost its urban character. The town now has a population of about 900 people, mostly Belarusians. In 2009 the Orla gmina, as the only gmina in Poland, introduced Belarusian as a secondary language.
The history of the Jews in Orla
Jews arrived in Orla probably in the second half of the 16th century, brought by Tęczyńscy. A document from 1616 mentions a prayer house and 17 Jewish houses. The Radziwiłł family supported the settlement of Jews, providing beneficial conditions and privileges. As a result, the numbers of Orthodox Jews in the township grew fast. Especially so, given the fact that the neighbouring royal towns – Bielsk, Kleszczele, and Brańsk – prohibited Jews from settling within their walls. As a result of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), a group of Jewish refugees from the German states also settled in Orla. That is why, until the Holocaust Jews almost incessantly constituted the majority of Orla's residents.
In the following decades Orla became – alongside Tykocin – one of the most important trade hubs in Podlasie. Orla traders kept direct contact with many big Polish towns, as well as with Wrocław, Kaliningrad, and Frankfurt (Oder). In Mielnik on Bug, distant by 60 kilometres, they kept their own trader ship. The water network was the most reliable trading route.
The development of Orla was halted by the Deluge (1655–1660) and the war with Moscow (1658–1659), both of which had a bad impact on Podlasie. The number of people in Orla dropped significantly, but the Jewish population grew back reasonably fast. Already by 1676 among 229 residents of the town subject to taxes there were 104 Jews (39,9%). The next essential destruction was brought by the Northern War, as a result of which in 1714 the Jews of Orla addressed a request to the Tykocin qahal, which held jurisdiction over other Jewish gminas in Podlasie. They asked for the taxes they were paying to be lowered. The request was thus motivated: "great is the destruction in our land, the chance to earn money is gone".
In the second half of the 18th century prosperity returned to Orla Jews. In 1765 the number of members of that qahal reached 1358 and counted as one of the largest in Podlasie (the only larger one was in Tykocin). In 1766 Orla traders had a 20% share of income Podlasie gained trading abroad. Wigdor Szymonowicz, a cattle trader, was among the wealthiest residents of the town. Jews also dominated the crafts – in the late 18th century 58 craftsmen were known – they were traditionally mostly tailors, shoemakers, furriers, bakers, butchers, and tanners. Some of the more popular jobs were: trading, intermediation in selling produce, as well as producing alcohol sold in around a dozen Jews–managed inns in town and Orla lands (despite a ban on the settlement of Jews in the nearby villages).
In 1780 the then–owner of the lands, Izabela Branicka, approved a special statute on the Orla qahal. The aim of the document was to regulate the long disagreements between Jews. The statute defined the competences of a rabbi and qahal authorities, including the procedure of electing them. It is one of the few preserved legal acts pertaining to the rules of governing a Jewish community. In 1807 among 1586 residents of Orla there were 1102 Jews (69,5%), in 1815 – 1296 Jews and 519 Christians, in 1847 in the entire Orla synagogue circuit there were 4436 Jews, and in 1897 there were 2110 Jews registered (77%).
In the second half of the 19th century, Orla deteriorated considerably. It resulted from a fast development of the nearby Bielsk – the powiat's capital – which in 1873 received a rail connection to the Brest–Grajewo Railroad, being a stretch of Kiev–Kaliningrad railroad. Jews started to settle in Bielsk on the break of the 18th and 19th century, and after a long effort the local Jewish community received permission to separate from the one in Orla. It also meant the reduction of the latter's income. Poverty and limited opportunities of work both resulted in a great wave of Jewish emigration from Orla. During several decades, hundreds of Jews emigrated mostly to the United States. In 1892 in New York an Orla Landsmanshaft was founded – Independent Orler Benevolent Society, which gathered up to several hundred people. The emigrants from Orla aided their people in the former motherland financially.
During the World War I German offensive of 1915 many residents from the Białystok circuit left for the East with the retreating Russian army and administration. According to the first census after Poland regained independence, conducted in 1921 – Orla had only 1518 residents, including 1167 Jews (76,9%). During the catastrophic fire of the town in 1938, two wooden Beth Midrashes burned down near the synagogue, the roof of which also fell to the fire. For several months many Jews who had lost their houses lived with their Eastern Orthodox neighbours. Reconstruction of Orla was aided both by the Polish state and the Jewish organisations from the United States and the Orla Landsmanshaft from across the ocean.
