Knyszyn - guidebook
rus. Кнышин, jid. קנישין
I am not the king of your consciences.
The king’s heart
In 1572, King Sigismund II Augustus, the last ruler of Poland and Lithuania of the Jagiellonian dynasty, died in his residence in Knyszyn. He was interred at the Wawel Castle, in Cracow, but his heart remained in the Knyszyn Forest and is reported to have been buried in the crypt of Knyszyn’s church. After his death, the king’s hunting manor where he spent a total of 500 days became deserted, and the fish ponds located near the manor were no longer maintained. More than two hundred years later, the Jews of Knyszyn obtained permission to establish a cemetery on the former royal dykes. It is now one of Poland’s most picturesque graveyards.
The king’s first documented visit to his Knyszyn estate took place in 1532. Jewish settlers appeared here in the 16th century because the local royal residence required infrastructure which Jews were able to create. Jews were allowed to lease breweries, taverns, and inns, which numbered several dozen. In 1568, King Sigismund II Augustus granted municipal rights to Knyszyn. It was then that the town hall, baths, and the weights-and-measures office were erected and the streets were paved. Thursdays, when Jews from the surrounding villages were coming to town to hear brief reading of the Torah, were designated as market days. In 1672, 100 years after the death of Sigismund II Augustus, Knyszyn’s citizens obtained a privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis. As a result, the Jewish residents of Knyszyn were moved outside the town walls and had to create their own quarter on the nearby royal land called Ogrodniki (between today’s Szkolna St. and Tykocka St.). Only a few families lived there at first, but the community grew in number, so that towards the end of the 18th century more than 200 Jews lived in Knyszyn, constituting more than 20 percent of the town population.
Privilegium de non tolerandis Judaeis (Lat.: privilege for not tolerating the Jews) was a privilege granted by the monarch to a town, land, or larger area, that prohibited Jews from settling within its bounds. In the 16th century, such a privilege was granted to several dozen out of 1,000 Polish towns and cities. As late as the 19th century, one in five towns in the Kingdom of Poland had a privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis. This often led to the emergence of Jewish quarters nearby, such as Kazimierz near Cracow, which had an external municipal jurisdiction (e.g. in Lublin or Cracow). It sometimes happened that such Jewish districts received an analogous privilege de non tolerandis Christianis, but in these cases the aim was often to ensure the safety of the inhabitants and to prevent conflicts between Jews and Christians. The final legal abolition of municipal privileges limiting Jewish settlement took place in the 2nd half of the 19th century and coincided with the adoption of the emancipatory regulations.
In Knyszyn, the privilege ceased to be in force at the beginning of the 18th century, and from that time it became legal for Jews to live in the city. In the Ogrodniki quarter, a synagogue, a mikveh and a ritual slaughterhouse were built, and Knyszyn’s Jews began to bury their dead on the dykes that remained where the royal fish ponds had been situated. In 1786, they were given legal permission – or, in fact, an order – to bury their dead in that particular place. Today, the only trace of the Renaissance royal residence is in fact the former royal ponds where the Jewish cemetery is located. More than 700 matzevot have survived. The oldest documented tombstone dates back to 1794. The unique combination of the ponds and the cemetery have resulted in a site with exceptional scenic appeal. The cemetery is worth visiting particularly in spring, when there is still standing water in the former royal ponds.
From 1795 to 1807, the town was under Prussian rule. This period can be regarded as the beginning of the development of industry in Knyszyn, as it was then that many German families came to live there. Textile factories, cloth finishing lines, tanneries, and distilleries were established. With time, German factories were taken over by the Jews. One of the most active among them was Lejba Ajzenberg, who owned a tannery, a soap factory, and a rag recycling plant. Another Jew, Tanchiel, owned a steam textile factory, a spinning mill, and a cloth finishing line. Gersh Rozenblum also owned a cloth factory and a tannery, and Leib Grobman owned a cloth factory and a brewery.
In 2013, Laura Silver, the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, found traces of her ancestors in Knyszyn. According to one of the legends surrounding origin on the knish (Pol. knysza), it was in Knyszyn that this type of meat-stuffed dumpling, or pierogi, originated and took its name. Jewish emigrants brought the knish to the United States, where it became a popular food item and even found its way into mass culture: An itinerant knish vendor appears, for example, in Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in America with music of Ennio Morricone and Robert De Niro starring.
