Jews started to settle in the area of the future Podlaskie Province in the late 15th century, and throughout the following century their numbers in newly founded towns were steadily growing. Local landowners and heirs of private towns created beneficial conditions for Jewish settlement in the entire region of Podlasie, namely the former Bielska Land, Drohicka Land, and Mielnicka Land. Only royal towns introduced various restrictions and bans against Jews. No sources have been preserved to point to the presence of Jews in Wysokie Mazowieckie in the first half of the 16th century, when the town formed part of a royal estate. At the time, the locality most likely held the de non tolerandis Judaeis privilege.

In 1659, Jakub Lewkowicz, a Jew from Boćki, filed a suit to the municipal court in Brańsk against the servants of the Opacki family from Wysokie Mazowieckie, who had allegedly assaulted and robbed him when he was transporting liquor to Łomża. At the time, there were no Jews living in the town itself, but they most likely soon started to settle in the area of the Wysokie Mazowieckie parish and work as innkeepers. One of such people was “a Jew in an inn with his wife, son, and daughter,” recorded in 1674 to be living in the village of Brzózki-Brzeziny – 3 km away from the town.

The earliest mentions of Jews residing in Wysokie Mazowieckie date back to 1719. They appeared much earlier in other towns in the Drohicka Land, for example in Węgrów (1537), Ciechanowiec (the 16th century), or Siemiatycze (1582). The initiative to settle Jews in Wysokie can be attributed to Jan Stanisław Kątski – at the time a colonel of horse artillery – who owned the town in the years 1719–1727. He later went on to become a deputy to the Sejm, the Crown Sword-bearer, and general of the horse artillery. It was probably after his marriage to Wiktoria Szczuka – heiress of the Wysokie Mazowieckie estate – in 1719 that he set out to rebuild the local economy devastated by the Northern War and invited Jews to the town to boost it. At the time, settling Jews was a relatively commonplace practice among the owners of private estates. Jewish people were known as adept tradesmen and trade was often the principal driving force between the overall development of towns. As stated by Józef Maroszek, “in the 17th–18th century, it was widely believed that settling Jews in a town was necessary to create or preserve its trade-oriented character.” The arrival of Jews to Wysokie soon bore ample fruit. On 7 January 1723, King Augustus II granted the town the right to organise fairs.

No source information has been preserved on the issuance of the location privilege to Jews in Wysokie Mazowieckie, which makes it difficult to asses the legal status of the Jewish population. The analysis of historical documents from subsequent periods shows that the first mention of the existence of an official Jewish community dates back to 1719. According to the criteria defined by Anatol Leszczyński, it was a grade 3 kehilla, constituting a subkehilla of the Węgrów community. This is evidenced by the preserved poll tax records from the years 1719–1725 and a 1722 mention referring to the conclusion of construction works on a house of prayer.

The year 1725 marked the beginning of a long conflict between Węgrów Jews (with the local community having jurisdiction over the entire Drohicka Land) and the Ciechanowiec kehilla (which gained independence in 1715), with both seeking to have control over the Jewish community of Wysokie Mazowieckie. It was the main kehilla which decided what part of the national tax would be paid by its subordinate subkehillot. The committee formed by the Council of Four Lands decided to postpone the decision to approve the statute of the Ciechanów community due to the fact that neither side of the conflict presented any decisive arguments. Until the committee’s next session, neither party was to exercise any power over the subkehilla, which was to be managed by the community board of Tykocin. In 1726, the conflicted parties signed an agreement in Sterdyń, by virtue of which the money collected from the Wysokie subkehilla would be divided into the two communities, each receiving 120 zlotys. The conflict re-emerged in 1729. A year later, after the tax collected from Wysokie was divided as per the agreement, the subkehilla finally came under the jurisdiction of the Ciechonowiec kehilla.

In 1765, the community in Wysokie Mazowieckie was described as an independent kehilla with its own rabbi and gabbai.

Jews were also obliged to pay the so-called kozubalec, that is a tribute to the Roman Catholic clergy. The Lutsk Diocese Synod of 1726 claimed that the payment was collected because Jews were occupying places which could otherwise be inhabited by Christians. Towards the end of the 18th century, the parish priest of Wysokie wrote that “Jews of the Wysokie kehilla owe the Church two stones of tallow and two quarters of meat a year, which are collected by the parish priests.”

