The Early Years
The oldest mention of Jews in Knyszyn comes from the October 14, 1605 "Knyszyn Town Books" (Anatol Leszczynski, Jews Bielskiej Soil, Wroclaw, p. 18). There is recorded at that time an incident in which a Moscow Jew sued for having been beaten, but there is no evidence that this Jew actually lived in the town. In the second half of the 17th century, Knyszyn won for itself the "Privilege of De Non Tolerandis Judaeis", i.e. no Jew was permitted to reside or stay over in the town. While this edict forbade Jews to live in town, they were not prohibited from conducting trade. It was the fear of Jewish competition that motivated Christian townsmen in Knyszyn to push for such restrictions. In 1679, Jews in Knyszyn constituted only 0.9% of the town's population--barely a few families (B. Tomecka, Knyszyn--Historic Urban Study, Bialystok, BBIDZ, 1983). However, it has been concluded that the "Privilege" edict had little impact and that ways to evade the restrictions were found, as proved by the fact that Jews were living in groups in Knyszyn even before 1700.
Notations in the 1705 and 1706 Knyszyn Town Books include the names of: Wulf Szapsza, Zyd Niewierny (unfaithful Jew), Icko Mydlarz Knyszynski, Josko Zyd Niewierny--leader of the Lombards (long-bearded Jews) and Josef Zyd. In 1719, a decree was issued from Knyszyn Castle which outlined an arrangement between the Knyszyn Church and the Jews of the town, in which the latter were obligated to pay a toll of 20 Tynfow annually and, in addition, on each solemn holiday such as Christmas, Easter and All Saints' Day, an honoraria of one-fourth pound of meat and also a certain amount of tallow. The fees were paid directly to collectors who deposited them in the coffers of the Church (Ks Cyganek, Parochial Chronicles of the Knyszyn Church, Knyszyn, 1944, pp 47-48). These assessments replaced an older fee of one grosz (penny) that every Jew had to pay each time he passed either one of the two churches in Knyszyn. Jews, at this time, were many and created a significant source of income for the town. Consequently, after this new permanent tax was introduced, the formerly-enforced provisions of the "Privilege" were relaxed and Jews were subsequently allowed to reside in town. According to Leszcynski (op. cit., p 42), a Jewish community and synagogue existed in Knyszyn in 1705. In J. Antoniuk's Knyszyn manuscript (p 73) he states that the Knyszyn cemetery was established in 1706.
In 1807, 308 Jews resided in Knyszyn. Three years later, the local Christian population revived the old "Privilege non tolerandis Judaeis" and the Jews were driven away from the Knyszyn area. However, a short time later, the Jews returned to their homes when it became obvious to the local Christian populace that the town would lose many experienced tradesmen. The order of banishment was later rescinded .
In the 1830s, Knyszyn developed a textile industry (Krasinski Manufacturing, 1832). Later, that industry was owned by Germans and Jews. In 1840, there is information that the following manufacturers were operating in the town: [Godfryd Chaim and Zamel Willow (German?) ] (APB, Knisinski Sirotskij Sud 275/1, 1834-9). About 1878, there were 1797 Jews residing in Knyszyn. At the time of the 1879 census, there were 1878 Jews in a total population of 3864. By the end of the 19th century, operating in town were the factories of: L. Fajnsztejn, A. Geisler, M. Goldberg, I. Goniadzkiego, F. Gregor, M. Grinszpan, S. Hurwicz, H. Jaffe, F. Knyszynskiego, M. Lichtensztejn, S. Lappe, E. Malke, M. & S. Mikicinski, M. Sapirsztejnk, Spiwak, Szpitalnego, Brzezinskiego, T. Hersz, T. Segal, Tenenbaum, and at the beginning of the 20th century, a wool factory operated by J. Ajzenberg and Ch. Wajnrach. The majority of these factories were Jewish-owned and operated.