Israel Beker’s escapes to Knyszyn
Knyszyn has been immortalised in the paintings by Israel Beker (1917–2003), an actor, stage manager, and artist from Białystok. His grandparents lived in Knyszyn, in Białostocka St. Beker survived World War II in the Soviet Union and later found himself in a DP camp in Germany. In 1948, he left for Israel, where he became an actor and director at the National Theatre of Israel, the Habima Theatre. In 1979, he published Stage of Life, in which he described his life in words and paintings.
I spent many years of my childhood with my grandfather – who lived in a small village near our town. It was called Knyszyn. My grandfather was a farmer. He used to come to our town with his two fine horses harnessed to his cart. On his way home he used to take us, his grandchildren, to his village – to his fields, orchard, stables, the enchanted forest, the flowing river nearby – in short, to mother nature. That is where I took refuge from the illness which distorted my legs, from the "HEDER" and the terrible striking hands of the "Rabbi," and from a house full of children. I used to run away from home, to my grandfather in Knyszyn, on foot; a small child walking alone 20 miles. I knew the way very well – every little corner, hill and valley – and I would reach my destination as evening fell, tired and exhausted: I am here. I would stand and look my grandparents straight in the eyes — and then would be handed a glass of warm milk straight from the cow – and grandmother would say, “Look at that little imp – he is here again.”
I never spoke about it — but in my paintings I started revealing myself. It is a story in colours and canvases. This is my life.
The first wooden synagogue in Knyszyn was built in Tykocka St. (at the corner of Tykocka St. and Szkolna St.) in the 18th century. Its earliest mention dates back to 1705. The building burned down in the fire that destroyed the town in 1915. After this the Beth Yeshurun (Heb.:House of Israel) Synagogue – remembered as the main prayer venue of Knyszyn’s Jews – was built in what is now Szkolna Street. Greta Urbanowicz recalls that the synagogue stood on a small elevation, set back from the street but parallel to it. It was traditionally oriented, with a large entrance door to the west and an aron ha-kodesh (holy ark) to the east. It was a two-storeyed red brick building, with larger windows on the ground floor, smaller ones on the first floor, and a mansard roof. The total capacity of the building was about 2,500 cubic meters. Beth Yeshurun Synagogue was destroyed by the Germans during World War II.
In the 1920s, the community built another synagogue, the Orah Haim (Heb.: Way of Life). Synagogue was built in Grodzieńska St., at the back of the market square. It represented the nine-bay type of synagogue, with four pillars surrounding the bimah and supporting the vault. The building’s thick walls were made of yellow brick and decorated with lesenes and cornices. Large windows illuminating the single-storey main hall gave the building its character. In the two-storey western part of the building there were women’s galleries with a separate entrance from the south. The main entrance was from Grodzieńska St. The synagogue was covered by a hip roof covered by ceramic tiles. In 1943, German Nazis took over the synagogue and, having bricked up its windows, converted it into a warehouse, which it remained after the war. Plans to establish a cultural centre in the synagogue were never implemented, and the building was completely demolished in the late 1980s.
World War II and the Holocaust
After two years of Soviet occupation, the Germans entered Knyszyn in June 1941. It was then that, as in nearby towns and villages, some of the town’s Polish inhabitants attempted to carry out a pogrom against their Jewish neighbours. However, as memories written down after the war by Knyszyn’s Jews reveal, tragedy was prevented thanks to the determination of the local parish priest Franciszek Bryks (who proclaimed in his homilies not to persecute Jews and help them) and representatives of the local intelligentsia. When the local bandits painted Stars of David on Jewish houses those Poles inspired by the local priest stopped them.
On November 2, 1942, German authorities ordered all Jewish residents of Knyszyn to present themselves at the town square. From there, 1,300 Jews were transported to Białystok and then to the Treblinka extermination camp. Seventy-four people who tried to escape were murdered on the spot and buried at the Jewish cemetery. In 2012, at the initiative of the Regional Society of Knyszyn, their burial place was marked with a memorial stone.
Several dozen people managed to escape the deportation. One of them was Samuel Suraski, a shoemaker from Knyszyn, in his twenties at the time. Together with his four siblings, he was hidden by his Christian workmate Czesław Dworzańczyk. In the 1950s, the Suraskis emigrated to Israel, but they maintained correspondence with the Dworzańczyk family. In 2007, several years after her grandfather’s death, Samuel Suraski’s granddaughter Hadas found the descendants of the Dworzańczyks and saw to it that they were awarded a Righteous Among the Nations medal.
