First Jews appeared in Kamyenyets at the beginning of the 16th century. In the privilege issued on 26 February 1525, the Jewish minority was granted an additional fair day and a permit to build a synagogue, establish a cemetery within the confines of the town or in its surroundings, conduct trade activities, buy property and build houses. At the same time, Jews were not allowed to own tavern, but could run them as leaseholders. Christians were forbidden  from intervening in the economic and religious life of the Jewish community. The rights granted to Jews were confirmed by the kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – in 1635 by Władysław IV, in 1661 by Jan Kazimierz and in 1670 by Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki. In 1629, Jews were given permission to sell alcoholic beverages and engage in crafts without being obliged to join Christian guilds.

Several Jewish names can be found in the 1565 taxpayers register. Eliezer paid three zloty in taxes, Naum – three zloty, Pesach – two zloty, Stopka – three zloty. According to the document, Jews inhabited not only Kamyenyets but also its surroundings. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they constituted the majority of leaseholders of the local inns and the toll. In 1518, King Zygmunt Stary leased the Brzesko customs chamber, together with the small customs chamber in Kamyenyets, to Abraham Józefowicz for eight years. In 1529, the small customs chamber in Kamyenyets was leased for three years to Ajzyk Józefowicz. In 1569, Kamyenyets paid a combined annual payment to the royal Treasury for the monopoly on vodka and toll in the amount of 138 zloty.

The Christian inhabitants of the town were not happy with the policy adopted towards Jews. The townspeople complained to King August II that the privileges of 1670 foster lawlessness among Kamyenyets Jews, who could freely sell various goods and open stalls and booths at the market and in the town itself. They could also buy and sell homes that belonged to the nobility or the clergy, causing a drop in property prices. In response to the complaint, August II forbade Jews from building houses and selling alcoholic beverages; he also ordered the local governor to restrict Jewish trade.

In the 18th century, Kamyenyets consisted of two parts – the Old Town and the New Town. The Jewish quarter with all its streets and alleys was located in the centre of the Old Town, in the western part of Kamyenyets. The community was subordinate to the Brześć (Brest) kehilla, and later – to the Wysokie Litewskie (currently Vysokaye) community.

In the 19th century, Kamyenyets was a private property – it belonged to the merchant Nosarzewski, then to Walerian Polanowski. The latter gradually sold out the farmhouses and municipal plots to Jews, who also became the owners of the northern part of the market, previously belonging to the town. In 1887, the widow of Wolginow, the late owner of Kamyenyets, sold the entire town to a Jew from Białystok, Abraham Niemcewicz.

World War I did not significantly affect the ethnic composition of the population. In 1921, Kamyenyets had 2,348 inhabitants, 1,902 of which were Jews – 81% of the total population. In 1922, Abraham Niemcewicz sold Kamyenyets and its suburbs for 8,000 zloty to the Jewish merchant and restorer Icek Josel Gwircman, who remained its owner until the Sejm passed a law on the cancellation of property rights to cities and towns. The State Treasury then paid Gwircman the incurred expenditure.

World War II broke out on 1 September 1939. On 16 September 1939, German troops entered the town. After a week, the Germans left Kamyenyets Litewski, and on 25 September, the town was taken over by the Red Army. With the entry of the Soviets, the life of the Jewish community changed significantly. The communist Jews, previously carrying out underground activities, were appointed to leadership positions in newly established state and party structures (Lejzer Doliński, Józef Wolfson, Józef Krupczyk, Jakobson brothers, Malka Radzisz). They knew the inhabitants of Kamyenyets quite well. More than half of the town's Jews were earning their living from trading, most often as stall owners. New authorities took away their main source of income. Stalls and boots were confiscated, and independent commercial activity was subject to severe punishment, in accordance with the mandatory Soviet law. The market square was converted into a park. All the enterprises belonging to Jews were nationalised: mills, brewery, distillery, brick and tile factory, oil mill. Most residential homes also became state property. The synagogue and prayer houses were closed, and the yeshiva was transformed into a cinema and a club. All Jews were obliged to work on Saturday and on holidays, which offended their religious feelings.

After the town was captured by the Germans, it became part of Bezirk Bialystok. In July 1941, 108 young Jews were arrested, deported and shot on the Brest highway, 2 km from Kamyenyets. In the autumn of 1941, Germans sent 5,000 local Jews to the ghetto in Prużana (Pruzhany), but within two-three weeks a large group returned to the town. On 1 January 1942, the Germans formed a ghetto in which they imprisoned 450 families. They ordered the establishment of a Judenrat. The ghetto was guarded and fenced and its inhabitants suffered severe hunger and cold. There was only one well in the entire quarter. On the German order, the Judenrat chose 30 young men for repair works at the railway station in Wołkowysk (Vawkavysk). Afterwards, they were sent to the German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz; only Leon Gedalje Goldrynk survived. At the turn of June 1941, 140 Jews were taken by the Germans to the Rowiec wilderness; they were ordered to dig a pit and then were shot. On 9 September 1942, an uprising broke out in the ghetto. By November 1942, the precinct was liquidated and its prisoners were deported by the Germans to Wysokie Litewskie and from there to the camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Bibliography

  • Kamyenyets, [in] Holokost na territoryi SSSR, ed. I. A. Altman, Moscow 2009, pp. 380–381.
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