History of the Jews in Poland

From Academic Kids


The History of the Jews in Poland reaches back over one thousand years, encompassing both a long period of tolerance and prosperity for its Jewish population and the nearly complete genocidal destruction of the community by Nazis in the twentieth century. From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 10th century to the creation of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, Poland was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, becoming home to one of the world's largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. However, with the advent of counterreformation, Polish tolerance begun to wane from 17th century onward and the situation of Polish Jews worsened, slowly becoming comparable with that of Jews in most of the other European countries. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a soverign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers (primarily the increasingly anti-semitic Russian Empire, but also Austro-Hungary and Prussia/Germany). Still, as Poland regained independence in the twentieth century, immediately prior to World War II it had a vibrant Jewish community of over three million, one of the largest in the world. Polish Jews were decimated by the tragedy of the Holocaust, with less then 200,000 surviving the 6-year period of the war. After the end of the war, most of the remaining Polish Jews chose to emigrate to the newly created state of Isreal, rather then remain in the communist People's Republic of Poland, especially after Jews were persecuted during anti-Zionist campaigns in the late 1960s. After the fall of the communist regime in Poland in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews has vastly improved. The contemporary Polish Jewish community has approximately 15,000 members.


Early period: 966-1385

Main article: History of Poland (966-1385)

Early history

The first Jews arrived in the territory of modern Poland in 10th century. Travelling along the trade routes leading eastwards to Kiev and Bukhara, the Jewish merchants also crossed the areas of Silesia. One of them, a diplomat and merchant from the Moorish town of Tortosa in Al-Andalus, known under his Arabic name Ibrahim ibn Jakub was the first chronicler to mention the Polish state under the rule of prince Mieszko I. The first actual mention of Jews in Polish chronicles occurs in the 11th century. It appears that Jews were then living in Gniezno, at that time the capital of the Polish kingdom of Piast dynasty. Some of them were wealthy, owning Christian serfs in keeping with the Feudal system of the times. The first permanent Jewish community is mentioned in 1085 by a Jewish scholar Jehuda ha Kohen in the city of Przemyśl.

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While Jews (identifiable by their distinctive hats in this 1250 French Bible illustration) were being killed by Crusaders in Germany, Boleslaus III invited them to the safety of Poland.

The first extensive Jewish emigration from Western Europe to Poland occurred at the time of the First Crusade (1098). Under Boleslaw III Krzywousty (1102-1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant régime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border into Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev. At the same time Poland saw immigration of Khazars, a Turkic tribe that had converted to Judaism. Boleslaw on his part recognized the utility of the Jews it the development of the commercial interests of his country. The Prince of Cracow, Mieczyslaw III (1173-1202), in his endeavor to establish law and order in his domains, prohibited all violence against the Jews, particularly attacks upon them by unruly students (żacy). Boys guilty of such attacks, or their parents, were made to pay fines as heavy as those imposed for sacrilegious acts. The Jews formed the back-bone of the Polish economy and the coins minted by Mieszko III even bear Hebraic markings. Early in the thirteenth century Jews owned land in Polish Silesia, Greater Poland and Kuyavia, including the village of Mały Tyniec. There were also established Jewish communities in Wrocław, Świdnica, Głogów, Lwówek, Płock, Kalisz, Szczecin, Gdańsk and Gniezno. It is clear that the Jewish communities must have been well-organized by then. Also, the earliest known artifact of Jewish settlement on Polish soil is a tombstone of certain David ben Sar Shalom found in Wrocław and dated 25 av 4963, that is August 4, 1203.

From the various sources it is evident that at this time the Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided. In the interests of commerce the reigning princes extended protection and special privileges to the Jewish settlers. With the descent of the Mongols on Polish territory (1241) the Jews in common with the other inhabitants suffered severely. Cracow was pillaged and burned, other towns were devastated, and hundreds of Poles, including many Jews, were carried into captivity. As the tide of invasion receded the Jews returned to their old homes and occupations. They formed the middle class in a country where the general population consisted of landlords (developing into szlachta, the unique Polish nobility) and peasants, and they were instrumental in promoting the commercial interests of the land. Money-lending and the farming of the different government revenues, such as those from the salt mines, the customs, etc., were their most important pursuits. The native population had not yet become permeated with the religious intolerance of western Europe, and lived at peace with the Jews.

Early persecutions: 1266-1279

The tolerant situation was gradually altered by the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and by the neighboring German states on the other. The emissaries of the Roman pontiffs came to Poland in pursuance of a fixed policy; and in their endeavors to strengthen the influence of the Catholic Church they spread teachings imbued with intolerance toward the followers of Judaism. At the same time Boleslaw V Wstydliwy (1228-1279), encouraged the influx of German colonists. He granted to them the Magdeburg Rights, and by establishing them in the towns introduced there an element which brought with it deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

There were, however, among the reigning princes some determined protectors of the Jewish inhabitants, who considered the presence of the latter most desirable in so far as the economic development of the country was concerned. Prominent among such rulers was Boleslaw Pobozny, called the Pious, of Kalisz, Prince of Great Poland. With the consent of the class representatives and higher officials, in 1264 he issued a General Charter of Jewish Liberties, the Statute of Kalisz, which clearly defined the position of his Jewish subjects. The charter dealt in detail with all sides of Jewish life, particularly the relations of the Jews to their Christian neighbors. The guiding principle in all its provisions was justice, while national, racial, and religious motives were entirely excluded. It granted all Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel. Also, all Jews under the suzerainity of the duke were protected by the Voivod and killing a Jew was penalized with death and the confiscation of all the property of the murderer's family.

But while the secular authorities endeavored to regulate the relations of the Jews to the country at large in accordance with its economic needs, the clergy, inspired by the attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to establish its universal supremacy, used its influence toward separating the Jews from the body politic, aiming to exclude them, as people dangerous to the Church, from Christian society, and to place them in the position of a despised "sect". In 1266 an ecumenical council was held at Wroclaw under the chairmanship of the papal nuncio Guido. The council introduced into the ecclesiastical statutes of Poland a number of paragraphs directed against the Jews.

The Jews were ordered to dispose as quickly as possible of real estate owned by them in the Christian quarters; they were not to appear on the streets during Church processions; they were allowed to have only a single synagogue in any one town; and they were required to wear a special cap to distinguish them from the Christians. The latter were forbidden, under penalty of excommunication, to invite Jews to feasts or other entertainments, and were forbidden also to buy meat or other provisions from Jews, for fear of being poisoned. The council furthermore confirmed the regulations under which Jews were not allowed to keep Christian servants, to lease taxes or customs duties, or to hold any public office. At the Council of Ofen held in 1279 the wearing of a red badge was prescribed for the Jews, and the foregoing provisions were reaffirmed.

