In the 14th century, the area of current Podlasie, which earlier had been fought over by Lithuania, Poland, and Ruthenia, remained under the Lithuanian rule. The first mention of Białystok dates back to a document issued in 1426, by virtue of which Duke of Lithuania Vytautas granted the ownership of a village called Bielszczany Stok to Maciej of Tykocin. In the middle of the 15th century, the village became the property of Boyar of Samogitia Jakub Raczek Tabutowicz, who erected the first manor house in the settlement. In 1547, Białystok’s owners were the Wiesiołowski family and in 1569, after the family’s extinction, the town along with the entire Podlaskie Province was incorporated into the Crown. In 1661, it was granted to Stefan Czarniecki as a symbol of gratitude for his military services. After the hetman’s death, the property was inherited by his daughter and son-in-law – Katarzyna Aleksandra and Jan Klemens Branicki of Gryf coat of arms.
It is believed that Białystok was granted city rights by King John III Sobieski sometime before 1691, thanks to the efforts of the then city owner - Stefan Mikołaj Branicki. A town charter dating to 1749 issued by King August II, preserved to this day, is considered to be a confirmation of a town privilege granted earlier. Although Białystok had been an important urban centre since at least the mid-17th century, it did not gain its truly urban characteristics until 1709, when it came under the ownership of Jan Klemens II Branicki, the Crown Great Hetman, Castellan of Kraków and Stanisław August Poniatowski’s counter-candidate for the Crown of the Republic of Poland. The new owner, universally known as the best “manager” among all magnates, supported the development of trade and municipal institutions, reconstructed the local palace and enclosed it with gardens (which came to be known as the “Versailles of Podlasie”). In the years 1750-1771, there was a theatre operating in the Branicki mansion. Among the visitors of the Branicki Palace were Polish kings: August I, August III, and Stanisław August, Tsarevich Paul, as well as Emperor Joseph II and the exiled king Louis XVIII.
Following the 1753 fire which destroyed much of Białystok, Branicki reconstructed the city in accordance with a new architectural idea inspired by French and German designs. The buildings constructed at the time were: the Town Hall, a poorhouse, an armory, a clergy house, and many inns. There were also engineering schools, construction schools, and midwifery schools operating in the town. At the end of the 18th century, the so-called sub-department school was founded in the city, subordinate directly to the Vilnius University and transformed into a Prussian high school in 1802. At the time, the city welcomed an increasing number of Jewish migrants, who supported the centre’s economic development.
The period of the Prussian rule (1795 – 1807) saw the gradual deterioration of the town, which was incorporated into the province of New East Prussia. In 1802, the town was owned by the Potocki family, who decided to sell the property to the King of Prussia for a moderate price of 271,000 thalers. By virtue of the Treaty of Tilsit, the town was incorporated into the Russian Empire and became the capital of Belostok Oblast, encompassing the districts of Białystok, Bielsk, Sokółka, and Drohiczyń. At the beginning of the 19th century, after the period of Napoleonic wars, textile industry began to gain importance in Białystok. A large group of soldiers coming from Saxony settled there at the time; they specialised in weaving and spinning and set up numerous workshops in the town, often founding joint venture businesses with the local Jewish capital. At the turn of the 18th century, Białystok became the third biggest (after Moscow and Łódź) centre of textile production in this part of Europe.
When Belostok Oblast was dissolved (1842) and the town was incorporated into the Grodno Governorate, Białystok lost its status of an important administrative centre and in turn became one of the biggest industrial towns in the Polish territory. After 1831, it experienced an economic revival due to customs border being established between Congress Poland and Russia after the November Uprising. Emperor Nicholas I, aiming to hamper the development of industry in the Kingdom of Poland, imposed high duties on products exported to the partitioning countries, especially Russia. In consequence, textile manufacturers from Łódź, who considered Russia their main outlet of production, started to move their companies as close to the border as possible; some of the most commonly selected towns were Białystok and Supraśl.
