The Synagogue in Bialowieza

We are not sure which stream of Judaism the community in Białowieża represented, although there is reason to suppose that between the 19th and 20th century they were Misnagdim – orthodox Jews remaining in the opposition to Hasidic Judaism, putting pressure on the studies of Tora and Talmud. [17]. We know for sure, that in nearby Narewka, where the Jewish community was much bigger and older, all of the Jews were of the Misnagdim stream [11]. The Białowieża Jews buried in the Narewka cemetery after the 1st World War could represent the same stream.

When referring to the synagogue, the term „bożnica” (or bóżnica) [t/n: bozhnica, the House of God] was used, especially in the villages. Most of the people use this word in their testimonies about the synagogue of Białowieża – that's why in the following description we will use both of these names interchangeably.

The main synagogue in Białowieża was the wooden one on the Stoczek street, currently Gen.Waszkiewicza 38 street, and there was a private prayer house built from brick on the same street.

The Synagogue


Synagogue complex, school, bathhouse - the picture based on Jan Sawicki’s description by Paweł Winiarski

Synagogue complex, school, bathhouse - the picture based on Jan Sawicki’s description by Paweł Winiarski

The Synagogue stood at the Stoczek street (currently gen.Aleksandra Waszkiewicza 38 street) on a big square (around 224x100m) which belonged to the Jewish community [7]. We know that it was made from wood and that it was quite big – its measurements were 8,80 m of width, 11 m of length and 5 m of height. Certainly it was built before the First World War, and Aaron Feldbaum was one of it's prominent founders.

 The testimonies of descendants of the Feldbaum family [1] give a lot of information concerning the erection of the Bożnica before the First World War; and the information about the founder can be discovered in the farewell letter to Aaron Feldbaum written by the Białowieża community in 1921, when Feldbaum was leaving the town. „We built the synagogue thanks to this benefactor” [2]. Wiktor Szymański writes in his Białowieża forest guide in 1921: „the Jews have a synagogue in Białowieża (next to the Stoczek street)” [3]. In 1937, Jan Karpiński and Mieczysław Orłowicz also point out to the Synagogue's pre-war existence: „While the Jews, who make up ten percent of the society already had a synagogue in the pre-war times, the Poles didn't have a church” and „This street [Stoczek] is filled mainly with brick and wooden houses, holding stores which took the place of the old cottages. A synagogue stands among these houses. Here and there we can find some original thatched huts, which don't hold any particular style” [4].

An inhabitant of Białowieża, Jan Sawicki, which lived with his parents before the war just next to the synagogue, says (based on his parent's memories) that it was „built around 1910, if not earlier”, in the period of intensive development of Białowieża during the ascension of the tsar palace, the railroad and the appanage buildings in the Dyrekcyjny park (end of 19th to beginning of 20th century). Sawicki says: „Everybody benefited from this period of prosperity. There were materials, there was wood, the carpentry stores were working. Everything was made on the spot” [7].

From the descriptions of the Białowieża residents we know that the synagogue resembled a traditional wooden Białowieża house – with a rectangular shape, only higher, larger and with three pairs of big, tall windows (which are clearly remembered by most of the interviewed, although Bolesław Rychter opposes, saying that the building didn't have any windows at all [6], which seems rather impossible), with a steep tiled roof. The synagogue wasn't situated exactly at the Stoczek street (today Waszkiewicza), it was covered with another building – the Nowokolski family's store. It had two entrances – one from the street (behind the store), and one from the river side. There was a star of David in the gable. The synagogue was wooden. Jan Sawicki claims that it was made from logs and wasn't clapboarded [7] and Włodzimierz Dackiewicz claims the opposite – that the building was clapboarded [8] Borys Russko remembers, that the synagogue was painted in the ochre colour, just like many houses in Białowieża [9], although Dackiewicz remembers it as blue [8]. The differences in testimonies might be caused by different periods to which the interviewed are referring – the pre-war and the post-war period.

Inside, the synagogue had painted walls, tall windows, and a a high bima surrounded with barriers [7]. The Bima was enclosed, wooden and colourful, decorated with paintings. The wooden walls of the synagogue were decorated in the same way [8]. There was an vestibule in the synagogue, separated from the main room, located in a lower part [8]. Jan Sawicki recalls, that during their holidays, the Jews opened the synagogue's windows, and that he could hear singing and prayers, but he couldn't understand anything, as they were singing „in their way” [7]. Piotr Bajko writes (probably based on the memories of the citizens), that the synagogue was renovated in the '20s. [10].

In the mid-war period in 1936-38, Jews built a Jewish school building behind the synagogue [7]. There was a road next to the school and the synagogue, and on the other side of the road, closer to the river, there was a bath house [7;8].

