The history of Polish Jewry is as long as the history of Poland itself is : we owe the earliest document testifying to that Duke Mieszko I’s state existed to Ibrahim ibn Jacob, a Jewish merchant from Spain. Numerous groups of Jewish refugees would arrive in Poland in the Crusades area, as they were fleeing from repression then strengthening in the West. They would settle mainly in Wielkopolska (Great Poland) and Silesia areas. For certain, the year 1150 saw their arrival in Wrocław. They would then reach as far as Kalisz and Gniezno, only to somewhat later appear in Małopolska (Little Poland). In 12th century, they were first seen in Cracow (Kraków). However, the first Jewish settlements (similarly as the case was with Poles) broke down in 13th century, after Tartar invasions of 1241 and 1259-1260. Soon thereafter, however, a new wave of Jewish immigrants occurred, arriving from Western countries and also, from the nearby Prague. This latter group got settled in Cracow, for most part.
Soon afterwards, Jews were granted in Poland the status of servi camerae, i.e. ‘servants of the ducal treasury’, which meant that the Jewish communes were paying a fee to the ducal treasury, in exchange whereof they could count on the ruler’s protection. A delinquency against a Jew was punished on equal terms with a crime against the treasury. Examples showing how efficient that law was are multiple : around the year 1367, a certain Cracow-based bourgeois was gaoled for having assaulted a Jew.
The Jewish community in Poland was dealing at that time with trade, and/or usury. Some of them (particularly, in Silesia) were land owners. An important role was played in 12th and 13th centuries by the Jewish minters : on bracteates they produced, which enjoyed the then best silver fineness in Poland, one can see the names of Polish princes or dukes of the time, inscribed in the Hebrew alphabet.
In 1264, Duke Bolesław the Pious granted the Jews inhabiting his land the so-called Statute of Kalisz, drafter after a similar charter issued by Frederick Barbarossa, which regulated the rights and obligations of Polish Jews well till the decline of the First Commonwealth. The Statute determined the rules of the judiciary, business operations, and relations with the Christian community. One of the clauses contained therein ordered the Christians to grant assistance to any Jew, if assaulted, under threat of a punishment; another one banned making children accept a baptism. Still another regulation – which, as it appeared, later proved not to be observed – stipulated that in order for one to institute a ritual murder court case, one should establish six eyewitnesses, including three Christians and three Jews.
Initially, the Jewish and Christian communities were living in concord. This began to change when the Papal Legate Guido superimposed in1267 on the Provincial Synod of Wrocław the duty to launch laws to separate the two communities from each other. This had come as an aftermath of the decisions made by the Lateran Council of 1215 which regarded Jews as enemies to Christians. The Jewish people’s situation got even more deteriorated owing to an inflow of German colonists who usually tended to reveal a rather hostile attitude toward that community.
The Kalisz charter was reconfirmed in1334 by King Casimir the Great. Jan Długosz, the outstanding historiographer of the time, wrote of a love story, starring the King himself and a beautiful Jewish woman Esther who apparently yielded three kids to the thitherto childless monarch. The two sons are said to have been christened, whereas their only daughter remained a Judaism believer. This romance legend, which is historically probable, has settled for good in the literary and artistic soil.
Another wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Poland at the time when the ‘Black Death’ pandemic was being rampant in the West. The Jews were accused of having poisoned water wells there and of having intended to devastate the Christian people. Their flowing into Poland at that time has to a considerable extent contributed to the country’s demographic development. And it so happened that representatives of that particular community were making great names for themselves. A brilliant example was a certain Levko, co-lessor of the royal salt mines and of the Cracow Mint. He was a banker and a counsellor to several consequent rulers : Casimir the Great, Louis the Great, Queen Jadwiga, and King Władysław II Jagiełło. It was thanks to his financial assistance that the Jagiellonian University. Another Jew, named Woltschko of Drohobych, was extensively active as a settling activity manager, and it is thanks to his merit that several villages in the so-called Eastern Galicia emerged.
In parallel, in 15th century, anti-Jewish attitudes were nonetheless strengthening, as tragically expressed by the pogrom of Cracow of 1407, directly triggered out of a ritual murder accusation. The evens of 1463 took a different course, though. The Pope had first announced a crusade, and Polish volunteers surrounded Lvov, demanding that the local Jews be dispensed into their hands, which the local bourgeoisie refused to do – whereas in Cracow, the Town Council admitted a robbery and murder of some thirty Jews. This affair was ended up before the royal court, and it was decided that the Council had to pay a considerable financial fine to the Jewish commune.
In 1453, John of Capistrano, the Franciscan preacher known for his anti-Jewish addresses arrived in Poland. The Jews were accused, among others, of having caused the defeat in the 1454 battle of Chojnice fought against the Teutonic Order knights. In Cracow, the Jewish commune was forced (in 1469) to sell their real estates in the area surrounding the Cracow Academy, including two synagogues, a cemetery, and a hospital. In turn, in 1495, following a fire which had broken out in the university quarter, the Town Council requested King Jan Olbracht to expel Jews as residents from Cracow. They sought refuge in the nearby town of Kazimierz, which was settled in 1335 by Casimir the Great.