During the Interwar period the professions pursued by the Jews were predominantly traditional Jewish jobs. The Wajnsztejns' tile factory, the shred of industry in Orla, employed over a hundred people, both Jews and Christians. Three Jews worked as farmers, to endless amazement of their Christian neighbours. There were Jewish organisations in the town, among them Ha–Szomer Ha–Cair. Additionally, the incessant emigration of Jews continued, both to bigger towns (mostly Białystok) and abroad. In relation to the considerable limitations put by the United States on the immigration from Europe after 1920, the Jews of Orla left mostly for Argentina, South Africa, and Palestine.
From the preserved reports it can be inferred that in the pre–War Orla there were no serious conflicts of ethnic nature, and the Jewish and Christian communities coexisted peacefully. Orla was a peculiar town with a dominant Jewish community, around a dozen Polish families, and about 25% of Eastern Orthodox Belarusians and Ukrainians, whose rights were limited in the pre–War Poland. The generally friendly coexistence of Jews and Christians is evidenced by the events of ca. 1937, when the members of endecja [National Democracy] came to Orla, probably from Łomżyńskie, with the intent of destroying Jewish shops. Then in defence of "their" Jews came the local Christians, who successfully repelled the aggressors, who never came back.
Until the outbreak of World War II the Jewish population grew to around 1500 people, and in September 1939 by another 500, because many Jewish refugees escaped from the parts occupied by the Germans. After Orla was taken over by Germans on 25 June 1941 the persecutions of Jews quickly followed, and the scale of terror grew steadily. According to the preserved memories of rabbi Eli Helpern: "Jews had to shave their beards off and women had to cut their braids. Jews were forced to wear yellow round markings on their chests and backs. Jewish houses were marked with yellow brands (...) Every day 400 Jews went to work for which they received no pay, and where they had to do humiliating tasks." There was also a contribution demanded of them, worth half a kilogram of gold, three kilograms of silver, and 40 thousand roubles.
In March 1942, the entire Jewish population was closed in a ghetto in a small area in the centre of Orla, surrounded by a wooden fence. Tight quarters, famine, and spreading diseases resulted in a large death toll. The rabbi finishes his memories with these words: "That what has happened, this being the town's liquidation in November 1942, we could not foresee. On Monday, 2 November, the Jewish district was surrounded. We were told that we are going to be transported to the Black Sea or Caucasus Mountains to work. No point grieving over the houses and goods left behind. We will have the same there, left by the people evacuated from there. It worked so well that some women, until then hiding in the Christian part of town, came voluntarily. On carts, we, 1450 people, were transported to the ghetto in Bielsk. It was there that the truth of evacuation became clear. Until then we still believed in the tall tale of the Black Sea. On Friday, 1450 Jews from Orla were marched to the train station, beaten at the same time. They were forced into train cargo cars, 150 people in each." A little over a hundred Jews were transported to the ghetto in Bielsko, others to the extermination camp in Treblinka, where they were murdered. The nearly four-centuries-old presence of Jews in Orla was over.
The central point of the urban shape of Orla remains the town square from the 17th century, from which leaves a road South to the former town Kleszczele (Kleszczelowska street), while from the Mickiewicza street, going North from the square, separates a road to the North–West to Bielsk Podlaski (Bielska street) and another road, to the North–East (Polna street) towards the former train station and the Bielsk–Hajnówka road (road number 689).
Jews lived mostly around the square and to the East of it. The religious centre – a brick synagogue and two wooden ones, the Jewish community building, the rabbi's apartment, mikveh, and the old Jewish cemetery – were located beyond the building of the eastern town square frontage, around the square at the time called "szkolny" [scholastic]. It could be reached by the, as it is known today, Spółdzielcza street – going East from the North–Eastern corner of the town square. The new Jewish cemetery was founded in mid XIX century about a kilometre to the North-West of the town square, beyond the town's buildings.
To the South–East of the town square there is a wooden Eastern Orthodox church, while the Eastern orthodox cemetery is to the north of the town square, also beyond the town's buildings. Despite partial changes to the urban shape after the fire of 1938, neither the arrangement of the town square and main streets, nor the location of the synagogue buildings, the Eastern Orthodox church nor the cemeteries had undergone any changes.
Architecture and building monuments – preserved and destroyed
1) The castle of Radziwiłłowie, no longer existing, and the ruins are unclear.
