Puńsk [puɲsk] (Lithuanian: Punskas) is a village (city in 1647-1852) with 1,050 inhabitants in the Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland. Over 80% of the population of Puńsk is Lithuanian. It lies in the northeastern part of Poland, only 5 km (3.1 mi) from the border with Lithuania.
Puńsk has belonged to Poland since 1920. With Lithuanian Culture House, Lithuanian high school and print house, Puńsk is the main centre of the Lithuanian minority in Poland.
The oldest traces of human being in Puńsk territory date back to about 10 000 years BC. In the early medieval ages it was inhabited by Yatvingians and Sudovians. They did not have a country or a language that could have been written. In the 13th century, the Teutonic Knights exterminated them and only few of them survived. Nowadays only some castle hills (e.g. in Szurpiły), mounds (e.g. in Eglinė), cemeteries (e.g. in Szwajcaria), names of some villages (e.g. Zervynai, Krosna) and archaeological excavations remind us about their existence.
Later on Sudovia became overgrown with forests. Lithuanian Grand Dukes hunted there. In the early 15th century the people from Merkinė and Punia started to colonize this territory again. They gave the name Punia to the lake, so the village was called Puńsk after it. It was one of the first settlements in this territory. At the same time the other ones were created, such us: Beržninkai (now Berżniki), Seinai (now Sejny) or Kreivėnai (now Krejwiany).
In 1597 the forester of Sejwy, Stanisław Zaliwski built the church in Puńsk, and the parish has been established here. Later on the chancellery of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania published the document of the king Sigismund the Old. It was written in it that the parish priest in Puńsk can be only a person who speaks Lithuanian. In 1647 the king Władysław IV Waza approved the civic rights of Puńsk according to the Magdeburg rights and gave it the coat of arms with St Peter’s image. At that time the parish of Puńsk belonged to the Diocese of Vilnius, and later (from 1795) to the bishopric of Wigry. There was a school and a hospital by the church.
In 1795, there lived 583 people in Puńsk and in 1827 more – 748. But in 1852 Puńsk lost its civic rights. In 1881, there lived 1200 people in the whole parish. Then the parish of Puńsk was divided into three separate units: in Smolany, Becejły and Puńsk. In 1910 there were 74 villages with 7044 people that belonged to the parish of Puńsk.
From the 15th century until 1795, this land called Sudovia belonged to the Great Duchy of Lithuania. From 1815 it belonged to the zone of Russian authority. People of Puńsk area suffered from the tsar’s repressions. There were secret schools. The forbidden, illegal Lithuanian press and books were secretly transferred across the German-Russian border by the book-hawkers (knygnešiai). Povilas Matulevičius was the most famous book-hawker in the region.
Not considering the opinion of the locals, in April 1919 Puńsk and its territory became a part of Poland. A new border was establish which has remained unchanged until now. Through 8 decades the language situation has changed to the advantage of Polish. As part of Poland, new local regulations were introduced by the government, and Lithuanians were repressed by them. During the interwar period, there were several active societies, for example “Šv. Kazimiero Draugija”(St Casimir’s Society), which dealt with the matters of church, “Rytas” – took care about schools or “Talka”, co-operative society. The vast majority of commerce and business belonged to Jews. They made up the greater part of Puńsk inhabitants at that time. Some extant old houses, the building of synagogue and a big cemetery nearby Puńsk remind of their former presence.
Anti-Semitism was rampant, and many of the Jewish resident fled Polish rule. One such family was Rafalin. David Rafalin, a graduate of the Slobodka Yeshiva, became a rabbi in Cuba in 1929, then in 1933 he moved to Mexico where he was a rabbi for 46 years. In 1931 most of the Jewish section of Punsk was destroyed by a fire.
During World War II, Lithuania belonged to the zone of the Soviet Union authority and Sudovia belonged to Germany. Later on the northern part of Sudovia was bought by Moscow for 7.5 million dollars. During World War II this territory was occupied by the Germans and incorporated into Eastern Prussia. The invaders started to introduce a new order. It was decided to make a clean sweep of undesirable people in Suwałki area. The unsuitable ones for germanization were killed and the favourable ones had been left to become assimilated. It was also decided to colonize this area and populate it with Germans, and resettle many indigenous Lithuanians to Lithuania, which was at those days occupied by the Russians. Germans didn’t want the territory formerly inhabited by Yatvingians, which was incorporated into Eastern Prussia, to be settled by the Lithuanians. According to the agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union on 10 January 1941 about 70% of people were expelled from the territory. Most of them returned home when the political situation changed.
When after war regime diminished Lithuanian social and cultural life in this region became more active again. In 1956 there was established LVKD (The Social and Cultural Association of Lithuanians). Its task was to weld Lithuanians who were scattered not only in Sudowia but all over Poland. Lithuanian schools and cultural centre were established. The ensembles of the Lithuanian Culture Centre in Puńsk perform in Poland and abroad. These are: choreographic ensemble “Jotva” (established in 1951), folk band “Klumpė” (functioning from 1956), choir “Dzūkija” (1957) and barn theatre group. The important role in propagation of national awareness is played by the Publishing House and its periodical “Aušra”. In 1993 LLB (Lithuanian Society in Poland) was established. One year later its offshoot - Lithuanian Youth Society was created. These organizations connect all of Lithuanians and represent their interests in and out of country.
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