The earliest pieces of information about Jews in Bielsk Podlaski date back to the end of the 15th century. In 1487, King Casimir Jagiellon leased the collection of customs to two Jews from the town of Łuck (Lutsk). At that time, the Jewish community in Bielsk Podlaski was rather small and did not form a separate administrative unit. It was only in 1542 that an official religious community came into being; it had its own synagogue.
In 1561, King Sigismund Augustus gave the Jews of Bielsk a 4.5-year lease on the right to brew beer in Bielsk, Narew, and Kleszczele. In 1564, a conflict broke out between the local Christians and Jews. Two years later, following an intervention of the king, Jews were granted new privileges. Bielsk was located at the junction of two trade routes – one connecting Brest with the Duchy of Prussia and the other running from Kraków via Warsaw to Vilnius. This is why the local Jews dealt mostly with leasing customs houses and trade. Subsequent censuses carried out in 1580 and 1591 did not record any Jews living in Bielsk Podlaski. This was probably due to legal restrictions on Jewish settlement in towns, which were most frequently taken advantage of in royal-owned cities.[1.1] According to other sources, the early Jewish community in Bielsk Podlaski continued to exist until 1662.[1.2]
Jews started to return to Bielsk Podlaski at the end of the 18th century, despite protests from the local Christian population. An official permit allowing Jewish people to settle in the town was issued at the turn of 1802 and 1803. The religious community was re-established in 1807, comprising 31 members. Jewish people were slowly but surely flocking to Bielsk Podlaski. In 1847, the local Synagogue District comprised 298 people. In 1861, there were already as many as 1,256 Jews in the town, running three synagogues or houses of prayer. In 1878, Bielsk Podlaski had 5,810 inhabitants, including 3,968 Jews. The Jewish community started to shrink at the beginning of the 20th century, but even as late as 1938, Jews made up 38% of all inhabitants of the town.
Most Jewish shops and houses were located around the marketplace and the town hall. Jews also lived at the main streets of Bielsk Podlaski – Mickiewicza, Szkolna, Bóżnicza, Wąska, Widowska, and Ogrodowa. The Main Synagogue was a wooden building located in the town centre. It was surrounded by several houses of prayer which were pulled down after the war. The Hasidic synagogue was located nearby. The old Jewish cemetery was also located in the town centre; no traces of its existence have been preserved. The new cemetery was founded by the road to Brańsk.[1.3]
The Main Synagogue was erected in 1898 to replace an older temple at the same site. It was named “Yafe Einana” (Beautiful Eyes). The huge wooden building was covered with a tiled span roof and underwent several restorations. At the beginning of the 20th century, the synagogue was reconstructed for the last time, only to be dismantled during the war.[1.4]
Next to “Yafe Einana,” at Orla Street, there was the old synagogue. It had an unusual point of entry, as it was accessed through a descending staircase, like a cellar. According to accounts from former residents of the town, it had a magnificent Aron Hakodesh (Torah ark) with beautiful engravings depicting the equipment of the First Temple. The old synagogue was mostly attended by poor craftsmen.
The third synagogue was located at Bóżnicza Street. Known under the name “Sha’rei Zion Beth Midrash,” it was a wooden building erected at the site of an older temple which had burnt down during World War I. In its vicinity there was a mikveh, a Talmud Torah school, a yeshiva, and an orphanage.[1.1.4]
In the interwar period, the Jewish community was planning to erect another synagogue in Bielsk, but the project was never brought to life. The last rabbi of Bielsk Podlaski was Moshe Aron Bendes.[1.1.2]
During the Soviet occupation, there were ca. 6,000 Jews in the town, many of them refugees from Nazi-occupied territories. Germans entered Bielsk Podlaski on 24–25 June 1941 and established a ghetto. Its population included not only local Jews but also people from nearby localities, e.g. Narew and Orla. In early July 1941, a group of 30 people forming part of the local elite was shot. The same month, a Judenrat was appointed in Bielsk, with Szlomo Esptein selected as its president. Jewish people suffered numerous persecutions, had to pay exorbitant contributions, were banned from taking up various jobs and had to deal with an ever growing catalogue of restrictions imposed on their everyday life. The area of the ghetto, which encompassed the streets Widowska, Wąska, and Ogrodowa, was surrounded with a wooden fence erected by the Jews themselves; due to shortage of wood, they were forced to dismantle their own furniture. There is no exact data concerning the number of people imprisoned in the ghetto – according to post-war estimates, it may have comprised 3,000–5,000 prisoners, while accounts of survivors provide numbers in the range of 5,000–6,000. The ghetto was liquidated on 2–7 November 1942, with all local Jews transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka. Each day of the liquidation process, the Germans would send a transport of 1,000 people to the camp. On 6 November 1942, a group of 200 Jews was sent to the ghetto in Białystok. The only Jewish people to remain in the town were 48–49 shoemakers and their families. In January 1943, they were displaced to Pietrasze near Białystok. In February of the same year, the wives and children of the surviving craftsmen were sent to Treblinka. The men themselves would gradually be transported to Majdanek or Auschwitz.[1.5]
- “Bielsk Podlaski,” [in:] Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, vol. 2, eds. M. Dean, M. Hecker, Bloomington – Indianapolis 2009, pp. 871–872.
- Wiśniewski, Bożnice Białostocczyzny,Białystok 1992, p. 140.
- [1.1] Bielski Hostyneć 2010, no. 1 (42), p. 5.
- [1.2] Wiśniewski T., Bożnice Białostocczyzny, Białystok 1992, p. 139.
- [1.3] Wiśniewski T., Bożnice Białostocczyzny, Białystok 1992, pp. 139–140.
- [1.4] Wiśniewski T., Bożnice Białostocczyzny, Białystok 1992, p. 140.
- [1.1.4] Wiśniewski T., Bożnice Białostocczyzny, Białystok 1992, p. 140.
- [1.1.2] Wiśniewski T., Bożnice Białostocczyzny, Białystok 1992, p. 139.
- [1.5] “Bielsk Podlaski,” [in:] Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, vol. 2, Bloomington – Indianapolis 2009, pp. 871–872.