History of Goniadz "Our Home Town" By A. Miltshan Translated by Marvin Galper From the Yiskor book "Sefer yizkor Goniadz", J. Ben-Meir (Treshansky), Ed., Tel Aviv, 1960
Our hometown Goniondz has a rich historical background. According to old documents, Goniondz has been in existence since the thirteenth century. Thanks to its geographical location as a connecting point through land and water between Poland, Lithuania and Prussia, our town played a very important strategic and economic role. For many generations Goniondz had been a battleground between Prussian crusaders and Lithuanian and Masovian (Polish) counts. This fact was confirmed by the accidental excavation of human bones and many skeletons, as well as old coins and weapon parts in various parts of town.
School children loved to tell stories about sunken houses and graves in the center of town. These childrens' stories were not entirely fantasy, but evolved from historical fact.
Under the combined rule of counts and clergymen in the fourteenth century, Goniondz was granted the so-called “privilege” to not permit Jewish residents. However, Jews moved into the city on an unofficial basis until Goniondz was transferred to the dominion of Lithuania in 1425. Goniondz received the Magdeburg Rights in 1547, which gave Jews permission to live in the city and become involved in commercial enterprise and the trades. The town grew, but this state of well-being didn't last long.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, King Karl the Twelfth of Sweden undertook his march to Russia, and his path from Prussia lead through Goniondz. Brick ruins remain from construction of his army over the Bober River in the village of Shoshna. In memory of the period, the Russians named a section of the Osowiec fortress “The Swedish Fort”.
The Swedish retreat and later return after their defeat in the famous battle at Poltava brought hunger and epidemics to Goniondz to which the greater part of the population succumbed. In the second half of the eighteenth century, after the annexation by Prussia, Goniondz experienced renewed vitality in all areas. A large town hall was built in the center of the new town square, and also a guild house for the education of manual laborers. The Prussians built a castle with the royal emblem as well as shops and houses for their employees. In order to shorten the water route to Prussia, they built a canal from the right side of the River Bober to the Prussian city of Lick. Grain from Goniondz silos was sent by special ships, “berlinkes”, directly to Prussia. The Russian chronicles of that time described Goniondz as an important grain port on the Bober River.
After the wars and Partition of Poland (1795), Goniondz was given over to Russia. The town hall and the depots on the synagogue hill were destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century by the Russian government. The economic situation of the town fluctuated under Russian dominion. The town took on vitality from the construction of the Grayewo-Brisk railway line that connected it with the outer world-Russia on one side and Germany on the other
Later the fortress of Osowiec was built, which became a permanent source of Jewish livelihood. The fortress attracted Jewish military suppliers and experts from other places, for example, the military tailor Kantorowski and the photographer Karasik. The Jewish population adjusted itself quickly to the Russian regime and made business connections with the Osowiec military administration, providing various products and services. Prominent Goniondz suppliers were Bajkowski (Elioshers' son), Moishe Weintraub, Chayim Kobrinski (Chayim Poliaks), Moishe Katinko, Yakow Rudski, Moyshe Shilewski, and Moishe Kramkower.
Goniondz supplied the fortress with tradesmen-glaziers, metal workers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, watchmakers, tailors, shoemakers, and so forth. Every Sunday groups of soldiers would come into town to buy their ordinary military goods--underwear, and all kinds of other supplies--and to buy clothing and other products of better quality than the standard military issue. Military personnel also came for the army camps at Monki and Downari. At noon time all the Jewish shops, teahouses and taverns were full, and it was a prosperous time. At times the order was disturbed by a drunkard or a group of drunkards, and the Jews would feel a little apprehensive. The military patrol would re-establish order in the town.
While Sunday was the time for commerce with military personnel, the Monday market was time for the farmers from the villages, who came to town to sell their produce and buy all kinds of merchandise for their needs. Both the new and the old town squares were filled with wagons of grain, chickens, potatoes, eggs, sheep, and so forth.
The old town square was the commercial center for horses and cows on market days, especially at the fairs which took place there three or four times a year. Merchants for grain, horses and cattle would assemble from near and far, even from the towns and villages on the other side of the river. Thanks to the connection of the River Bober with the Narew and Bug rivers, long barges laden with lumber would glide down towards Germany in the summertime.
Commerce in lumber developed in Goniondz. The most important lumber merchants were Chatzkel Bialototski (the wealthiest merchant in town), owner of the electric mill and the lumberyard, Alter Yisroel, Yisroel Yitzhak Farber, Yankel Shmerkes, and the Raigrodski brothers from Dolistower. The lumber merchants also arranged to have storage silos constructed for them on a custom basis because of the frequent fires in the surrounding villages. Many tradesmen derived their livelihood from the building construction industry--carpenters, painters, glaziers, shingle makers, and so on. Jewish millers who had a franchise from the princely owners of the wind and water mills in town were also successful.
The Jewish population in Goniondz fluctuated over the various periods, according to circumstances. According to available statistics, in 1847 there were 1337 Jews and 2050 in general population in the town. In 1897, there were 2056 Jews in the city, with a general population of 3436. In 1921 there were 1135 Jews in Goniondz with a general population of 2642. The decline in Jewish population can be ascribed to two causes--war and immigration. The two great fires, in 1906 and 1911, intensified the immigration to America. Some immigrants returned from America with the money they had earned, to build houses and open shops.
This situation continued until the First World War. The War, which broke out on Tish B'Av of 1914, caused much suffering in Goniondz due to its proximity to the front and the Osowiec fortress. After Rosh Hashono, the Jewish people were forced to flee. At that time the entire town was robbed by Russian soldiers at the front. That winter, after the German retreat, was a peaceful one. But at Purim time the Germans began a new offensive on all fronts. There was chaos in Goniondz.
On that day, the idealistic yeshiva student Yitzhok Laib Vitkowski (Laizer Isaac's younger son) met a tragic end. Yitzhok Laib had been arrested as the result of a false allegation and was taken to Osowiec, where he was killed by a German bomb. This tragic event threw the entire community into turmoil, which led to a massive flight from the town. Several weeks later the town was faced with the anti-Semitic edict of the Commander In Chief of the Russian Army, Nikolei Nikoleiwitch, that the entire Jewish population near the front be cast out of their homes.
Many people from Goniondz went to Bialystok and the surrounding towns--Knyszyn, Yashinowka, and so on. Many traveled to central Russia, from which they returned after the revolution. During the period of the German occupation, many Jews were involved in reconstruction of the destroyed fortress and road repair. The Jewish population became very impoverished, but social life flourished. Under the dominion of the New Poland, Goniondz lived through difficult times with psychological and economic suffering. Immigration intensified and those who had the ability to do so moved on elsewhere. The dynamic Zionist youth migrated to Israel.