Prosperity in a Reunited Poland: 1320-1385

Though the Catholic clergy continued to spread the religious hatred, the contemporary rulers were not inclined to accept the edicts of the Church, and the Jews of Poland were for a long time allowed their rights. Ladislaus Lokietek, who ascended the Polish throne in 1320, endeavored to establish a uniform legal code throughout the land. With the general laws he assured the Jews safety and freedom and placed them on equality with the Christians. They dressed like the Christians, wearing garments similar to those of the nobility, and, like the latter, also wore gold chains and carried swords. Lokietek likewise framed laws for the lending of money to Christians.

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Casimir III the Great treated the Jews of Poland well, and was known as the King of the Serfs and Jews.

In 1334, Casimir III the Great (1303-1370) amplified and expanded Boleslaw's old charter with the Wislicki Statute. Casimir was especially friendly to the Jews, and his reign is regarded as an era of great prosperity for Polish Jewry. His improved charter was even more favorable to the Jews than was Boleslaw's, insofar as it safeguarded some of their civil rights in addition to their commercial privileges. This farsighted ruler sought to employ the town and rural populations as checks upon the growing power of the aristocracy. He regarded the Jews not simply as an association of money-lenders, but as a part of the nation, into which they were to be incorporated for the formation of a homogeneous body politic. For his attempts to uplift the masses, including the Jews, Casimir was surnamed by his contemporaries "King of the serfs and Jews."

Nevertheless, while for the greater part of Casimir’s reign the Jews of Poland enjoyed tranquility, toward its close they were subjected to persecution on account of the Black Death. Massacres occurred at Kalisz, Cracow, Glogow, and other Polish cities along the German frontier, and it is estimated that 10,000 Jews were killed. Compared with the pitiless destruction of their coreligionists in Western Europe, however, the Polish Jews did not fare badly; and the Jewish masses of Germany fled to the more hospitable lands of Poland, where the interests of the laity still remained more powerful than those of the Church.

But under Casimir’s successor, Louis I of Hungary (1370-1384), the complaint became general that "justice had disappeared from the land". An attempt was made to deprive the Jews of the protection of the laws. Guided mainly by religious motives, Louis I persecuted them, and threatened to expel those who refused to accept Christianity. His short reign did not suffice, however, to undo the beneficent work of his predecessor; and it was not until the long reign of the Lithuanian Grand Duke and King of Poland Wladislaus II (1386-1434), that the influence of the Church in civil and national affairs increased, and the civic condition of the Jews gradually became less favorable. Nevertheless, at the beginning of Wladislaus' reign the Jews still enjoyed extensive protection of the laws.

The Jagiellon era: 1385-1572

Main article: History of Poland (1385-1569)

Persecutions of 1385-1492

As a result of the marriage of Wladislaus II to Jadwiga, daughter of Louis I of Hungary, Lithuania was united with the kingdom of Poland. Under his rule the first extensive persecutions of the Jews in Poland were commenced, and the king did not act to stop these events. It was said that the Jews of Poznan had induced a poor Christian woman to steal from the Dominican order "three hosts", which they "desecrated", and that when the hosts began to bleed, the Jews had thrown them into a ditch, where upon various "miracles" occurred. When informed of this supposed "desecration", the Bishop of Poznan ordered the Jews to answer the charges. The woman accused the rabbi of Poznan of stealing the hosts, and thirteen elders of the Jewish community fell victim to the superstitious rage of the people. After long-continued torture on the rack they were all burned at the stake. In addition, a permanent fine was imposed on the Jews of Poznan, which they were required to pay annually to the Dominicans. This fine was rigorously collected until the eighteenth century. The persecution of the Jews was due not only to religious motives, but also to economic reasons, for the Jews had gained control of certain branches of commerce, and the burghers, jealous of their success, desired to rid themselves in one way or another of their objectionable competitors.

The same motives were responsible for the riot of Cracow, instigated by the fanatical priest Budek in 1407. The first outbreak was suppressed by the city magistrates; but it was renewed a few hours later. A vast amount of property was destroyed; many Jews were killed; and their children were baptized. In order to save their lives a number of Jews accepted Christianity. The reform movement of the Czech Hussites intensified religious fanaticism; and the resulting reactionary measures spread to Poland. The influential Polish archbishop Nicholas Tronba, after his return from the Council of Kalisz (1420), over which he had presided, induced the Polish clergy to confirm all the anti-Jewish legislation adopted at the councils of Wroclaw and Ofen, and which until then had been rarely carried out. In addition to their previous disabilities, the Jews were now compelled to pay a tax for the benefit of the churches in the precincts in which they were residing, but "in which only Christians should reside."

In 1423 King Wladislaus II issued an edict forbidding the Jews to lend money on notes. In his reign, as in the reign of his successor, Vladislaus III, the ancient privileges of the Jews were almost forgotten. The Jews vainly appealed to Wladislaus II for the confirmation of their old charters. The clergy successfully opposed the renewal of these privileges on the ground that they were contrary to the canonical regulations. To achieve this, the rumor was even spread that the charter claimed to have been granted to the Jews by Casimir III the Great was a forgery, as a Catholic ruler would never have granted full civil rights to "unbelievers."

 confirmed and extended Jewish charters in the second half of the 15th century
Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk confirmed and extended Jewish charters in the second half of the 15th century

The machinations of the clergy were checked by Casimir IV the Jagiellonian (1447-1492). He readily renewed the charter granted to the Jews by Casimir the Great, the original of which had been destroyed in the fire that devastated Poznan in 1447. To a Jewish deputation from the communities of Poznan, Kalisz, Sieradz, Leczyca, Brest, and Wladislavov which applied to him for the renewal of the charter, he said in his new grant: "We desire that the Jews, whom we protect especially for the sake of our own interests and those of the royal treasury, shall feel contented during our prosperous reign." In confirming all previous rights and privileges of the Jews: the freedom of residence and trade; judicial and communal autonomy; the inviolability of person and property; and protection against arbitrary accusation and attacks; the charter of Casimir IV was a determined protest against the canonical laws, which had been recently renewed for Poland by the Council of Kalisz, and for the entire Catholic world by the Diet of Basel. The charter, moreover, permitted more interaction between Jews and Christians, and freed the former from the jurisdiction of the clerical courts. Strong opposition was created by the King's liberal attitude toward the Jews, and was voiced by the leaders of the clerical party.

The repeated appeals of the clergy, and the defeat of the Polish troops by the Teutonic Knights, which the clergy openly ascribed to the "wrath of God" at Casimir's neglect of the interests of the Church, and his friendly attitude toward the Jews, finally induced the King to accede to the demands which had been made. In 1454 the Statute of Nieszawa was issued, which granted many priviliges to szlachta and included the abolition of the ancient privileges of the Jews "as contrary to divine right and the law of the land." The triumph of the clerical forces was soon felt by the Jewish inhabitants. The populace was encouraged to attack them in many Polish cities; the Jews of Cracow were again the greatest sufferers. In the spring of 1464 the Jewish quarters of the city were devastated by a mob composed of monks, students, peasants, and the minor nobles, who were then organizing a new crusade against the Turks. More than thirty Jews were killed, and many houses were destroyed. Similar disorders occurred in Poznan and elsewhere, notwithstanding the fact that Casimir had fined the Cracow magistrates for having failed to take stringent measures for the suppression of the previous riots.

