Not everyone goes a-hunting for ancestral edibles, but it turns out to be perfect compliment to sniffing around for my roots, genealogically speaking.
Last fall, I took a trip to the town of Knyszyn, [KNISH-en] in northeastern Poland. It’s about 20 kilometers from Bialystok (birthplace of the bialy and my maternal grandparents). Turns out my nana’s youngest sister, Great-Aunt Jean, was born, not in Bialystok, but in Knsyzyn. She was a quick wit, a cracker-jack Scrabble player, a no-nonsense knitter and a host of amazing seders for the extended family in New Jersey which, of course, did not include knishes.
Aunt Jean died in 2007, spry, independent and still smoking, bless her heart, at age 93. On a trip to Bialystok in 2008, her daughter Max brought along Aunt Jean’s birth certificate. As dusk settled on Zamehoff Street, our indefatiguable guide, Tomasz Wisniewski translated the words in Polish fountain-script. And so we learned of Aunt Jean’s birth place, Knyszyn, site of one of the few existing Jewish cemeteries in Poland, with a rich history of tolerance and Jewish innovation (think breweries and orchestras that put on costumes to raise money at Purim). Turns out the town also has a legend that relates to, yep, you guessed it, the knish.
A predecessor to the pastry was used in mourning rituals, Christian ones: professional weepers hired for the event handed out wrapped pastries to mourners. The full legend is forthcoming in a new collection of folktales from Knyszyn. In the meantime, the latest edition of the town newsletter touched on the topic in an article that featured a certain knish researcher. Here’s the full story, as a PDF in Polish. English coming soon.