The last great wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Poland in 1670 from Vienna. Most of the Jews then dwelling in Poland were the Ashkenazim (owing to whom the Yiddish language was developing in the former Commonwealth area). The Sephardim were rather scarce in number, although, for instance, Chancellor Jan Zamoyski brought Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal into his beloved Renaissance city of Zamość [now in the south-west of Poland].
In the First Commonwealth, a quite well-developed Jewish autonomy took shape. It was based on kahals, that is, Jewish communes. On the regional level, their respective representations were the county administrative units [Polish ziemstwos]. The main representative of the Jewish community were the so-called Four Lands Parliament (Hebrew Waad arba aracot) – in the Kingdom, and the Main Communes Parliament (Hebrew Waad ha-kehilot ha rashiyot bi-medinat) – in Lithuania. The former was established as an institution dealing with fair distribution of tax encumbrances, whereas in practice, it was tasked with organising the social, economic, and cultural life of the entire Jewish community. It enjoyed so great a respect that it was often used to resolve disputes between Jewish communes outside of the Commonwealth frontiers (primarily, in Germany).
In 16th and 17th centuries, Jewish merchants held a very important function in the country’s economy (it happened, too, that they collaborated to various trading ends with orders, particularly, the Jesuits). In the regions where agriculture was predominant, they not infrequently constituted the only group practising municipal trades. After the Khmelnytsky Insurrection of 1648, which was targeted both at the Polish bourgeoisie and the Jewry, the status of the Jewish trade got diminished. The Cossack rebellion came up as the first great trauma in the history of Jews living in the First Commonwealth. Nathan Hanower, a Jewish historian, wrote that as many as 150,000 people were then killed by Cossacks. Although our contemporary historians tend to reduce the number down to 20,000, it remains true that after the Insurrection, a large number of survivors left for the West.
As the magnates were gaining in importance in Poland (over the 16th to 18th centuries), the situation of the Jewish people was changing, too. On the one hand, their personal freedom was getting reduced, whilst on the other, they were becoming an intermediary agent between the squire and the peasant. That awkward position has become one of the sources of anti-Semitism amongst the peasantry-related social strata, whose members saw in Jews the collectors of various taxes, in the first place. And it was also then that, owing to the fact that Jews held the propination privilege (on which actually the gentry made their money, to a significant extent), the myth of a Jew pushing peasants into drinking appeared.
The Jewish community, as they felt an endangerment, but also with regard to their rather considerable institutional autonomy, became withdrawing into themselves increasingly. Simultaneously, influenced by a sense of danger which dated back well to the time of the Cossack insurrections, and at the same time, as the Jews were disappointed by their communes’ institutional structures, religious revival movements became emerging among them. The largest such was Chassidism, created by Israel ben Eliezer, nicknamed Ba’al Shem Tov, or, Besht. This movement sought redemption through adherence to God which was to be feasible thanks to ecstatic prayer and joyous contemplation of the world. Chassidism developed into individual schools, centred around tsaddiks.
It was only at the decline of the First Commonwealth, when the Enlightenment flourished, that a discussion commenced upon how namely to improve, by means of legislation, the situation of this particular social group, so numerous as it was, and how to render the Jews equal to the others. Hugo Kołłątaj played a great role in the debate.
However, the time of the Partition was approaching. Polish Jews still managed to take part in the Kościuszko Insurrection of 1794. Colonel Berek Joselewicz excelled among them; his son Józef Berkowicz was subsequently to participate in Napoleonic campaigns and the November Insurrection, 1830.
Under the Partition, the situation of Polish Jewry became differentiated, conditional upon whether they dwelled in the area under Russian, Austrian, or Prussian government. In the Austrian terrain, reforms aimed at providing equal rights for the Jewish people were first introduced in 1848 – although certain restrictions remained in force until 1867; also in Prussia, such reforms were first made in 1848. In the Russian Partition territory, the process took an entirely different course, though. The Polish liberation movement operating there attempted at acquiring for its sake both peasants and Jews. In the warmed-up climate preceding the January Insurrection of 1863-1864, the Russians, who were mindful of Polish-Jewish solidarity acts during the 1861 riots, introduced in the following year the limited equality-in-rights rule in the Kingdom of Poland territory.
At that point, the Jewish community split up : some became liable to gradual assimilation (the financier Leon Kronenberg, or the art patron Matias Berson), whereas others persisted in their cultural circle described as shtetl, often remaining influenced by the strengthening Chassidism.