Influx of Jews fleeing persecution: 1492-1548

The policy of the government toward the Jews of Poland was not more tolerant under Casimir's sons and successors, John I Olbracht (1492-1501) and Alexander the Jagiellonian (1501-1506). John I Olbracht frequently found himself obliged to judge local disputes between Jewish and Christian merchants. Thus in 1493 he adjusted the conflicting claims of the Jewish merchants and the burghers of Lwow concerning the right to trade freely within the city. On the whole, however, he was not friendly to the Jews. The same may be said of Alexander the Jagiellonian, who had expelled the Jews from Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495. To some extent he was undoubtedly influenced in this measure by the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) (the Alhambra decree), which was responsible also for the increased persecution of the Jews in Austria, Bohemia, and Germany, and thus stimulated the Jewish emigration to comparatively much more tolerant Poland. For various reasons Alexander permitted the return of the Jews in 1503, and during the period immediately preceding the Reformation the number of Jews in Poland grew rapidly on account of the anti-Jewish agitation in Germany. Indeed, Poland became the recognized haven of refuge for exiles from western Europe; and the resulting accession to the ranks of the Polish Jewry made it the cultural and spiritual center of the Jewish people. This, as has been suggested by the Jewish historian Dubnow, was rendered possible by the following conditions:

The Jewish population of Poland was at that time greater than that of any other European country; the Jews enjoyed an extensive communal autonomy based on special privileges; they were not confined in their economic life to purely subordinate occupations, as was true of their western coreligionists; they were not engaged solely in petty trade and money-lending, but carried on also an important export trade, leased government revenues and large estates, and followed the handicrafts and, to a certain extent, agriculture; in the matter of residence they were not restricted to ghettos, like their German brethren. All these conditions contributed toward the evolution in Poland of an independent Jewish civilization. Thanks to its social and judicial autonomy, Polish Jewish life was enabled to develop freely along the lines of national and religious tradition. The rabbi became not only the spiritual guide, but also a member of the communal administration Kahal, a civil judge, and the authoritative expounder of the Law. Rabbinism was not a dead letter here, but a guiding religio-judicial system; for the rabbis adjudged civil as well as certain criminal cases on the basis of Talmudic legislation.

The Jews of Poland found themselves obliged to make increased efforts to strengthen their social and economic position, and to win the favor of the king and of the nobility. The conflicts of the different parties, of the merchants, the clergy, the lesser and the higher nobility, enabled the Jews to hold their own. The opposition of the Christian merchants and of the clergy was counterbalanced by the support of the nobility (szlachta), who derived certain economic benefits from the activities of the Jews. By the nihil novi constitution of 1505, sanctioned by Alexander the Jagiellonian, the Szlachta Diets were given a voice in all important national matters. On some occasions the Jewish merchants, when pressed by the lesser nobles, were afforded protection by the king, since they were an important source of royal revenue.

Golden Age Under Sigismund and Sigusmund II

The most prosperous period in the life of the Polish Jews began with the reign of Sigismund I (1506-1548). In 1507 the king informed the authorities of Lwow] that until further notice its Jewish citizens, in view of losses sustained by them, were to be left undisturbed in the possession of all their ancient privileges (Russko-Yevreiski Arkhiv, iii.79). His generous treatment of his physician, Jacob Isaac, whom he made a member of the nobility in 1507, testifies to his liberal views.

But while Sigismund himself was prompted by feelings of justice, his courtiers endeavored to turn to their personal advantage the conflicting interests of the different classes. Sigismund’s second wife, Italian born Queen Bona, sold government positions for money; and her favorite, the voivod (district governor) of Cracow, Piotr Kmita, accepted bribes from both sides, promising to further the interests of each at the Sejm (Polish parliament) and with the king. In 1530 the Jewish question was the subject of heated discussions at the Sejm. There were some delegates who insisted on the just treatment of the Jews. On the other hand, some went so far as to demand the expulsion of the Jews from the country, while still others wished to curtail their commercial rights. The Sejm of 1538 in Piotrków Trybunalski elaborated a series of repressive measures against the Jews, who were prohibited from engaging in the collection of taxes and from leasing estates or government revenues, "it being against God's law that these people should hold honored positions among the Christians." The commercial pursuits of the Jews in the cities were placed under the control of the hostile magistrates, while in the villages Jews were forbidden to trade at all. The Sejm also revived the medieval ecclesiastical law compelling the Jews to wear a distinctive badge.

Sigismund II Augustus (1548-1572) followed in the main the tolerant policy of his father. He confirmed the ancient privileges of the Polish Jews, and considerably widened and strengthened the autonomy of their communities. By a decree of August 13th, 1551, the Jews of Great Poland were again granted permission to elect a chief rabbi, who was to act as judge in all matters concerning their religious life. Jews refusing to acknowledge his authority were to be subject to a fine or to excommunication; and those refusing to yield to the latter might be executed after a report of the circumstances had been made to the authorities. The property of the recalcitrants was to be confiscated and turned into the crown treasury. The chief rabbi was exempted from the authority of the voivode and other officials, while the latter were obliged to assist him in enforcing the law among the Jews.

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Blood libel: Legend of the Jew calling the Devil from a Vessel of Blood.--Fac-simile of a Woodcut in Boaistuau's "Histoires Prodigieuses:" in 4to, Paris, Annet Briere, 1560.

The favorable attitude of the King and of the enlightened nobility could not prevent the growing animosity against the Jews in certain parts of the kingdom. The Reformation movement stimulated an anti-Jewish crusade by the Catholic clergy, who preached vehemently against all "heretics": Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews. In 1550 the papal nuncio Alois Lipomano, who had been prominent as a persecutor of the Neo-Christians in Portugal, was delegated to Cracow to strengthen the Catholic spirit among the Polish nobility. He warned the King of the evils resulting from his tolerant attitude toward the various non-believers in the country. Seeing that the Polish nobles, among whom the Reformation had already taken strong root, paid but scant courtesy to his preachings, he initiated a blood libel in the town of Sochaczew. Sigismund pointed out that papal bulls had repeatedly asserted that all such accusations were without any foundation whatsoever; and he decreed that henceforth any Jew accused of having committed a murder for ritual purposes, or of having stolen a host, should be brought before his own court during the sessions of the Sejm. Sigismund II Augustus also granted autonomy to the Jews in the matter of communal administration and laid the foundation for the power of the Kahal.