In 1921, the first census in reborn Poland recorded 1235 Jews. After September 17, 1939, there were 1450 and by 1941, almost 2000. In between the wars, Knyszyn had five restaurants (one Polish), two kosher food stores, nine bakeries (two Polish). Proprietors of the Jewish bakeries were Brajn and Brezinski, from Bialystok, Szamujla, Kagan and Frydman. The Jew, Zapazner, owned the carbonated water shop. Jews owned three mills and a leather products factory owned by Kanski; Kanski also operated a gas station in town after 1938.
There were also in Knyszyn a number of Jewish clubs and organizations: Sport Club "Bejtar" and "Hadema"; also charity organizations such as "Lina Hacedek", "Bikkur Chojlim", "He Holne Pionier" and a number of others. There were, in addition, a number of Jewish schools and Jewish political parties.
During the Occupation
In September, 1939, German troops entered Knyszyn. On September 10, they organized a roundup of Jews who were then taken to a synagogue before being deported to Germany. On September 18, the Russian Army entered the town by agreement between Molotov and Ribbentropp.
In June, 1941, sections of the German army again entered Knyszyn and thereupon initiated a pogrom. Jews were driven into the synagogue and the synagogue set on fire. Several hundred Jews died in that fire (Henryk Chodorowski, History and legend by word of mouth, Knyszyn, 1976). In 1942, a Jewish Council called the "Judenrat" was organized, and the German government agreed to provide the Jews with food and fuel at reasonable prices, which seemed to assure that the Jews would survive the winter of 1942/43. In October, 1942, the local magistrate received orders to deliver 300 wagons to the marketplace early in the morning on November 2, 1942. The President of the Judenrat, Motel Zapasner, was notified that the wagons were required to carry peat and that the Jews were in no danger.
On January 11, 1942, 300 Gestapo arrived and formed a cordon, surrounding the town. During the night, a number of the Jews fled. Some of the escapees were shot and buried in the Jewish cemetery. Fifty-four survived by hiding in the woods or in various other places of refuge. After the entry of the Soviet army, these Jews returned to town. Most of these survivors later emigrated abroad.*
After liquidation of the ghetto, Germans pillaged the Jewish homes. In the German accounting books, a special "Juden Akzion" account was opened into which was entered the sums of money realized after sale of the possessions of the plundered Jewish homes. The following is a list of some of the people who survived this action: Mejlach Brzezinski; Wolf Slodownik; Ostrowsyn and his sisters; Benjamin Kaplan; Kalman Szkolnik; Fajwei Kaga; Motel Bajkowski; "the tailor and his wife"; Abram Frydman; Motel Zapasner and his wife, Sara; Szama, son of Dzamy, Solarza; Szlom Barszczewski, son of Gersza; Kronenberg, son of Chackiel; Szmul Suraski, son of Judl (Piasecki, Hitler crimes in Knyszyn during World War II, 1941-44, Report--Jadwiga Ciruzck, Knyszyn). H. Chodorowski ,(op. cit., p. 41) names additional survivors: Belford Sniegowich (family of four); Nowinski (family of three), Jasionowski and Suraski. According to Chodorowski, 30 Jews returned after the war. In toto, 50 Knyszyn Jews survived the occupation.
Before Knyszyn's town hall was renovated, the building contained a plaque commemorating those who had been murdered by the Nazis during the November 2, 1942, evacuation when 72 Jews were shot on the spot. However, the text of the plaque did not indicate that the murdered were Jewish. Plans are under way now to revise the wording and replace the plaque in the new museum of Knyszyn.
On a visit to Israel, the author of this web page and her husband had the
opportunity to speak to Moshe Friedman, who was born in Knyszyn and was
one of the escapees. He was nine years old at the time of the November
1942 incident. He related to us that all the Jews who failed to escape
and were not shot on the spot, were transported to Treblinka where they
were immediately put to death. Mr. Friedman tells an emotionally-wrenching
story of being separated from his father, each assuming the other dead,
and their eventual tearful reunion in the woods of Knyszyn.