In the ‘Country on the Vistula’ area (so was named the Kingdom of Poland after the January Insurrection was suppressed), Jews from the Russian interior started appearing, who were fleeing before anti-Semitism increasing in there, so that they could enjoy the privileges, charters, and economic opportunities provided here. They were called ‘Litvaks’, as they would most frequently have originated in what was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of yore. They differed from Polish Jews by the language they spoke (as they used a different variety of Yiddish), clothing they wore, tradition and habits they adhered to. Also, they appeared as a competitive force. All that provoked new conflicts – not only those between Litvaks and Jews who had settled in the Kingdom of Poland ages ago, but also, between Jews and non-Jews. Some members of the national democracy political wing perceived the immigration from the East as a deliberate policy of the Russian authority, intended to and aimed at Russifying Poland.
In the latter half of 19th century, as Zionism emerged, a new axis of intra-Jewish conflict appeared. The first aliyah (i.e. emigration into Palestine) went out after Tsar Alexander’s assassination in 1881. In 1897, the Congress of Basle was held which organised the Zionist movement rules. Its development was influenced by the increasing anti-Semitism, which could have been testified to by the falsified Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, published at that time in Russia and serving as a fuel for anti-Semitism until this very day.
In the Poland Revived, i.e. as from 1918, Jews constituted some 10% of its population. Most of them were dwelling in former Russian and Austrian Partition territories. The main hubs of Jews at that time were Warsaw, Łódź, Lvov, and Vilnius, as well as several small towns in the east of II Republic. A majority of Jews then dwelling in Poland lived in poverty, their primary occupations being trade and small-scale manufacturing activities. Between 1918 and 1939, the political and cultural life of Polish Jews developed. Of major importance was the orthodox movement, centred around Agudas Israel party led by Meir Alter, a tsaddik from Góra-Kalwaria. Its representatives strove for retaining the traditional structure of the Jewish community, regarding Poland as their earthly homeland. With time, that party became less influential, at the expense of Bund, the socialist party which was related to the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The Zionist movement was much differentiated, the left wing being represented there by Poalei Zion, the right wing, by Mizrahi.
Jewish education and schooling system also developed; in the 1920s, Jewish public schools existed where no classes were held on Saturdays or on other Jewish holidays. The system was cancelled in 1930s, yet the schoolchildren upon special request from their parents were exempt from having to write and draw at school. Two large systems of Jewish private schools existed : Tarbut system member schools were teaching in Hebrew and were connected with Zionist parties, whereas the ‘Centrale Jidysze Szul Organizacje’ [Central Yiddish Schools Organisation] schools taught in Yiddish and remained under socialists’ influences.
The Constitution of the II Republic of Poland guaranteed equality to all the citizens, regardless of their language or religious persuasion. However, in the second half of the thirties’ decade, radical right-wing MPs forced some draft anti-Jewish laws.
The time of the Holocaust was approaching (Shoah).
It is hard to tell how many people have actually survived the Shoah. They were rescued thanks to the help from non-Jewish people, using so-called ‘Arian documents’, hiding in forests or using specially prepared hideouts, and/or fighting in guerrilla troops. Some would come back from the East, or the West. Indicative estimates say that a total of 350,000 to 500,000 Jews survived World War 2 (out of 3,5 million inhabiting Poland before the war).
And even if they returned, the comeback might prove dangerous for some. Robbery-related murders were the case (Polish people were taking-over post-Jewish properties), if not political ones (as the Jews were accused of having collaborated with the Soviets). It is estimated that some 1,300 Jews were killed in Poland after the war. 4th July 1946 saw the pogrom of Kielce which produced forty-two fatalities.
This was coupled with increasing emigration-inclining tendencies. When the war was still on, Briha, an illegal organisation running Jews into Palestine, was established in the USSR. Its representatives were active also in Poland. Indeed, the communist authorities supported those emigration trends, as they were striving toward expelling Zionists, and non-working-class representatives generally, from Poland.
Despite that, very soon after the war, the Jewish life started getting organised : the Central Committee of Jews in Poland was set-up; religious congregations were getting revived, along with the schooling system, and journalism.
The number of Jewish population in Poland in 1951 was 60,000-80,000. As the Stalinist system was strengthening, Jewish organisations too were made subject to centralisation and inspection all the more.
Late in 1960s, in the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), anti-intelligentsia and nationalistic tendencies gained in force. Jews fell victims to those, and in 1968-1971 were thus forced to emigrate. At that time, some 15,000-30,000 people of Jewish origin left Poland. A community of 5,000 to 10,000 Jews stayed in Poland then.
However, in 1980s, in the then clandestine Opposition-related milieus, some groups started emerging (including the Jewish Flying University) which formed the basis for a revival of Jewish life in Poland as from 1989 – a process that can be still observed today. One symbolical expression of it is the first post-war translation of the Torah into Polish. So far, the translating team, including Sacha Pecaric and Ewa Gordon, have managed to get the first two Books translated. Also, first post-war Torah commentaries were published, written by our contemporary authors living in Poland. A venue where Polish Jews (and also non-Jews) meet is the Jewish Culture Festival held in Cracow.