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A small town in eastern Poland, south of Białystok. Brańsk was a royal town that was granted city rights under Magdeburg law in the fifteenth century. The privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis barred Jews from settling there, but in 1560 two Jews obtained permission from King Sigismund August to lease mills in the district. The town council granted them permission to reside in Brańsk on a temporary basis. Until the late eighteenth century, the number of Jews never reached more than a dozen. Many, however, lived on local estates belonging to the aristocracy and gentry who leased inns and mills to them. Larger Jewish settlements thus arose in the vicinity of Brańsk in private towns such as Tykocin, Orla, Boćki, Siemiatycze, and Ciechanowiec.

Brańsk became part of Prussia as a result of the third partition of Poland in 1795. At that point, the town lost its administrative significance and privileges. Jews were allowed to settle there, numbering, by 1799, 7 percent of the population of 1,155 residents; by 1807 they formed 12 percent of the town’s total population of 1,303. After the defeat of the Prussians by Napoleon in 1807, Brańsk was assigned to Russia and remained part of the tsarist empire until 1917. As the commercial center of its district, the town became an attractive place for Jewish settlement, and in 1816, Jews established a kehilah under the control of the larger one in Boćki. Settling in the central part of the town near the market square, by 1897 Jews accounted for 58.1 percent of the town’s 4,087 residents. However, poverty forced many of Brańsk’s residents to emigrate, and Jews left particularly for the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century, four organizations of immigrants from Brańsk had been formed in America.

By 1914, Jews constituted about 51 percent of the town’s population of 4,300, and there were calls for Poles to boycott Jewish stores. The tense relations were exacerbated by the Polish–Soviet war and the belief of local Poles that the Jews were pro-Bolshevik and hostile to Polish independence. Matters worsened after the death of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. A radical nationalist youth organization organized an often violent boycott of Jewish trade and crafts. According to the census of 1921, Jews accounted for 57.9 percent of the town’s 3,739 inhabitants, but by the outbreak of World War II, the numbers had fallen to about 50 percent.

Brańsk was under Soviet rule between September 1939 and the outbreak of the Nazi–Soviet war two years later. Hostility intensified as many believed that Jews had collaborated extensively with the Soviets, despite the fact that Jews had suffered under Bolshevik rule. After the Nazi occupation, two ghettos were established in the town. The majority of Brańsk’s population, themselves subject to severe repression, were largely indifferent to the Nazi murder of local Jews, which took place in November 1942. Although some gentiles assisted Jews and saved lives, others benefited from Jewish property and even denounced those in hiding. Today there are no Jews in the town.

The history of Brańsk in the prewar and wartime period is the subject of a documentary film, Shtetl, made by Marian Marzyński, released in 1996, and shown on PBS television in the United States. Another portrayal is found in Eva Hoffman’s book Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1998).

Suggested Reading

Eva Hoffman, Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (London, 1998); Alter Trus and Julius Cohen, eds., Braynsk sefer ha-zikaron: A bashraybung fun undzer heym (New York, 1948).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 980, Brainsker Brothers Aid Society, Records, 1924-1974.