That's how the oldest inhabitants of Białowieża describe the synagogue:

Jan Sawicki, which lived in the house next to the synagogue:

The synagogue was built on the square next to our building. Back then, we were living there with my parents. The ground on which the synagogue was built had around 224mx100m, just like ours from the west side. To be clear, the ground under the synagogue belonged to the Jewish community, it was bought and exploited by them. The front side of the square, from the side of the Street [Stoczek] was owned by Jew Nowokolska, which had her manufacture store there – she was selling mainly light clothes such as trousers and blouses. The synagogue was in the back, about eight meters behind that building. The measurements of the synagogue were around 8x10 meters. It had very tall windows, the building was very tall as well, if it would be residential it would for sure have few floors. It was covered with tile and had a very steep roof. It wasn't clapboarded, and it was a bit knocked at the top, it had simple logs, not planks, logs. They were painted with something. The building was functioning till the war. The entrance was small from the front, and from the back. There were two entrances – from the street, and from the river side. There were three pairs of tall windows. And the star, obviously on the top.” [7].

Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, which visited the synagogue with his Jewish friend from school:

The synagogue was very big. There was a covered bima, wooden and colourful, with paintings. The walls were also wooden, colourful, painted. (…) I was in the synagogue with my friend, with Irena Tabacznik or with Jabłońska. I was sightseeing. There was an atrium separated from the main hall, which was a little bit lower. The synagogue was located behind a building on the Stoczek street. The street next to it, there was a blacksmith and a locksmith. There were two buildings behind the synagogue, but I don't know what was there. The synagogue was clapboarded from the front, and it was blue. It was 12 meters wide, about 20 meters deep. It had a gabled roof” [8].

Borys Russko, a poet from Białowieża, the author of the Poem dedicated to the Białowieża Jews: „The synagogue was wooden, located behind a Jewish store. Wooden, big, mighty. Its big, rectangular shape was definitely wider than the building which is standing there now. The walls were clear, I think they were clapboarded. It had the same colour like all of the painted buildings here, some sort of dark yellow” [9].

Zina Buszko: „And there, a bit further, there was a synagogue.. It was a normal house. Just a bit bigger. Normal windows, just a bit bigger. A synagogue like any other synagogue” [16].

Bolesław Rychter: „The synagogue looked just like any other house, except for it didn't have windows and it was bigger. Wooden. The doors were from the street side. There was a square in front of it, and it was covered by a building from the side of a street. There was a bath-house behind the synagogue. I haven't been inside” [6].

During the Second World War and the soviet occupation, when all of the private craft businesses were closed, the synagogue was turned into a tailoring cooperative – all of the tailors from Białowieża had to work there [8].

During the German occupation, the synagogue was destroyed and transformed into a warehouse. Jan Sawicki remembers when the destruction happened and reminiscences: „During Hitler's occupation [Germans] were throwing out everything on a pile and burning. These scrolled rolls [Tora scrolls], all of that was thrown at the back [of the synagogue], from the river side to fireplace piles. They took men from the street, and ordered them to throw these out. (…) Inside, [the synagogue] there was this platform with barriers and an entrance. Except for that nothing, very tall windows. The walls were painted. And this way everything was taken, thrown out, burnt. The pegs from the rolls [Tora scrolls] were thrown around. (…) When the Germans threw everything out of the synagogue, they kept grain in there. They loaded it and loaded it with grain” [8].

Jan Sawicki remembers as well that the Jews that had to work for the Germans, were assembling under the synagogue, and from there they were taken to forced labour in the park, „they already had the Jewish star on their arms”. He also says, although he isn't sure of that, that „next to the synagogue, when the pacification was on, they were corralled to the synagogue and taken from there” [8] (link to the German occupation).

The “Kamar" grocery store in the old Jewish store of Nowokolscy, 2016, photo by Katarzyna Winiarska

The “Kamar" grocery store in the old Jewish store of Nowokolscy, 2016, photo by Katarzyna Winiarska

After the end of war the synagogue building was probably unused for a while. On the 10th of January 1950, the Konstanty Rokosowski Production Cooperative in Czyże directed a question to the Jewish Community in Białystok, asking them to hand over the Białowieża synagogue for the sake of their cooperative in Czyże. As they wrote in their request: [t/n: the original letter in Polish is full of spelling errors] "In due to the establishment of the Konstanty Rokosowski Production Cooperative in Czyże, we don't have any building which could serve for a clubhouse or other entertainment causes. Because the developing cooperative isn't able to immediately stand on the higher level in order to build from brick. Finding out, that they are selling the Jewish synagogue in Białowieża, we ask the Jewish community for favourable consideration of our application.” [10]. The synagogue wasn't given to Czyże, but to the local borough cooperative (GS) „Samopomoc Chłopska” (Peasant self-help) as a warehouse. It is noted down in the nationwide census of the synagogues and cemeteries prepared in 1952 on the request of the Bureau of the Religious Beliefs by the voivodeship offices. The census also states the measurements of the synagogue: length 11 meters, width 8,80 meters, height 5 meters. The building was evaluated as severely destroyed – by at least 50% [5].

