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Oshmyany or Oszmyana

updated on 25/03/2018

The name of the city most likely originates from a term used by the Crusaders for a town with wooden houses. They put Oshmyany to a siege in 1384. Back then the town was a property of the Grand Duke and it managed to repel the enemy.

Oszmyana old map

Oszmyana old map

When in 1550 the Grand Duke passed Oshmyany Manor to the Franciscans to establish a monastery, a new city center was created two kilometers away from the original one. The development of the city moved on the left bank of Oshmyanka River and it was named Novaya Oshmyanka. In 1537 the city had a number of streets and a central square, at the same time residents had vegetable gardens. The main street passed along the river and was basically on the way from Smorgon to Vilno.

It is uncertain when Oshmyana got the Magdeburg Right (some sources quote 1566) and it didn’t hold for long. Revoked a few decades later, it was restored again shortly before the Russian Empire authorities abolished it for good. In the 1520s the Russian army attacked and devastated the area.

old franciscan monastery

Old Franciscan Monastery ruins

Somewhere around that time the city center grouped up around the crossing of the highways of the time. The main square has been almost rectangular in plan up to the date.

Before the Lublin Union was signed in 1569 an administrative reform was conducted creating Ashmyana powiat (district) that was only rearranged in 1940. In 1802 after a few geography changes the town landed into Grodno Gubernia of the Russian Empire.

The 1811 census listed 1830 persons living in exclusively wooden buildings. In 1831 the national uprising brought destruction to the town which never recovered from it. By the late 19 century Oshmyana remained a small provincial town. In 1897 there were already over 7 000 people. There were a pharmacy, a hospital, several schools and factories including a water mill, a tobacco factory and a brewery.

During the First World war Oshmyana was split into two parts by the frontline. Occupation by the German army was later replaced by the Soviet one and from 1921 it was a Polish territory. The new government launched leather works, yeast factory and a sawmill. In 1931 electricity was introduced in town, naturally, available to the richest residents.

old churches of oszmyana

Old temples of Oszmyana

In 1505 the Franciscans built a stone church and a wooden monastery in Staraya Oshmyana. In 1655 they both were destroyed but rebuilt soon after. In 1825 a capital renovation was conducted. After the war the church became a warehouse although crosses still topped it.

In the late 19 century a local Catholic priest initiated a construction of a new church in the center of Oshmyana. The works took 6 years and the church was consecrated in the name of St Archangel Mikhail.

The first Jews appeared in Oshmyana presumably in the 1500s. In the mid 18 century their community numbered about 300 taxpayers. In 1797 there were about 2000 Jews in Oshmyana and the whole area.

By 1796 Oshmyana Jewish Community had two synagogues. They were wiped out by the 1837 fire along with other residential buildings. Donations were raised to build a new synagogue in the 1850s. The construction took a few years and the result was eye-catching: classicist traditions were mixed with the local and Oriental styles, the building featured rich plastering. Meyer Cohen, the rabbi that was elected several times in this period, was commended by the authorities for his performance.

oszmyana streets

Oszmyana streets by the synagogue

In the second half of the 19 century Jews were very active in the town’s economy. Breweries and yeast factories were owned by Strogach and Bohad, a tobacco factory was owned by Rishdinsky, mineral water factory – to Danilovsky.

In the 1880s the community numbered over 2000 persons and accounted for a half of the town’s population, the proportion remained when the Jewish population reached over 3800 persons by 1897. The Jews of Oshmyana were not necessarily very rich – the poor ones were actively promoting revolution ideas and conducted strikes to improve their working conditions.

Town economy dwarfed during the First World war – frontline crossed the area. In 1917 many Jews welcomed the revolution while others were more reserved seeing danger to their property.

Oszmyana synagogue

Oszmyana synagogue

Once war was behind, economy rushed to recovered and so did Jewish-owned businesses. Yeast factory, leather workshops, toy factory and several hotels were generating profit. The Polish government didn’t mind traditional education for Jews, neither political organizations were an issue.

All these things were shut down by the Soviet authorities in 1939. Capitalists were deported to Siberia, their businesses confiscated by the state. At the same time, many Jews held jobs with the new government.

The Nazi occupied Oshmyana very fast, very few people managed to evacuate. Within two years local Jews were either murdered in the area or deported to larger death camps and the ghetto was shut down in 1943. Only about a dozen Oshmyana Jews survived the war but the community was never restored, numbering about 100 persons in the 1980s.

Flying over Ashmyany

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