In 1569 Union of Lublin Lithuania strenghtened its ties with Poland, as the previous personal union was peacefully transformed into a unique federation of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The death of Sigismund Augustus (1572) and thus the termination of the Jagiellon dynasty necessitated the election of his successor by the elective body of all the nobility (szlachta). During the interregnum szlachta has passed the Warsaw Confederation act which guarnteed unprecedented religious tolerance to all citizens of the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the neighboring states were deeply interested in the elections, each hoping to insure the choice of its own candidate. The pope was eager to assure the election of a Catholic, lest the influences of the Reformation should become predominant in Poland. Catherine de Medici was laboring energetically for the election of her son Henry of Anjou. But in spite of all the intrigues at the various courts, the deciding factor in the election was the influence of Solomon Ashkenazi, then in charge of the foreign affairs of Ottoman Empire. Henry of Anjou was elected, which was of deep concern to the liberal Poles and the Jews, as he was the infamous mastermind of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Therefore Polish szlachta forced him to sign the Henrician articles and pacta conventa, guarantying the religious tolerance in Poland, as a condition of acceptance of the throne (those documents would be subsequently signed by every other elected Polish king). However, Henry soon secretly fled to France after a reign in Poland of only a few months, in order to succeed his deceased brother Charles IX on the French throne.

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The first pacta conventa, acceded to by Henryk Walezy, 1573.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: 1572-1795

Main article: History of Poland (1569-1795)

Jewish learning and culture during the early Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath

Yeshivots were established, under the direction of the rabbis, in the more prominent communities. Such schools were officially known as gymnasiums, and their rabbi-principals as rectors. Important yeshivots existed in Cracow, Poznan, and other cities. Jewish printing establishments came into existence in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In 1530 a Hebrew Pentateuch (Torah) was printed in Cracow; and at the end of the century the Jewish printing-houses of that city and Lublin issued a large number of Jewish books, mainly of a religious character. The growth of Talmudic scholarship in Poland was coincident with the greater prosperity of the Polish Jews; and because of their communal autonomy educational development was wholly one-sided and along Talmudic lines. Exceptions are recorded, however, where Jewish youth sought secular instruction in the European universities. The learned rabbis became not merely expounders of the Law, but also spiritual advisers, teachers, judges, and legislators; and their authority compelled the communal leaders to make themselves familiar with the abstruse questions of Jewish law. Polish Jewry found its views of life shaped by the spirit of Talmudic and rabbinical literature, whose influence was felt in the home, in school, and in the synagogue.

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Synagogue in Zabludlow, built in the late 1600s.

In the first half of the sixteenth century the seeds of Talmudic learning had been transplanted to Poland from Bohemia, particularly from the school of Jacob Pollak, the creator of Pilpul ("sharp reasoning"). Shalom Shachna (c. 1500-1558), a pupil of Pollak, is counted among the pioneers of Talmudic learning in Poland. He lived and died in Lublin, where he was the head of the yeshivah which produced the rabbinical celebrities of the following century. Shachna's son Israel became rabbi of Lublin on the death of his father, and Shachna's pupil Moses Isserles (known as the ReMA) (1520-1572) achieved an international reputation among the Jews as the co-author of the Shulkhan Arukh, (the "Code of Jewish Law"). His contemporary and correspondent Solomon Luria (1510-1573) of Lublin also enjoyed a wide reputation among his coreligionists; and the authority of both was recognized by the Jews throughout Europe. Among the famous pupils of Isserles should be mentioned David Gans and Mordecai Jaffe, the latter of whom studied also under Luria. Another distinguished rabbinical scholar of that period was Eliezer b. Elijah Ashkenazi (1512-1585) of Cracow. His Ma'ase ha-Shem (Venice, 1583) is permeated with the spirit of the moral philosophy of the Sephardic school, but is extremely mystical. At the end of the work he attempts to forecast the coming of the Jewish Messiah in 1595, basing his calculations on the Book of Daniel. Such Messianic dreams found a receptive soil in the unsettled religious conditions of the time. The new sect of Socinians or Unitarians, which denied the Trinity and which, therefore, stood near to Judaism, had among its leaders Simon Budny, the translator of the Bible into Polish, and the priest Martin Czechowic. Heated religious disputations were common, and Jewish scholars participated in them. At the same time, the Kabbalah had become entrenched under the protection of Rabbinism; and such scholars as Mordecai Jaffe and Yoel Sirkis devoted themselves to its study. The mystic speculations of the kabalists prepared the ground for Sabbatianism, and the Jewish masses were rendered even more receptive by the great disasters that over-took the Jews of Poland during the middle of the seventeenth century such as the Cossack Chmielnicki Uprising against Poland during 16481654.

The begining of decline

Stephen Bathory (1576-1586) was now elected king of Poland; and he proved both a tolerant ruler and a friend of the Jews. On February 10th, 1577, he sent orders to the magistrate of Poznan directing him to prevent class conflicts, and to maintain order in the city. His orders were, however, of no avail. Three months after his manifesto a riot occurred in Poznan. Political and economic events in the course of the sixteenth century forced the Jews to establish a more compact communal organization, and this separated them from the rest of the urban population; indeed, although with few exceptions they did not live in separate ghettos, they were nevertheless sufficiently isolated from their Christian neighbors to be regarded as strangers. They resided in the towns and cities, but had little to do with municipal administration, their own affairs being managed by the rabbis, the elders, and the dayyanim or religious judges. These conditions contributed to the strengthening of the Kahal organizations. Conflicts and disputes, however, became of frequent occurrence, and led to the convocation of periodical rabbinical congresses, which were the nucleus of the central institution known in Poland, from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century, as the Council of Four Lands.

Under the rule of , the priviliges of all non-Catholics in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were limited.
Under the rule of Sigismund III Vasa, the priviliges of all non-Catholics in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were limited.

The Catholic reaction which with the aid of the Jesuits and the Council of Trent spread throughout Europe finally reached Poland. The Jesuits and counterreformation found a powerful protector in Bathory’s successor, Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632). Under his rule the "Golden Freedom" of the Polish szlachta gradually became perverted; government by the liberum veto undermined the authority of the Sejm; and the stage was set for the degeneration of unique democracy and religious tolerance of the Commonwealth into anarchy and intolerance. However, the dying spirit of the republic (Rzeczpospolita) was still strong enough to check somewhat the destructive power of Jesuitism, which under an absolute monarchy, like those in Western Europe, have led to drastic anti-Jewish measures similar to those that had been taken in Spain. However in Poland Jesuits were limited only to propaganda. Thus while the Catholic clergy was the mainstay of the anti-Jewish forces, the king, forced by the protestant szlachta, remained at least in semblance the defender of the Jews. Still, the false accusations of ritual murder against the Jews recurred with growing frequency, and assumed an "ominous inquisitional character." The papal bulls and the ancient charters of privilege proved generally of little avail as protection. Uneasy conditions persisted during the reign of Sigismund's son, Wladislaus IV Vasa (1632-1648).

