Astryna - guidebook
Pol. Ostryna, Bel. Астрына, Yid. אַסטרין
The first written mention of Astryna dates to the 1450 inscription in The Lithuanian Metrica. In the 15th–16th century, Astryna was under the king’s rule and was the centre of a gmina in the County of Troki (Trakai). In 1520, King Sigismund I the Old, who owed one A.I. Chreptowicz “500 times three score groszy,” gave him “his manor of Astryna, to pay the amount back, for three years and then until his death.” In 1641, Władysław IV granted the town Magdeburg rights and a coat of arms.
In the 16th century, Tatars settled in the vicinity of Astryna for the first time. This was connected with King Sigismund I’s gift of land to Aziubek-Soltan, the khan’s son. Having received land near Astryna, Aziubek started the princely family of Ostryński – the most influential Tatar noble family in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Tatar prince’s descendants held important offices at the ducal court, had the right to maintain their own armed troops, and were directly subordinate to the Grand Duke.
In 1795, Astryna was incorporated into the Russian Empire and was leased out on a long-term basis to the Governor of Kherson.
In 1885, Astryna was home to 1,210 people living in 295 houses. The town had a municipal office, an Orthodox church, a chapel, two Jewish prayer houses, a school, 10 market stalls, a brewery, a water mill, and a tannery. A market fair was held every Sunday.
The Jews of Astryna
The earliest mentions of Astryna’s Jews date back to 1569, when the local community was subordinated to the Grodno kahal. In 1765, there were 436 registered poll tax payers in Astryna and the surrounding area. In 1897, there were already 1,440 Jews living here, making up 59 percent of the population.
At the beginning of the 20th century, two synagogues were built in Astryna: the “cold” (functioning from Passover through the High Holidays) and the “warm” (functioning from the High Holidays through Passover); they were erected in place of the previous synagogues, which had burnt down. A bathhouse was also built at that time. All these buildings have survived to the present day.
Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887–1974) was a scholar, philosopher, and historian born in Astryna, a Harvard University professor, the first chairman of the Judaic Studies Center in the United States.
In his thirst for learning Wolfson resembled a Jewish gaon: he would spend days and nights over books, resisting the temptations and distractions that could entice him away from study. He published his first work when he was still a student. This is what Astryna looked like in the future scholar’s eyes:
The interwar period
According to data from 1919, Astryna (then Ostryna) had 1,841 residents, 1,067 of whom were Jewish. From 1921, the town functioned as the centre of a municipality (gmina) in Lida County, and from 1926 – in the Shchuchyn County of Nowogródek Voivodeship (Palatinate) in the Second Polish Republic. There was a TSYSHO school there, influenced by the Bund and with Yiddish as the language of instruction, and a Tarbut school, run by Zionists, with the instruction in Hebrew. Towards the end of the 1920s, a Hakhshara, a special training program for the Jewish youth, was launched in the local forest, preparing young people for emigration and settlement in Palestine.
World War II and the Holocaust
The Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 put Astryna within the borders of the USSR. The activity of Jewish religious and secular organisations was banned. In 1940, Jews made up 73 percent of the town’s population. In addition, about 500 Jews lived in the village of Novy Dvor, 10 km to the northeast. At the beginning of World War II, eight refugee families from Warsaw and Łódź had arrived in the town, but after the Soviet rule was established, they were deported to Kazakhstan.
German forces seized Astryna on June 24, 1941; the Jewish population faced repression: contacts with the local community were prohibited, forced labour was introduced, and Jews were compelled to wear yellow armbands. Eyewitness accounts reveal that the first mass killing of Jews in Astryna took place in the second week of German occupation.
A resident of the town, Mordechai Cyrulnicki, who managed to survive the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, recollected:
The ghetto in Astryna was established in October 1941. According to different estimates, between 1,200 and 2,000 inmates were confined there.
The liquidation of the ghetto began on June 6, 1942. At the end of October 1942, the Jews from the ghetto in Astryna were transported to the Kolbassino camp, 5 km from Grodno, which was the transit point for the Jewish population on the way to Auschwitz and Treblinka. The few survivors (Vladimir Glembocki, Shlomo Bojarski, Mordechai Cyrulnicki) were liberated by the Red Army in 1945.
Mordechai Cyrulnicki recollected:
Traces of Jewish presence
The early 20th century buildings of the synagogue complex have survived in Pereulok Zhukovskogo Street. The former synagogue now houses a community centre, and the former beth midrash, currently abandoned, served as a production plant after World War II. In the former Mogilna Street (now Mart Eighth St.) the site of the former Jewish cemetery has survived, though without any tombstones. Fragments of matzevot can be found in the pavement next to the community centre (the former synagogue).
- Former synagogue complex, Pereulok Zhukovskogo St.
- Hill fort (10th c.)
- Transfiguration Orthodox Church (1855), 5 Grodnenskaya St.
- Church of St. Theresa (2001).
Novy Dvor (10 km): a masonry former synagogue (early 20th c.); the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a Jewish cemetery.
Shchuchyn (23 km): the Drucki-Lubecki palace complex (late 19th c.); the building of the former prayer house and yeshiva, currently shops; a Jewish cemetery with about 40 matzevot; a monument at the mass grave of Holocaust victims; Church of St. Theresa (1828); a Piarist monastery; St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church (1865); ruins of a cemetery chapel.
Aziory (24 km): Christ the King Church (1992); Holy Spirit Orthodox Church; January insurgents’ grave; remains of a Jewish cemetery.
Vasilishki (23 km): a former synagogue, currently a community centre (early 20th c.); former Jewish houses; Church of St. John the Baptist (18th c.); in the nearby village of Staryya Vasilishki there is the house of the Wydrzycki family, in which Czesław Niemen was born.