2) A brick synagogue – at the end of the Spółdzielcza street (location registered at the Armii Czerwonej street instead), initially wooden. According to legends, the Jews bought the building of the old Calvinist congregation from Duchess Radziwiłłowa for 10 thousand three scores of grosze gathered within an hour. That building they then rebuilt into a synagogue. This information is rejected by the historians' however, who still confirm the existence of a congregation in another part of the town. The research into the architecture indicates that the walls of a prayer hall in their basic framework, column support of the ceiling, and the western vestibule with women's annex above it, all come from the third quarter of the 17th century. It is a proof of the importance and wealth of the qahal at the time. The vast majority of synagogues built in Rzeczpospolita (or later in the Partitions) until the late 19th century was wooden.
On the break of the 17th and 18th century the walls and columns of the synagogue were made higher, vaulting the prayer hall accordingly to the nine field design of the interior. In the second quarter of the 18th century (1735/36) the rest of the ornamental polychrome, preserved until today, was created. Near the half of the 18th century, to the northern and southern walls of the prayer hall wooden women's annexes were added. Some works were done in 1787, as evidenced by an inscription on the stone, once being part of the inner wall of a prayer hall (currently located at one of the columns in that hall). Near the half of the 19th century former women's annexes were replaced by brick ones, a staircase leading to the western women's annex was built, and a partially baroque elevation was made classicist. After the fire of 1879 the synagogue was rebuilt, while after another one in 1928 – the painted decorations in the prayer hall were embellished. An ad hoc renovation took place also after the Orla fire of 1938. The preserved pre–War photographs and a painting (by Wolf Kaplański) show a rich interior with complex surroundings of a niche for Aron Kodesh. During World War II the synagogue was used as a stable, eventually it was devastated, but even so it was not deconstructed, just like it was not deconstructed in the interwar period. Preserved in the 1950s, it served as a warehouse. In the first half of the 1980s there were initial renovation works done by the synagogue, which were then halted due to a lack of funding. The partially renovated synagogue today serves exhibition purposes (a small exhibition devoted to the Jews of Orla) and as a presentation hall where concerts and performances are organised. In the building preserved to this day the attention is drawn to the partially preserved frescos from the second quarter of the 18th century and around 1828, as does the stone with an interesting inscription embedded in the front elevation, near the entrance. In 2010 the gmina of Orla transferred the synagogue to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.
3) The old Jewish cemetery, dating probably as far back as the 17th century, located directly behind the synagogue, East-ward. It was destroyed during the German occupation – Jews supervised by Germans smashed matzevahs to pieces, with which the roads beyond the town were then paved. After the war the cemetery are was partially built-up. Currently there are no traces marking its location nor its existence in general.
4) The new Jewish cemetery, founded in the mid 19th century, located in the North–Eastern part of Orla, at the crossing of the Poland and Armii Czerwonej streets (to the East of the crossing). Also devastated during the German occupation and partially destroyed. The destruction continued until after the war. Currently the cemetery is fenceless, overgrown by grass, and sparsely with trees. Around 20 matzevahs are preserved, made out of granite field boulders.
5) Eastern Orthodox church (formerly Unite – until 1839) dedicated to Archangel Michael (Kleszczelowska street), wooden, from the late 18th century (1797), built on an octagonal plan, capped by a multislope roof covered by sheet metal, renovated from ground up in 1981.
6) The belfry of the Orthodox church dedicated to Archangel Michael, dating back to 1874, wooden, reconstructed in 1981.
7) Cemetery at the Archangel Michael's Orthodox church. There are about a dozen preserved gravestones, both wooden and stone from the break of the 19th and 20th century.
8) A cemetery chapel in the Orthodox cemetery (Mickiewicza street), wooden, from the late 18th century (?), consisting of an elongated nave and a slimmer presbytery, capped by a pitched roof covered by sheet metal.
9) Orthodox cemetery, located to the North of the town (Mickiewicza street), founded in the first half of the 19th century.