Cossacks' Uprising

In 1648 the Commonwealth was devastated by the several conflicts, in which the Commonwealth lost over a third of its populations (over 3 million people), and Jewish losses were counted in hundreds of thousands. First, the Chmielnicki Uprising when Bohdan Khmelnytsky's Cossacks massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles in the eastern and southern areas he controlled (today's Ukraine). It is recorded that Chmielncki told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves "into the hands of the accursed Jews". The precise number of dead may never be known, but the decrease of the Jewish population during that period is estimated at 100,000 to 200,000, which also includes emmigration, deaths from diseases and jasyr (captivity in the Ottoman Empire.

Then the the incompetent politics of the elected House of Vasa kings brought the weakend state to its knees, as it was invaded by the Swedish Empire in what became known as The Deluge. The kingdom of Poland proper, which had hitherto suffered but little either from the Chmielnicki Uprising or from the recurring invasion of the Russians and Ottomans, now became the scene of terrible disturbances (1655-1658). Charles X of Sweden, at the head of his victorious army, overran Poland; and soon the whole country, including the cities of Cracow and Warsaw, was in his hands. The Jews of Great and Little Poland found themselves torn between two sides: those of them who were spared by the Swedes were attacked by the Poles, who accused them of aiding the enemy. The Polish general Stefan Czarniecki, in his flight from the Swedes, devastated the whole country through which he passed and treated the Jews without mercy. The Polish partisan detachments treated the non-Polish inhabitants with equal severity. Moreover, the horrors of the war were aggravated by pestilence, and the Jews and townsfolk of the districts of Kalisz, Cracow, Poznan, Piotrkow, and Lublin perished en masse by the sword of the sieging armies and the plague. Certain Jewish writers of the day were convinced that the home and protection which the Jews had for a long time enjoyed in Poland were lost to them forever.

Some of these apprehensions proved to be unfounded. As soon as the disturbances had ceased, the Jews began to return and to rebuild their destroyed homes; and while it is true that the Jewish population of Poland had decreased and become impoverished, it still was more numerous than that of the Jewish colonies in Western Europe. Poland remained as the spiritual center of Judaism; and the remarkable vitality of the Jews manifested itself in the fact that in a comparatively short time they managed to recuperate from their terrible trials. King Jan Kazimierz Vasa (1648-1668) endeavored to compensate the impoverished people for their sufferings and losses, as is evidenced by a decree granting the Jews of Cracow the rights of free trade (1661); and similar privileges, together with temporary exemption from taxes, were granted to many other Jewish communities, which had suffered most from the Russo-Swedish invasion. John Casimir's successor, King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1669-1673), also granted some privileges to the Jews. This was partly due to the efforts of Moses Markowitz, the representative of the Jewish communities of Poland. The heroic King John III Sobieski (1674-1696) was in general very favorably inclined toward the Jews; but the clergy and Catholic nobility deprecated such friendliness toward "infidels."

Accession of the Saxon dynasty

With the accession to the throne of the Saxon dynasty the Jews completely lost the support of the government. While it is true that Augustus II the Strong (1697-1733), and August III Wettin (1733-1763) officially confirmed at their coronations the Jewish charters, such formal declarations were insufficient, owing to the disorders prevailing in the kingdom, to guard the already limited rights of the Jews against the hostile elements. The government was anxious only to collect from the Kahals the taxes, which were constantly being made heavier in spite of the fact that the Jews had not yet recovered from the ruinous events of the Cossacks' uprising and the Swedish invasion. The Jews plight was compunded by the fact that Sejm, composed of nobility and Catholic clergy, blocked all attempts to levvy taxes on nobility or clergy, thus only townsfolk and Jews were taxed.

The szlachta and the townsfolk were incresingly hostile to the Jews, as the religious tolerance that dominated the mentality of the previous generations of the Commonwealth citizens was slowly forgotten. In their intolerance, the citizens of the Commonwealth now approached the "standards" that dominated most of the contemporary European countries, and many Jews felt betrayed by the country they once viewed as their haven. In the larger cities, like Poznan and Cracow, quarrels between the Christians and the Jewish inhabitants were of frequent occurrence; and they assumed a very violent aspect. Based originally on economic grounds, they were carried over into the religious arena; and it was evident that the seeds which the Jesuits had planted had finally borne fruit. Ecclesiastical councils displayed great hatred toward the Jews. Attacks on the latter by students, the so-called Schüler-Gelauf, became every-day occurrences in the large cities, the police regarding such scholastic riots with indifference. Indeed, lawlessness, violence, and disorder reigned supreme at that time in Poland, marking the beginning of the downfall of the kingdom. In order to protect themselves against such occurrences, the Jewish communities in many cities made annual contributions to the local Catholic schools.

The Rise of Hasidism

The decade from the Cossacks' uprising until after the Swedish war (1648-1658) left a deep and lasting impression not only on the social life of the Polish-Lithuanian Jews, but on their spiritual life as well. The intellectual output of the Jews of Poland was reduced. The Talmudic learning which up to that period had been the common possession of the majority of the people became accessible to a limited number of students only, while the masses remained in ignorance and superstition. The intellectual activity even of the rabbis fell to a lower level; for while it is true that there were still many prominent rabbis in Poland who were men of great Talmudic learning and secular knowledge, they did not leave behind them any such great works as did their predecessors-Solomon Luria, Isserles, Mordecai Jaffe, and Meďr of Lublin. What religious study their was become overly formalized, some rabbis busied themselves with quibbles concerning religious laws; others wrote commentaries on different parts of the Talmud in which hair-splitting arguments were raised and discussed; and at times these arguments dealt with matters which were of no practical moment. At the same time, many miracle-workers made their appearance among the Jews of Poland, as even famous rabbis of that time devoted themselves to kabbalistic practices, this mysticism culminated in a series of false "Messianic" movements, and Sabbatianism was succeeded by Frankism among the Jews of Poland.

 the founder of .

In this time of mysticism and overly formal rabbinism came the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, or BeShT, (1698-1760), which had a profound effect on the Jews of Eastern Europe and Poland in particular. His disciples taught and encouraged the new fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism based on Kabbalah known as Hasidism. One of those great disciples and teachers was Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786). Many of these disciples became Rebbes themselves with followings, as with the Ger (Hasidic dynasty) which was begun by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1798-1866). Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. Its aim was to change not the belief, but the believer. It created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge.

