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Historical Account of Radzilow Up Until the Early 1900's

By: John Radzilowski
Note: It is written mostly from a non-Jewish perspective.

Radzilow - An Outline History:

The town of Radzilow is located near the confluence of the rivers Wissa and Biebrza, in the region of Mazovia in what is today northeastern Poland. The surrounding region was one of forests and marshes, containing an abundance of wildlife, but few people until comparatively recently. The region was home to the great European bison, aurochs, deer, beaver, wolf, bear, lynx, heron, eagle, and stork, to name but a few. Despite its sparse population, the first known human inhabitants can be traced to wooden artifacts dated to about 10,000 years ago that were recently excavated in northeastern Poland.

Who the earliest inhabitants were is unknown. At the beginning of historical times, the Radzilow area seems to have been inhabited by a Baltic people known as the Jadzwingians.[1]  Slavic peoples moved into the area only gradually. To the southeast were Belarusin tribes and from the southwest come the Polish-Mazovians who would become the dominant population by the early modern era. In this early period, national identities were weak and regional identities strong, so the newly arriving inhabitants probably considered themselves Mazovians as much as Poles.

The Radzilow area was incorporated into or claimed by the early Polish state at the beginning of eleventh century, in the reign of Boleslaw I Chrobry (the Brave).[2]  In practical terms, this meant fairly little since the area had few inhabitants and virtually no towns. At various Mazovia was an independent or autonomous duchy and it retained a degree of autonomy from Poland proper until the end of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Polish colonization in the Middle Ages followed the line of the Narew and Biebrza rivers northward, making the Radzilow area a Polish wedge between Germanized state of Teutonic Knights to the north, the pagan Lithuanians to the northeast, and the orthodox Belarusins to the east and southeast.

The first recorded settlement in the immediate Radzilow vicinity was Goniadz, about 25 km. east northeast of Radzilow along the Biebrza, which dates to the twelfth century. There are also the remains of ancient fortifications about 6 km. south of town.[3]  Being a border region, the Radzilow area was subject to frequent cross-border raiding as a three-way conflict between Poland, the Teutonic Knights, and Lithuania smoldered throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Significant settlement, however, began in the early 1400s, indicating a new movement of Polish settlers into the region, possibly related to drastically improved relations between Poland and Lithuania that resulted in Lithuania's conversion to Christianity and the defeat of Teutonic Order.

Radzilow, originally named Radzilowo or Radzilowo-Kola, is first mentioned in 1424. One source indicates the name may have originated in the late 1300s, but most historians date the town's origin to 1424.[4]  This makes Radzilow one of the older towns in the area. Its neighbors, Klimaszewnica (1422) and Grabowo (1423) are slightly older, but it outdates most other surrounding towns such as Grajewo (1434), Stawiski (1426), and Szczuczyn (1689).[5]  The origin of the name is unclear. It may have been named after a person, either a proper name or a title. The name comes from the Polish/Slavic word "radzic" to advise or to give council, thus someone with this name might have been a councilor or advisor to a more powerful lord. One local story is more prosaic: that "Radzilowskis" (i.e. persons from Radzilow) knew the best places to fish and people asked their advice about where to cast their lines.[6]

Radzilow's location is a function of geography. It was key crossing point on the Wissa River on the road from central Mazovia to eastern Prussia and Lithuania. By 1454 the town had regular ferry to help travelers cross the river.[7] In addition, with the hostile Prussian border a mere 20 km. away, the Wissa provided a possible invasion route toward the city of Bialystok. Set amid swamps and forests, the location would have been an ideal border outpost. Although there is today no known physical evidence of fortifications, some pre-World War I sources do mention them and a more recent source states that the layout of the town is defensive in character due to the sharp, straight turns of the streets leading away from the center of town.[8]