The Jewish community of Białystok started to grow as the town was developing and in the second half of the 19th century, it became the most numerous ethnic group in the town, which was also inhabited by Poles, Russians, Germans, Tatars, Roma people, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians. In 1862, Białystok was located on the railway line connecting Warsaw and Petersburg, which allowed for the city to become an important transportation centre and accelerated its economic development. As a result of the dynamic development of many industries, Białystok was soon dubbed the “Manchester of the North”. At the end of the 19th century, due to the predominance of blue-collar workers in the town’s population, left-wing parties, including the Jewish Bund, enjoyed strong support in Białystok. The workers, dissatisfied with their difficult working conditions, often went on strike. In 1905, the army and police brutally quelled one of such manifestations and in 1906, in a response to assaults and murders of senior officials and policemen, Russian authorities initiated a massacre of Jews; over 70 people died and over 90 were injured.
After the outbreak of World War I, the tsarist authorities evacuated several factories operating in BIałystok to inland Russia. The city’s economic situation deteriorated as it was cut off from the Russian market. Between 1915 and 1919, the city remained under German occupation. On 19 February 1919, the Polish Army reclaimed Białystok. The short period of relative stabilisation was interrupted on 28 August 1920, when the Red Army entered the city – it was stationed there until 22 August 1920, when the Russian troops were defeated by the Polish counter-offensive.
The interwar period saw the construction of numerous public service buildings and housing estates in Białystok, which at the time was the capital of a large province. A sewage system was built and the power plant and slaughter house were expanded. Buildings for four public state schools were constructed, along with a hospital, a new church, a theatre and a sports stadium. At the same time, attempts were made to do away with the Russian past – some Orthodox churches were demolished, others were converted into Roman Catholic temples. In the 1920s and 1930s, the town also became a centre of textile industry. In 1919, local manufacturers gained access to internal markets (the former Austrian and Prussian Partitions). In the winter between 1924 and 1925, Białystok’s industry suffered severe consequences of the so-called first crisis, due to which several manufacturers moved their factories to other countries, including Yugoslavia, Romania and Serbia. The recovery of the textile industry took place between 1926 and 1928. There were 76 factories operating in the city at that time; they employed approximately 6,000 workers and supplied both home and external markets, exporting mostly to India and China as well as the Balkans. Białystok also produced ready-to-wear garments for export to England, South Africa, Ireland, India and China. The 1930s went down in history as the time of the growing economic crisis, which led to the liquidation of a part of local factories, which in turn resulted in the surge of unemployment and poverty. The unfavourable economic conditions forced several thousands of people (mostly Jews) to migrate from Białystok and move overseas.
At the beginning of World War II, the city was taken over by the Germans, who occupied it from 15 to 22 September 1939, when it was handed over to the Russians and, on 28 October 1939, incorporated into the Byelorussian SSR. The Soviet occupant initiated large-scale repressions against the Polish and Jewish population, causing mass emigration of Poles from the city. Thousands of BIałystok’s inhabitants were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia.
On 27 June 1941, after the German attack on the USSR, the Einsatzgruppen and Wehrmacht battalions entered Białystok. They pacified the Jewish district of the town and burned down the Great Synagogue. Białystok became a centre of a district governed by the East Prussian gauleiter. A ghetto was formed in the city at the end of July; it housed about 50,000 – 60,000 Jews from the city itself and from its adjacent areas. The ghetto was dissolved on 16 August 1943, after a five-day uprising had been quelled. The majority of the ghetto’s inhabitants died in the Treblinka concentration camp, as well as in Auschwitz and Majdanek.
On 27 July 1944, the town was taken over by Soviet troops, who carried out mass apprehensions and deportations of the Home Army soldiers. In the aftermath of demolitions carried out by German troops and the bombings by the Russian air forces, Białystok’s city centre was almost completely brought to the ground. A significant part of the town’s population was killed. Out of 108,000 inhabitants the town had in 1939, only 56,000 people lived there in 1946.
Białystok became the capital of Podlaskie Province (in 1999) and the centre of a district. In 1945, the town became the seat of an archbishop, a seminary and the Diocese of Vilnus. In 1991, the Apostolic Administration in Białystok was converted into the Archdiocese of Białystok. The town is also the centre of the Orthodox bishopric. Industry and higher education started to thrive in the town as it gained more and more inhabitants. In 1997, a university was founded in Białystok. As of 2013, the town has 294,000 inhabitants.
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