First partition

Disorder and anarchy reigned supreme in Poland during the second half of the eighteenth century, from the accession to the throne of its last king, Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski (1764-1795). This state of affairs was due to the haughty demeanor of the nobility toward the lower classes. The necessity for reform was recognized by the king and by many of the Commonwealth citizens; but Poland was already in the grasp of Russia, and little could be done in this direction. Jewish affairs were sadly neglected, the government seeking merely the extortion of larger taxes; thus the Sejm which met at Warsaw in 1764 for the discussion of measures of reform considered the Jews only to the extent of changing the tax system. About this time, and as a direct consequence of the disorganization of Poland, the disastrous incursions of the brigand bands known as the Haidamacks took place. The movement originated in Podolia and in that part of the Ukraine which still belonged to Poland.

These and other internal disorders combined to hasten the end of Poland as a sovereign state. In 1772, in the aftermath of the Confederation of Bar, the outlying provinces were divided among the three neighboring nations, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Russia secured a considerable part of the territory now known as White Russia; Austria obtained Galicia and a part of Podolia; while Prussia received Pomerania and the lands lying along the lower Vistula. Jews were most numerous in the territories that fell to the lot of Austria and Russia.

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Drawings of Jewish dress from the 17th and 18th centuries (top) and 18th centuries (bottom).

The permanent council established at the instance of the Russian government (1773-1788) served as the highest administrative tribunal, and occupied itself with the elaboration of a plan that would make practicable the reorganization of Poland on a more rational basis. The progressive elements in Polish society recognized the urgency of popular education as the very first step toward reform. In 1773 the Society of Jesus in Poland was abolished by Pope Clement XIV, who thus freed Polish youth from the demoralizing influences of Jesuitism. The famous Komisja Edukacji Narodowej ("Commission of National Education"), first ministry of education in the world, was established in 1773 and founded numerous new schools and remodeled the old ones. One of the members of the commission, kanclerz Andrzej Zamoyski, along with others, demanded that the inviolability of their persons and property should be guaranteed and that religious toleration should be to a certain extent granted them; but he insisted that Jews living in the cities should be separated from the Christians, that those of them having no definite occupation should be banished from the kingdom, and that even those engaged in agriculture should not be allowed to possess land. On the other hand, some szlachta and intellectuals proposed a national system of government, of the civil and political equality of the Jews. This was the only example in modern Europe before the French Revolution of tolerance and broad-mindedness in dealing with the Jewish question. On 3rd May 1791 the Great Sejm passed the second oldest constitution of the world, the Polish Constitution of 3rd May. But all these reforms were too late. Through the intrigues and bribery of Catherine II of Russia the Confederation of Targowica was formed, to which belonged the adherents of the old order of things. A Russian army invaded Poland, and soon after a Prussian one followed.

The second and third partitions

A second partition of Poland was made July 17, 1793, Russia taking a large part of White Russia, half of Volhynia, all of Podolia, and the part of the Ukraine which had previously been retained by Poland, and Prussians taking Great Poland (Poznan).

A general uprising (Kosciuszko Uprising) of the citizens of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place in 1794. Tadeusz Kosciuszko was made its leader and dictator, and succeeded in driving the Russians out of Warsaw. Dissensions, however, arose among the Poles, and the Russians and Prussians again entered Poland in force. Kosciuszko was decisively defeated at Battle of Maciejowice Oct. 10, 1794; Alexander Suvorov entered Warsaw Nov. 8, and Polish resistance came to an end. The Jews took an active part in this last struggle of Poland for independence. With the permission of Kosciuszko, a certain Berek Joselewicz formed a regiment of light cavalry consisting entirely of Jews. This regiment accomplished many deeds of valor on the field of battle and distinguished itself especially at the siege of Warsaw, nearly all its members perishing in the defence and eventual massacre of Praga, the fortified suburb of the capital.

The third and final partition of Poland took place in 1795. Russia acquired the whole of Lithuania and Courland; Austria, the remainder of Galicia, and Podolia, including Cracow; Prussia, the rest of Poland, including Warsaw, the capital; and with that Poland ceased to exist as an independent country. The great bulk of the Jewish population was transferred to Russia, and thus became subjects of that empire, althoug in the first half of the 19th century some semblance of vastly smaller Polish state was preserved, especially in the form of the Congress Poland (1815-1831).

Jews of Poland within the Russian Empire (1795-1918)

Main articles: History of Poland (1795-1918) and History of the Jews in Russia and Soviet Union

Official Russian policy would eventually prove to be substantially harsher to the Jews than that under independent Polish rule. The lands that had once been Poland wereto remain the home of many Jews, as, in 1772, Catherine II, the tzarina of Russia, instituted the Pale of Settlement, restricting Jews to the western parts of the empire, which would eventually include much Poland although it excluded some areas in which Jews had previously lived. By the late 1800s, over four million Jews would live in the Pale.

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Jewish shtetl in Poland, from around 1915.

Initially, Russian policy towards the Jews of Poland was confused, alternating between harsh rules and somewhat more enlightened policies. In 1802, the Tsar established the Committee on the Improvement of the Jews in an attempt to develop a coherent approach to the Empire's new Jewish population. The Committee in 1804 suggested a number of steps that were designed to encourage Jews to assimilate, though it did not force them to do so. It proposed that Jews be allowed to attend school and even to own land, but it restricted them from entering Russia, banned them from the brewing industry, and included a number of other prohibitions. The more enlightened parts of this policy were never fully implemented, and the conditions of the Jews in the Pale gradually worsened. In the 1820s, the Cantonist Laws passed by Tsar Nicolas kept the traditional double taxation on Jews in lieu of army service, while actually requiring all Jewish communities to produce boys to serve in the military, where they were often forced to convert. Though the Jews were accorded slightly more rights with the emancipation reform of 1861, they were still restricted to the Pale of Settlement and subject to restrictions on ownership and profession. In 1881, however, the status-quo was shattered with the assasination of Tsar Alexander II, which was falsely blamed on the Jews.


The assasination prompted a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots, called pogroms throughout 1881-1884. In the 1881 outbreak, pogroms were primarily limited to Russia, although in a riot in Warsaw twelve Jews were killed, many others were wounded, and women were raped while over two million rubles worth of property was destroyed. The new czar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the riots and issued a series of harsh restrictions on Jewish movements, but large numbers of pogroms continued until 1884, with at least tacit government approval. The pogroms proved a turning point in the history of the Jews in Poland, and throughout the world. They prompted a great flood of Jewish immigration to the United States, with almost two million Jews leaving the Pale by the late 1920s, and the pogroms set the stage for Zionism.

An even bloodier wave of pogroms broke out from 1903-1906, and at least some of the pogroms are believed to have been organized or supported by the Tsarist Russian secret police, the Okhranka. Some of the worst of these occured on Polish territory, where majority of Russian Jews lived then, and included the Bialystock pogrom of 1906, in which up to a hundred Jews were killed and many more wounded.


The Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah, began to take hold in Poland during the 1800s, stressing secular ideas and values. Champions of Haskalah, the Maskilim, pushed for assimilation and integration into Russian culture. At the same time, there was another school of Jewish thought that emphasized traditional study and a Jewish response to the ethical problems of anti-semitism and persecution, one form of which was the Mussar movement. Though the Jews in the Pale were generally poorer and less educated than in other areas, they were still part of the debate over the future of Judaism in the 1800s.