The earliest residents of Radzilow were members of Poland's szlachta class. The szlachta were a gentry, warrior caste whose origins are hotly debated by Polish historians. Interestingly, all or almost all of the residents of early Radzilow were of this gentry class. Most, or course, were economically little better than peasants, but they possessed the right to own land and bear arms. They were fierce and proud, valuing honor to a fault but also fractious and often litigious. Early records from the fifteenth century show that the people of Radzilow had a reputation for being feisty and quarrelsome. Radzilow was but one of several szlachta villages in the immediate area founded by Wladyslaw I, duke of Mazovia by the mid 1400s.[9]

The earliest overlord of the area was one Wlodzimierz of Romany, who in 1424 was given an endowment of 30 wloks of land (about 900 acres) in the surrounding area. By the mid-1400s, Radzilow and surrounding villages were bequeathed by the duke to Mikolaj, bailiff of Slubic, who was sheriff of the area. In 1455, a blacksmithy was built and there was also a mill in operation by that time. In 1466, Konrad III, duke of Mazovia, granted the town a charter under the Chelmno Laws.[10]  This meant that Radzilow gained a measure of self-government and probably exemption from certain taxes.[11]  In 1495, the town passed from the direct rule of the Mazovian dukes into the kingdom of Poland and four years later it was given to one Jakub Glinki. It reverted to Mazovia between 1511 and 1526, but thereafter became a permanent part of Poland as directly regional autonomy disappeared in Poland. In 1548, Radzilow became the seat of the county of Wiski and the site of the regional judicial court. From that time until 1795 it was also the seat of the sheriff of Wiski.[12]

The mid-1600s, however, were not kind to Radzilow. Invading Swedish armies sacked the town in the 1650s. In 1708 Poland became the scene of a war between Russia and Sweden and Swedish armies commanded by King Charles XII occupied the Radzilow area and built a fort to command the Biebrza crossings about 15 km. upstream from Radzilow.

The early gentry inhabitants of Radzilow were Roman Catholic and the first known church was founded by the people of the town in 1463 under the name Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the patronage of Sts. Barbara, James the Apostle, and the 12,000 Martyrs. Throughout most of its history, however, the church has been under the patronage of St. Barbara and that was the way to which it was usually referred. It was given to the care of order priests in 1475 by Kazimierz, bishop of Plock, and in 1480 it was endowed by John II of Mazovia. In 1739, a new wooden church in the baroque style was built by the pastor Fr. Jakub Tafilowski. The building is important architecturally and contained notable statues, a pulpit carved in the shape of an oyster, and period chalices.[13]  A separate belltower was built in 1778. The church and belltower stood on the site until 1981 and can be seen today in the nearby village of Kramarzewa. The oldest artifacts from Radzilow are statues that date from about 1480. One portrays St. George. The other is a partial relief showing the death of the Virgin Mary that once graced the church altar.[14]  (Both are now housed in the regional museum at Lomza.)

Polish Catholics were not the only inhabitants of Radzilow and its environs. There were perhaps some Jadzwingians still living in the area into modern times, Polish Muslims were resident to areas north of Radzilow, and there may have also been some Orthodox Belarusins. There was also a German population in the area and it is likely that some Germans lived in and around Radzilow.

Yet, the most significant non-Polish population of Radzilow was its Jewish community. When they first came to Radzilow is unknown, but it may have been very early, perhaps in the 1400s. As in other towns in Poland, Jews came to this border region at the behest of local nobles. They were merchants and skilled craftsmen whose presence could greatly enhance a town's economic potential. Jews also served as grain buyers, middlemen, tavern owners, and moneylenders. Since it is possible that Radzilow had a sizeable Jewish population early in its history, it would have also had Jewish religious structures, including a synagogue. As a sizeable community, the Jews of Radzilow would have been governed by their own council (kahal), with legal and religious autonomy under royal protection and patronage. Although Jews and Christians officially lived apart from one another (by mutual consent), except in the economic sphere, evidence from other regions shows that there was intermarriage between the two communities. By the early twentieth century, Jews made up at least half of Radzilow's inhabitants, and most of its business class (although the surrounding countryside was mostly non-Jewish).[15]