People connected to Orla:
– Chaim Kahan (Kamieniecki) was born in 1850, when Orla's best era was already over. His father was and Orla melamed (a teacher at the religion school) and a fishmonger at the same time. As a teenager he left his hometown and went to the fairly close–by Brest, then to Kaliningrad. The communication between these towns was made easier by the railroad created in 1873, going through Bielsk Podlaski near Orla. Kahan traded in kerosene. The era of petroleum began, and Kahan quickly became one of the most important people working in that industry in Russia. His main competitors were the famous Nobel brothers. Kahan traded petroleum pumped on the Caspian Sea, he also had his own kerosene deposit. His company – Petrol – had its divisions in Bak, Kharkiv, Warsaw, Brest, and many towns of Western Europe. He died in 1916 as one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the Russian Empire, held as a philanthropist generously supporting Jewish organisations. After his death, the Warsaw newspaper "Nasz Przegląd" [Our Review] in an article "Jewish Petrol King" wrote: "He was truly a remarkable person and an uncommon type. A restless spirit of inextinguishable energy. His head always full of options and ideas".
– Aryeh Levin was born in 1885 in a traditional, large family in Orla. From his earliest days he exhibited a talent for learning, initially remaining under the care of the Orla rabbi. Just like Chaim Kahan, his hometown soon turned out to be too small for him. At the age of 12 he left for the famous yeshiva in Slonim, then to yeshivas in Valozhyn and Brest. Aged 20, he emigrated to Eretz Israel. He continued his education in Jerusalem, and after several years he became a rabbi. He quickly gained fame as a charismatic teacher, among others thanks to his care over Jewish political prisoners held by the British. In the independent Israel state he became one of the greatest spiritual authorities, and thanks to his charisma he gained the moniker of "A Tzaddik Of Our Time". Although he was an Orthodox rabbi he was respected even by non–religious Jews. He died in 1969, and to his funeral came thousands of people, including the president of Israel. Before his death he had been awarded with, among others, a title of the honorary citizen of Israel.
Looking at Orla today it is hard to spot the marking of erstwhile glory. Some of it remains on the old synagogue near the former town square, currently repurposed for a town park. Although the former temple is now closed shut, one can still ask for keys in the gmina office. The interior is still impressive.
One can find accommodation at picturesque tourism farms in the township itself and in the neighbouring villages (among others: Dubicze Cerkiewne, Tofiłowice, Reduty). There are no restaurants in Orla, just several grocery stores. In the summer season there are several cultural events in the township, including a Belarusian ethnic festival "Tam po majowej rosie" [There over the May Dew], an international theatre festival "Wertep", and regular concerts of various kinds. The majority is organised in front of the synagogue, which retained its significance as the main point of reference in Orla.
In the immediate vicinity of Orla there are several places worth visiting.
– A mere 4 kilometres away from the town there is a village Szczyty–Dzieciołowo, where one can see a beautiful 18th century wooden Orthodox church, inside of which there are preserved valuable paintings of August Mirys – a court painter for the Branicki family of Białystok. Near the church wall there stands a valuable baroque figure of Saint John of Nepomuk, attributed to another remarkable artist: Jan Chryzostom Redler.
– The nearest bigger town near Orla is Bielsk Podlaski (12 km.), where one can see several monuments, including a Medieval hill fort, an 18th century town hall at the former town square, the Basilica of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the 18th century, post-Carmelite church and monastery from the 18th century, a wooden Orthodox church of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the break of the 17th and 18th century.
– In another former shtetl – Kleszczele, 21 km. from Orla, there are no signs of local Jews preserved (apart from the local cemetery), but the wooden Orthodox church dating back to the early 18th century is worth seeing. Another interesting site is the wooden building of a railroad station from 1900 and a neoclassical church from the early 20th century.
– The biggest attraction is without any doubt the Białowieża National Park, which once used to stretch to the borders of the Orla lands, and is now distant from them by 25 km. It is one of the most valuable monuments of nature in Poland, listed as a World Heritage Site. In Białowieża (42 km), the National Park's seat, one can see for instance the obelisk in honour of king August III, from 1752, a wooden court from the second half of the 19th century, an Orthodox church from 1895 with a porcelain iconostasis from 1927, and an open–air museum of folk constructions. The town itself also offers a wide range of accommodation of various standards, as well as restaurants.
– A rich source of information about the Jews of Orla are the Central Archives of Historical Records (AGAD) and Warsaw Radziwiłowie Archive. Moreover, part of the Radziwiłłowie Archive is kept in the National Historical Archive in Minsk (fond 694).
– Jewish emigrants from Orla never created a memorial book. Some information on the Orla Jews is contained in the Bielsk Podlaski Memorial Book, published in Tel Aviv in 1975 (in Hebrew and Yiddish). Currently the Polish translation is being prepared.
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