Politics in Polish Territory

By the late 1800s, Haskalah and the debates it caused created a growing number of political movements within the Jewish community itself, covering a wide range of views and vying for votes in local and regional elections. Zionism became very popular with the advent of the Poale Zion party as well as the religious Polish Mizrahi, and the increasingly popular General Zionists. Jews also took up socialism, forming the The Bund labor union and the Folksists (People’s Party) which supported assimilation and the rights of labor.

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A Bundist demonstration, 1917

Unsurprisingly, given the conditions under Imperial Russia, the Jews participated in a number of Polish insurrections against the Russians, including the the Kosciuszko Insurrection (above), and the January Insurrection (1863) as well as the Revolutionary Movement of 1905.

Interwar period 1918-1939

Main article: History of Poland (1918-1939)

Jews also played a role in the fight for independence in 1918, some joining Józef Pilsudski, but many other communities decided to remain neutral in the fight for a Polish state. In the wake of the World War I and the ensuing series of conflicts that engulfed Eastern Europe like the Russian Civil War, Polish-Ukrainian War, Polish-Soviet War, many pogroms were launched against the Jews by all sides. As a significant number of Jews were perceived to have supported the Bolsheviks in Russia, they came under frequent attack by those opposed to the Bolshevik regime.

Just after the end of World War I the western public opinion was alarmed by reports about alleged massive pogroms in Poland against Jews. The public opinion was aroused to the point of president Woodrow Wilson sending official commision to investigate the issue. The commision found out that the opinions of the pogroms are exagerated, and in some accidents even fabricated. It identified 8 major incidents in years 1918-1919, and estimated number of victims for 200-300 persons. It attributed attributed four of them to actions of deserters and undisciplined individual soldiers and none of them to the official government policy or any rogue Polish institutions. In particular in Pinsk a Polish lower level officer was informed that local communists organisation is preparing anti-Polish uprising, so he immedietely arrested 35 participants of this meeting and sentenced them to death. In Lviv (then Lemberg) in 1918, after Polish army captured the city, in chaos hundreds of people were killed, among them about 72 Jews. Polish authorities after reintroducing peace and order in the city sentenced about 79 person for banditry. In Warsaw soldiers of Blue Army supposedly assaulted Jews on the streets, but they were punished by military authorities. Many other events were exagerated, especially by contemporary newspapers like New York Times. The result was a series of explicit clauses, especially articles 10 and 11, in the Paris Peace Conference protecting the rights of minorities in Poland.

The newly independent Second Polish Republic had a large Jewish minority -- by the time World War II began, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe. According to 1931 National Census there were 3,130,581 Polish Jews measured by the declaration of their religion. Estimating the population increase and the emigration from Poland between 1931 and 1939, there were probably 3,474,000 Jews in Poland as of September 1, 1939 (approximately 10% of the total population). Jews were primarily centered in large and smaller cities: 77% lived in cities and 23% in the villages. During the school year of 1937-1938 there were 226 elementary schools and 12 high schools as well as 14 vocational schools with either Yiddish or Hebrew as the instructional language. At this same time 130 periodicals were published in Yiddish or Hebrew, as well as 443 books and brochures. There were 15 theatres and theatrical groups performing in Yiddish. And the Jewish intelligentsia took an active part in Polish community life, playing a role in the development of art and culture in the new nation. Jewish political parties, both the Socialist General Jewish Labor Union (The Bund), as well as groupings of the Zionist right and left wing and religious conservative movements, were represented in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) and quite frequently also in the regional councils. At the start of World War II Warsaw had 20 Jewish council member while in Lodz there were 17.

Despite this, there was rising persecution of Jews in Poland, who were often not identified as true Poles; a problem both caused both by Polish nationalism, supported by the Sanacja goverment, and the fact that a substantial proportion of Jews lived seperate lives from the Polish majority: 85% of Polish Jews listed Yiddish or Hebrew as their native language, for example. Although matters improved for a time under the rule of Pilsudski, who opposed anti-semitism, by the 1930s persecution had become common. Academic harassment, anti-Jewish riots, and semi-official or unofficial quotas introduced in some universities by some right-wing organisations and authonomous universities halved the number of Jews in Polish universities between independence and the 1930s. In 1937 the trade unions of Polish doctors and lawyers restricted their new members to Christian Poles while many government jobs continued to be unavailable to Jews since Polish indepedence. This was accompanied by physical violence: between May 1936 and January 1937, 118 Jews were killed, 1350 were wounded, and 137 Jewish stores were bombed in anti-Jewish violence in Poland. Western press continued to report about tragic situation of Jews in Poland, e.g. reporting that in Bialystock alone in 1936 there were 248 assaults on Jews, including 21 mass riots or pogroms (New York Times, Feb 7, 1937). At the same time, persistent economic boycotts and harassment including property-destroying riots, combined with the effects of the Great Depression that had been very severe on agricultural countries like Poland reduced the standard of living of Polish Jews until it was among the worst among major Jewish communities in the world. The result was that at the eve of the Second World War, the Jewish community in Poland was large and vibrant internally, yet (with the exception of a few professionals) also substantially poorer and less integrated than the Jews in most of the Western Europe.

WWII and the destruction of Polish Jewry (1939-1945)

Main articles: The Holocaust and History of Poland (1939-1945)

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Concerning the Sheltering of Escaping Jews. A reminder - in accordance with paragraph 3 of the decree of October 15, 1941, on the Limitation of Residence in General Government (page 595 of the GG Register) Jews leaving the Jewish Quarter without permission will incur the death penalty. According to this decree, those knowingly helping these Jews by providing shelter, supplying food, or selling them foodstuffs are also subject to the death penalty. This is a categorical warning to the non-Jewish population against: 1) Providing shelter to Jews, 2) Supplying them with Food, 3) Selling them Foodstuffs. Dr. Franke - Town Commander - Czestochowa 9/24/42

The Polish September campaign

During the Polish September Campaign of 1939, some 120,000 Jewish Polish citizens took part in battles with the Germans as member of the Polish Armed Forces. It is estimated that as many as 32,216 Jewish soldiers and officers died and 61,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans, the majority did not survive. The soldiers and non-commissioned officer who were released ultimately found themselves in the ghettos and labor camps and suffered the same fate as other Jewish civilians.