In 1795, Poland lost its independence to its powerful and autocratic neighbors, despite a last ditch rebellion led by the Polish and American hero, Tadeusz Koscuiszko. Polish forces engaged the Russian invaders in the Radzilow area, most notably in neighboring Klimaszewnica.[16]  The area fell under Prussian rule until 1809, when the victorious Napoleon created the puppet state of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. This lasted until 1815, when, following the final French defeat, the area was taken over by Russia.[17]  Under the Russians, Radzilow was a government town. The oppressive and backward Russian government was resented by many Poles, who staged heroic but unsuccessful rebellions in 1830/31 and again in 1863/64. In 1831, Polish insurrectionists clashed with Russian forces in Szczuczyn. In July 1863, conflict came to Radzilow itself. A detachment of K. Ramotowski's "Wawer" unit of Polish freedom fighters met a force of Russian Cossacks at Radzilow. The Poles forced the Cossacks to retreat but were not strong enough to remain in the area.[18]  Perhaps as a way of punishing the people of Radzilow, in 1869, after the rebellion, the Russian government took away the town's status as a government center.[19]

In the decades following the rebellion, the Radzilow region was the scene of much economic and social upheaval. The emancipation of the peasantry, advances in transportation and industry, and the growth of a cash-based economy gave people incentives to look for work elsewhere. Mazovia as a whole was very poor, due to its poor-quality farm land, backward Russian policies, and the wars that had so frequently plagued the region. Many people sought a better life elsewhere, either through emigration or by temporary migration to earn money to improve their families' lifestyle. Prior to 1891, emigration out of Russia was illegal, but this did not stop people. With the Prussian frontier so close, people often slipped across. They would go to work on the large Prussian estates and bring the money home. Many others went to America. Many Poles also chose to go to Brazil, while some Jews went to England. Yet, America was by far the most desirable location for both Poles and Jews, especially after 1891 when the Russian government lifted restrictions on emigration and people flooded out. Many of the Poles from Radzilow went to New Britain, Conn., where they found work in mills and factories or started small truck farms.


1. Baltic peoples include Lithuanians and Latvians and some lesser-known groups such as the Kurs and the Prussians. (Today the term Prussian is associated with Germany, but the first Prussian were Balts.)  [Back]

2. Times Atlas of World History, 117; Robert Paul Magosci, Historical Atlas of East-Central Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 14, 17. [Back]

3. Grajewo: mapa topgraficzna Polski: wydanie turystyczne/Zarzad Topograficzny Sztabu Gen. W.P.-1:100,000 (Warsaw: Zarzad Topograficzny Sztabu Gen. W.P.; Panstwowe Przedsiebiorstwo Geodezyjno-Kartograficzne; Wojskowe Zaklady Kartograficzne, 1995).  [Back]

4. Maria Kalamajski-Saeed, ed. Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki: Lomza i Okolice (Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Art, 1982), 53; Lomza i wojewodztwo: Krajobraz i architektura (Warsaw: Arkady, 1984), 132.  [Back]

5. Grajewo: mapa topgraficzna Polski.  [Back]

6. This story was told to the author and his father during a visit in 1986.  [Back]

7. Lomza i wojewodztwo, 132.  [Back]

8. Grajewo: mapa topgraficzna Polski.  [Back]

9. Kalamajski-Saeed, Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki, 53.  [Back]

10. Ibid.  [Back]

11. See Magosci, Historical Atlas of East-Central Europe, 37-41, esp. map 12f.  [Back]

12. Kalamajski-Saeed, Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki, 55.  [Back]

13. See Kalamajski-Saeed, Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki, 53-55, plates 38, 64, 142, 219, 224.  [Back]

14, Ibid., 54-55, plates 135-36.  [Back]

15. See Magosci, Historical Atlas of East-Central Europe, map 33.  [Back]

16. Grajewo: mapa topgraficzna Polski.  [Back]

17. See Magosci, Historical Atlas of East-Central Europe, maps 22a, 23, 24.  [Back]

18. Grajewo: mapa topgraficzna Polski.  [Back]

19. Kalamajski-Saeed, Katalog Zabytkow Sztuki, 53.  [Back]

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