In 1822, all kehillot in the Kingdom of Poland were dissolved by a national decree and replaced with the institution of synagogue supervision. The independent Synagogue Supervision of Wysokie Mazowieckie was established in 1826. From that moment on, the Jewish population of the town started to dynamically grow in numbers and develop.

In 1723 (according to church records), there were ca. 10 adult Jews living in the town. The census of “Jewish heads” of the years 1764–1765 recorded as many as 62 Jews. If we add to this the number of infants exempt from tax and the group of ca. 20% of Jews who evaded tax collectors, it can be concluded that ca. 75 Jews lived in the town at the time. The Prussian lustration of 1799 recorded 276 Jews among a total of 869 inhabitants, that is 32% of the population. The 1827 census lists 378 Jewish people and a total of 1,065 townsmen. In 1857, Jews constituted 58% of the town’s total population of 1,053; in 1897, this percentage increased up to 62%. In the 1880s, many Jews were arriving to the town from Lithuania. The first census carried out in independent Poland, in 1921, listed 1,898 Jewish people among a total of 3,214 inhabitants (59.1%). In 1928, Mayor Jan Skarzyński stated that Wysokie had 3,600 residents (65% of which were Jews and 35% Catholics).

The Jewish quarter was located in the north-western part of the town. Most Jewish houses and squares were situated at Krzywa (Zarzeczna) Street – currently Żwirki i Wigury Street, near the Brok River. The same area housed the house of prayer, the rabbi’s house, and a mikveh, as well as two cemeteries. Jews also lived around the Market Square and its vicinity. This was due to the economic role performed by the Jewish population.

The first, wooden synagogue was erected in Wysokie Mazowieckie in 1722. It has only been preserved in a drawing by Zygmunt Gloger, who described it as exemplary of the art of wooden architecture and emphasised its beautiful eaves cornices, decorative elements over the main door, and pazdur (decorative element placed on the roof ridge). Unfortunately, the synagogue was pulled down ca. 1874 due to bad technical condition. In the years 1878–1886, a new wooden synagogue with a shingle roof was designed and erected. A brick synagogue was constructed towards the end of the 19th century.

In the early stages of its existence, the professional activities of the Jewish community were limited to keeping inns. Later on, the local Jews started making a living from trade and crafts – they would buy agricultural produce from the countryside and in return provide the villagers with manufactured products. The dynamic growth of the Jewish population largely boosted the local economy. In 1780, King Stanisław August Poniatowski granted Wysokie Mazowieckie a privilege allowing the town to hold fairs. Together with market days, in the 19th century they attracted numerous peasants from the nearby villages.

In the interwar period, Jews owned many shops and artisan workshops on the Market Square. The most prominent Jewish merchants were Brande, Kiwajke, Tomkiewicz, Zakimowicz, Aftel – owner of a pharmacy, and Jakobi – photographer.

The year 1937 saw a pogrom which wreaked havoc among the Jews of Wysokie – their property was robbed and their houses were destroyed. A total of 23 people suffered damages in the incident.

It is worth mentioning that in August 1920, a group of local Jews joined the 300-member partisan unit formed in the town. Having learned of the Polish counter-offensive two days before the arrival of Polish troops, the unit launched an attack on the Bolsheviks and pushed them out of Wysokie Mazowieckie. However, the Soviet troops soon returned to the town. The ensuing six-hour battle resulted in the death of 18 Jewish partisans. While retreating from Wysokie, the Bolsheviks took hostage 250 people, including 230 Jews, and took them to Białystok. They also murdered six Jews and five Poles.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, there were many active Jewish organisations in the town, including Poale Zion, Tseirei Zion, Mizrachi, Tarbut, HaShomer HaLeumi, HaNoar HaTsioni, Betar, “Maccabi” Sports Society. Wysokie also boasted various charitable institutions: Hachnasat Kala, Hachnasat Orchim, Bikur Cholim. A small hospital was established in the 1930s.

Before World War II, there were ca. 2,500 Jews living in Wysokie Mazowieckie, constituting ca. 50% of the total population.

On 10 September 1939, German tanks entered the town. Wysokie was purposefully destroyed by the Wehrmacht, which fired incendiary ammunition at wooden buildings. Ca. 80% of the town was brought to the ground in the brutal show of power, with the attack lasting until late in the evening. The entire city centre, which was characterised by wooden buildings crammed densely one next to the other, was burned down. The fire also consumed the former Jewish district. A total of 71 houses and 123 utility buildings were lost to the blaze. An unidentified Jew was burned inside his own house. On the very same day, Germans shot four Jews on the road connecting Wysokie with Zambrów and forced another one to jump into a well, where he drowned.

