Knyszyn is a town with more than 500 years of history. Once the residence of Polish kings (in the 16th and 17th centuries), it was here in 1572 that the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Sigmundus Augustus, met his end. His memorial tomb was opened in 1997. Today, however, there is little to suggest to visitors Knyszyn's former importance, except perhaps the 200-year old wooden granary that sits next to a frequently rebuilt church on Koscielna Street.
As early as the 16th century, Jews were already living near the royal residence in Knyszyn. And although Knyszyn townsmen obtained the privilege de non tolerandis judaeis (forbidding Jews to settle in the town) in the middle of the 17th century, Jews continued to reside here. By the outbreak of World War II, approximately 1400 of the town's 4000 inhabitants were Jews. Professor Moshe Miszkinski, the son of Knyszyn's last rabbi, now lives in Israel where he is a well known historian. Another Knyszyn born Jew, Sol Solarz, is now president of the Bialystoker Center in New York City.
Although neither of Knyszyn's two synagogues has survived, the town is home to one of the most unusually located Jewish cemeteries in Europe. The so-called "New Jewish Cemetery" originated around 1930. Much more interesting, however, is the well preserved older cemetery which was established in the second half of the 18th century on the town's abandoned royal ponds and built by Piotr Chwalczewski, who served as Knyszyn's starosta (administrator) from 1553 to 1564. Today, the cemetery is maintained by, among others, scouts from the local schools.
Originally numbering 19, only seven of the royal ponds still remained by 1939. Today, these ponds provide the only observable reminders of the former royal residence. During King Sigismundus Augustus' reign, the ponds' dams served as a refuge for such game as deer and rabbits (with hunting prohibited). However, by 1750, the ponds had fallen into neglect and were not bringing in any profit and thus were sold by the city to the Jewish community, which had already established a cemetery in the area. Since they were overgrown and littered with sinkholes at the time of the Germany occupation, the effort of removing large stones from this labyrinthine cemetery was simply too costly and labor-intensive for the Nazis to carry out; thus, the cemetery escaped destruction.
The dams function as cemetery paths, defining the overall space. The oldest mazevas (tombstones) are concentrated in the western portion of the cemetery. For example, there is a richly ornamented stone with a sophisticated relief drawing of a lion holding religious books in its paws. Or the elaborate epitaphs that characterize so many of these mazevas. Here is one example.
...The joy of our heart diedClick here for a list of names, with dates of death, from some of the approximately 700 tombstones.
The fiddle plays a funeral tune
our misfortune is as large as the sea . . . .
angels cry . . . the glory of our community lost its horns . . .
the Tzadik . . . his mouth was full of precious stone
among brothers of work, he spread the faith . . .