The Righteous Among the Nations title has been awarded by the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute since 1963. The honoured person is officially recognized by the Institute and the authorities of Israel as one who risked his or her life to save Jews during World War II.
The Righteous receive a medal with an inscription reading: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” By 2015, 25,685 such distinctions were granted. Among the people with the “Righteous” title there are 6,532 citizens of Poland, 2,515 citizens of Ukraine, and 608 citizens of Belarus.
Over 80 percent of Knyszyn’s buildings were destroyed during the war. Today, the town has 2,500 residents. Every year, it plays host to Israeli young people from kibbutz Tirat Zvi, where Samuel Suraski lived. Together with their Polish peers, they clean up the Jewish cemetery at the royal ponds.
There are several agritourism farms in Knyszyn as well as an unguarded campsite. Further information about accommodation can be found by contacting the Tourist Information Centre, located in the town hall at 39 Rynek St., tel. +48 85 727 99 88, e-mail: [email protected]
Information about Knyszyn’s history and heritage can be provided from Monday to Sunday by members of King Sigismund Augustus Regional Society of Knyszyn, tel. +48 39 903 31 42.
Authors: Ewelina Sadowska-Dubicka, Emil Majuk
- Jewish cemetery (18th c.), Białostocka St.
- The town urban layout (16th c.).
- Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (1520), 3 Kościelna St.
- Wooden granary (1818–1820), 3 Kościelna St.
- Hospital building (1910), 96 Grodzieńska St.
- Wooden house of the Klatt family (2nd half of the 18th c.), 6 Kościelna St.
- Remains of the manor park (16th c.), Białostocka St.
- Monument to King Sigismund II Augustus in the town square.
Jasionówka (15 km): a Jewish cemetery, about 380 matzevot (19th c.).
Korycin (23 km): a Jewish cemetery; the Church of the Invention and Exaltation of the Holy Cross (1899–1905); a park complex (18th c.); a post mill-type wind mill (1945). Each June (since 2008), Korycin has hosted the National Strawberry Days festival.
Wasilków (27 km): Renaissance urban layout; a Jewish cemetery (19th c.); a Catholic cemetery (circa 19th c.); the Orthodox Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (1853); the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord (1880–1883); the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Święta Woda (since the 18th c.).
Białystok Countryside Museum (Skansen) (27 km): an open-air ethnographic museum, about 40 buildings and other architectural facilities from the area of Podlaskie Voivodeship.
Goniądz (28 km): a Jewish cemetery (18th c.); a wooden water mill (19th c.); the Chapel of St. Florian (1864); the Church of St. Agnes (1922–1924); the Cemetery Chapel of the Holy Spirit.
Suchowola (36 km): a Jewish cemetery (19th c.); the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (1884–1885); a wooden tower mill (20th c.); Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko Memorial Room. The town is recognized as the Geographical Center of Europe.
Supraśl (39 km): the Orthodox Monastery of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Mother of God and the Holy Apostle John the Theologian (16–17th c.); the fortified Orthodox Church of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (1503–1511); St. John the Theologian Orthodox Church (1888); the Palace of the Archimandrites – currently the Museum of Icons (1635–1655); the Buchholtz Palace – currently the Secondary School of Visual Arts (1892–1903); Zachert’s manor (mid-19th c.); weavers’ wooden houses – the Gardener’s House (19th c.); Jansen’s factory complex (19th c.); the “Wierszalin” Theatre.
Grajewo (51 km): the former synagogue, currently housing the local Community Centre; Holy Trinity Church (1879–1882); a bell tower next to the church (1837); the parish cemetery (1810); the Wilczewski family tomb chapel (1839); the railway station (1873); a water tower (1896).
Radziłów (51 km): the mass grave of the 800 Jewish victims of the pogrom which took place on July 7, 1941 (Piękna St.).
Wąsosz (54 km): the Church of the Transfiguration (1508–1532); the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1625); a memorial to the victims of a pogrom of the Jewish population, in which about 1,200 Jews were killed on July 5, 1941.
Szczuczyn (59 km): the urban layout (circa 17th c.); a monastery complex (1697–1711); the former Piarist college (1706); the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1701–1711); the Museum of Firefighting; the house of “Ozerowicz the Jew” (grain merchant) (1853); Polish Post Office buildings (1863); Szczuka family house (1690); a Jewish cemetery with a memorial to the victims of the 1941 pogrom.
The Knyszyn Forest: a landscape park preserving pine and fir forests and boreal landscape, similar to the nature of the south-western taiga.