On 12 September 1939, a total of 2,000 Polish and Jewish men over the age of 17 was apprehended by the Nazis in a campaign of roundups organised in the town and nearby villages. They were detained in the local parish church and held inside for two days without any food or water. On 14 September 1939, they were rushed on foot to Zambrów and Łomża, and the to the area of former East Prussia. During the march, the Germans murdered two Jews and a Pole.

Five days later, Germans ordered the Jewish inhabitants of Wysokie Mazowieckie to leave the town within 24 hours and head towards Białystok. Most people either obeyed the order or hid in nearby localities[1.1].

On 27 September 1939, according to the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the town was taken over by the Red Army. Jews were granted temporary safety thanks to the town’s location in the Soviet occupation zone. In early 1941, there were ca. 1,100 Jews residing in Wysokie.

On 24 June 1941, Wysokie came back under the German rule. In the last days of June and in July, several Jews were executed under the accusation of communist activity. On 15 August 1941, the Judenrat received the order to gather all Jews in the Market Square on the following day. Panic broke out among the Jewish community, but very few people managed to escape from the town. Those who remained prayed throughout the night. The German authorities decided to establish a ghetto on the request of the community, whose representatives believed that it would provide more safety to the Jewish population[1.1.1]

The area of the ghetto comprised: the eastern side of Jagiellońska Street, Dolna Street up to the river, Kościuszko Street, Rynek (Market Square), Mystkowska Street up to the intersection with Polna Street (today’s Ludowa). Its perimeter was surrounded with a barbed wire fence. The main entrance gate was located on the Market Square; there was also a secondary entrance. Apart from the local community, the ghetto population also included Jews from Jabłonka Kościelna, Kulesz, Rosochate, Szepietów, and Wyszonki – a total of ca. 2,000 people. The ghetto was guarded by the Jewish Police from the inside and by the Polsih Blue Police from the outside[1.1.1]

In the autumn of 1941, the local Judenrat was forced to pay a “contribution” to the Germans in the amount of 20,000 roubles [1.1.1]. Jews held in the ghetto worked on road construction and in the land estates surrounding the town. Their remuneration consisted of potatoes and other produce. As winter was approaching, they were also forced to collect wood in the forest so that Germans would have heating fuel. They were allowed to dig up tree roots, which were then used as fuel in the ghetto. The Judenrat opened a kitchen for the poor. Despite these efforts, many people were dying of hunger and a typhus epidemic broke out in the quarter.

In the spring of 1942, a group of German military policemen took two Soviet POWs, eight Jewish men, and two Jewish women out of the local jail. They were taken to the cemetery at Krzywa Street, where they were placed on the edge of a previously dug out ditch. Officer Herman Wehner killed them one by one with a shot to the back of the head. The corpses were buried by military policemen.

The process of liquidating the ghetto commenced on 2 November 1942. Having learned of the planned German operation, many Jews fled to the nearby forests. At first, ghetto residents would be transported to Czyżew in horse-drawn carts, loaded into trains, and sent to Treblinka and the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The last group of Jews was deported in mid-November to the temporary camp in Zambrów, from where they were taken to Auschwitz in January 1943. People were taken from Zambrów to Czyżew in slowly moving sleighs or wagons in severe frost; the Germans would take frequent stops and prohibited Jews from getting off the wagons. The transported people were wearing light clothes and many froze to death, especially children and the elderly. Anyone who refused to abide by the German orders was shot without warning.

Only around a dozen people from Wysokie managed to survive the Holocaust. They were rescued by Polish families. Many hiding Jews were hunted down and shot.

The entry is an abbreviated draft of the monography of Jews from Wysokie Mazowieckie.

Elaborated by Karol Głębocki (http://kamieniemowia.ubf.pl/readarticle.php?article_id=27 [Accessed: 31 Dec 2019].)

 

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Kruglov A., Dean M., “Wysokie Mazowieckie,” [in] Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1939–1945, Vol. II, Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, eds. Megargee, M. Dean, Bloomington 2012, p. 980.
  • [1.1.1] [a] [b] [c] Kruglov A., Dean M., “Wysokie Mazowieckie,” [in] Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1939–1945, Vol. II, Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, eds. Megargee, M. Dean, Bloomington 2012, p. 980.