Plac przed synagogą, widok w kierunku sklepu Nowokolskich

Plac przed synagogą, widok w kierunku sklepu Nowokolskich

The borough cooperative used the building to „store grain, cement, calcium and several seeds. The roof was renovated only a bit, in the means necessary for safety” [8]. The building survived till the mid-60's, when it was dismantled. Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, which was in this time the deputy of the chairman of the borough cooperative Aleksander Waszkiewicz, speaks about it this way: „Mikołaj Sieduń used to live back then in Białowieża – he was the leader of the Communal National Council. The warehouse in the synagogue was managed by Mikołaj Arciuch. Because the borough coperative started to build their warehouse, these people made a deal to deconstruct the synagogue. Mikołaj Sieduń sent a letter notifying, that the Communal National Council is selling the synagogue. Mikołaj Arciuch and Michał Smoktunowicz, the vice-chairman of GS (Borough Cooperative), deconstructed the synagogue. As they were both building their own houses, they took the material from the dismantled synagogue.” [12; 8].

The foundations of the synagogue were still visible at the beginning of the 21th century. Currently, the space is occupied by an outhouse which is using the elements of the old underpinning. The whole area is private. In the old store of the Nowokolski family, which used to cover the synagogue from the street side, there's now a grocery store KAMAR.

Plac, na którym stała synagoga

Plac, na którym stała synagoga

Podmurówka synagogi

Podmurówka synagogi

Stara podmurówka synagogi połączona z nowo wylaną

Stara podmurówka synagogi połączona z nowo wylaną








The private prayer house
Private prayer house, photo from the private archive of Tomasz Wiśniewski

Private prayer house, photo from the private archive of Tomasz Wiśniewski

Old private prayer house, modern view, 2016, photo by Katarzyna Winiarska

Old private prayer house, modern view, 2016, photo by Katarzyna Winiarska

After the First World War, on the same street (Stoczek) as the wooden synagogue, so on the current street of Aleksander Waszkiewicz 61, a bricked private prayer house was established and built by a Jew of Caucasian provenience [14;15]. We don't know who was the owner and the builder of the house, but Abram Jelizarow from Dagestan which deserted from the tsar army and settled in Białowieża belonged to the same tribe of „mountain Jews” - as they called the Caucasian Jews in Białowieża. Perhaps Jelizarow didn't run away alone, and having trouble to find themselves among the existing Jewish community, the group could arrange private prayers. But this is only a hypothesis.

There is a mention in Pinkas HaKehilot that „the Jews built a wooden synagogue, but some of the people preferred to pray in private houses in the minjan"[13]. The private prayer house was made of brick, it had an entrance from the street, a balcony on the floor and a big star of David in the gable. After the war, the first owner rebuilt the building to a residential house and deconstructed the balcony, the star of David, the entrance and other decorative elements in the facade [15].




  1. Informations from the Feldbaum descendants - Martin Zafman and David Feldman, unregistered skype interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 13th of November 2015;
  2. Farewell letter to Aaron Feldbaum, 29th of March 1921;
  3. Wiktor Szymański, Przewodnik po Puszczy Białowieskiej, (Wilno 1925,) 13;
  4. J.J. Karpiński, M. Orłowicz, Krótki przewodnik po Puszczy Białowieskiej, (Białystok 1937), s. 19 i 32;
  5. Archiwum Akt Nowych Urząd do spraw Wyznań AAN UdW, sygn. 22/440, Akcja rejestracyjna synagog, ed. Serafin Kiryłowicz, 1952;
  6. Bolesław Rychter, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 20th of May 2015;
  7. Jan Sawicki, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 15th of March 2016;
  8. Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 9th of June 2015;
  9. Borys Russko, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska,10th of March 2016;
  10. Piotr Bajko, Białowieża - zarys dziejów, (Białowieża 2001), 91;
  11. Pinkas HaKehilot, Poland, Vol. 8 (2005), Yad Vashem, "Narewka Mała";
  12. Włodzimierz Dackiewicz, interview by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, 11.10.1998, RG-50.488*0051;
  13. Pinkas HaKehilot, Poland, Vol. 8 (2005), 139-140: “Bialowieza", translation from Hebrew to English Matan Shefi;
  14. Michał Mincewicz, Puszczanckija jaurei, (Niwa, 10.09.2006);
  15. Tomasz Wiśniewski, Bóżnice Białostocczyzny, (Białystok 1992), 133;
  16. Zinaida Buszko, interview by Katarzyna Winiarska, 24th of March 2016;
  17. Polski Słownik Judaistyczny [Polish Judaistic Dictionary], ed. Zofia Borzymińska and Rafał Żebrowski;

    Minjan – zgromadzenie dziesięciu mężczyzn Żydów powyżej trzynastego roku życia, niezbędne do odprawienia wspólnych modlitw;

    Mitnagdzi – ruch mitnagdów, zwanych potem Litwakami, rozwinął się wśród Żydów zamieszkujących ziemie litewskie, zgromadzonych wokół Gaona z Wilna, którzy w związku z ucieczką przed represjami po zamachu na cara w końcu XIX wieku rozprzestrzenili się na terenach Królestwa Polskiego i szybko stali się dominującą siłą wśród Żydów w Polsce.