Soviet-Occupied Poland

In newly partitioned Poland, according to Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, (according to 1931 census) 61.2% of Polish Jews found themselves under German occupation while 38.8% were in Soviet-occupied territory. Based on population migration from West to East during and after the Polish September Campaign the percentage of Jews in the Soviet-occupied areas was probably higher than that of 1931 census. Among Polish officers killed by the NKVD in 1941in the Katyn Massacre there were 500-600 Jews. Between 1939-1941 between 100,000-300,000 Polish Jews were deported from Soviet-occupied Polish territory into the Soviet Union. Some of them, especially Polish Communists (e.g. Jakub Berman) moved voluntarily, however, most of them were forcibly deported to Gulags. Small numbers of Polish Jews (about 6,000) were able to leave the Soviet Union in 1942 with the Wladyslaw Anders army, among them the future Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin. During the Polish army's II Corps' stay in the British Mandate of Palestine, 67% (2,972) of the Jewish soldiers deserted, many to join the Irgun.

The Holocaust: German-occupied Poland

The Polish Jewish community suffered the most in the massacres ofthe Holocaust. About 3 million Jews (all but about 300,000-500,000 of the Jewish population) died of starvation in ghettos and labor camps or were killed at the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór, Chelmno. Many Jews in what was then eastern Poland also fell victim to Nazi death squads called Einsatzgruppen which massacred Jews, especially in 1941.

Some of these German-inspired massacres were carried out with help from, or even active participation by, Poles themselves. For example, the massacre in Jedwabne, in which between 300 (Institute of National Remembrance's Final Findings [1] (http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/J/final.html)) and 1,600 (Jan T. Gross [2] (http://his.princeton.edu/info/e47/jan_gross.html)) Jews were tortured and beaten to death by part of Jedwabne's citizens. The full extent of Polish participation in the massacres of the Polish Jewish community remains a controversial subject, but the Polish Institute for National Remembrance identified 22 other towns that had pogroms similar to Jedwabne. [3] (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,669067,00.html). The reasons for these massacres are still debated, but they included anti-Semitism, resentment over alleged cooperation with the Soviet invaders in Polish-Soviet War and during 39' invasion of Kresy regions, and simple greed for the possessions of the Jews.

The Germans also established a number of ghettos in which Jews were confined, and eventually killed. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people and Lódz, the second largest, holding about 160,000. Other Polish cities with large Jewish ghettos included Bialystok, Czestochowa, Kielce, Kraków, Lublin, Lwów, and Radom. The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the German Governor-General Hans Frank on October 16, 1940. At this time, the population of the ghetto was estimated to be about 380,000 people, about 30% of the population of Warsaw. However, the size of the Ghetto was about 2.4% of the size of Warsaw. The Germans then closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world on November 16th of that year, building a wall around it. During the next year and a half, Jews from smaller cities and villages were brought into the Warsaw Ghetto, while diseases (especially typhoid) and starvation (rations for Jews were officially limited to just 333 kcal per day (average rations 1940-1941), as opposed to 1,800 for Poles and 2,400 for Germans in Warsaw) kept the inhabitants at about the same number. On July 22, 1942, the mass expulsion of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants began; in the next 52 days (till September 12, 1942) about 300,000 people were transported by train to the Treblinka extermination camp. The deportations were carried out by 50 German SS-men, 200 Latvian, 200 Ukrainian Police, and 2,500 Jewish Ghetto Police. Employees of the Judenrat, including the Ghetto Police, along with their families and relatives, were given immunity from deportations in return for their cooperation. Additionally, in August of 1942, Jewish Ghetto policemen, under the threat of deportation themselves, were ordered to personally "deliver" five ghetto inhabitants to the Umschlagplatz train station. On January 18 1943, some Ghetto inhabitants, including members of ZOB, resisted, often with arms, German attempts for additional deportations to Treblinka. The final destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto came four months later during and after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Some of the survivors ot this uprising still held in camps at or near Warsaw were freed a year later during the larger Warsaw Uprising led by Polish resistance movement Armia Krajowa.

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 saw the destruction of what remained of the Ghetto

Poland was the only occupied country during World War II where the Nazis formally imposed the death penalty for anybody found sheltering and helping Jews. Despite these draconian measures by the Nazi Germans, Poland has the highest amount of Righteous Among The Nations awards at the Yad Vashem Museum.

The Polish Government in Exile was also the first (in November 1942) [4] (http://www.republika.pl/unpack/1/dok03.html) to reveal the existence of Nazi-run concentration camps and the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, through its courier Jan Karski and through the activities of Witold Pilecki, member of Armia Krajowa and the only person who volunteered for imprisoning in Auschwitz and organised a resistance movement inside the camp itself. The Polish government in exile was also the only government to set up an organization Zegota specifically aimed at helping the Jews in Poland [5] (http://www.savingjews.org/).

Communist rule: 1945-1989

Main article: History of Poland (1945-1989)


Between 40,000 and 100,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding or by joining the Polish or Russian partisan units. Another 50,000-170,000 were repatriated from the Soviet Union and 20,000-40,000 from Germany and other countries. At its post-war peak, there were 180,000-240,000 Jews in Poland settled mostly in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, and Wroclaw.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Jews began to flee Poland. Prompted by renewed anti-Jewish violence, especially the Kielce pogrom of 1946; the refusal of the Communist regime to return pre-war Jewish property; and a desire to leave communities destroyed by the Holocaust and build a new life in the British Mandate of Palestine, 100,000-120,000 Jews left Poland between 1945-1948. Their departure was largely organized by the Zionist activists in Poland such as Adolf Berman and Yitzhak Zuckerman under the umbrella of a semi-clandestine organization Berihah ("Flight"). Berihah was also responsible for the organized emigration of Jews from Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia totaling 250,000 (including Poland) Holocaust survivors. A second wave of Jewish emigration (50,000) took place during the liberalization of the Communist regime between (1957-1959).

For those Polish Jews who remained, the rebuilding of Jewish life in Poland was carried out between October 1944 and 1950 by the Central Committee of Polish Jews (Centralny Komitet Żydow Polskich, CKŻP) headed by Bund activist S. Herszenhorn. CKŻP was providing legal, educational, social care, cultural, and propaganda services. A country-wide Jewish Religious Community, led by David Kahane who served as chief rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces, was functioning between 1945 and 1948 until it was absorbed by the CKŻP. Eleven independent political Jewish parties, of which eight were legal, existed until their dissolution during 1949-1950.

A large percentage of Polish Jews participated in the establishment of the Communist regime in People's Republic of Poland between 1944-1956 holding, among others, prominent posts in the Politburo of the Polish United Worker's Party (e.g. Jakub Berman, Hilary Minc - responsible for establishing a Communist-style economy), and the security apparatus Urzad Bezpieczenstwa (UB). After 1956, during the process of destalinisation in Poland under Wladyslaw Gomulka's regime, some Urzad Bezpieczenstwa officials including Roman Romkowski (b. Natan Grunsapau-Kikiel), Jacek Różański (b. Jozef Goldberg), Anatol Fejgin were prosecuted for "power abuses" including the torture of Polish anti-Communists (among them, Witold Pilecki) and sentenced to long prison terms. A UB official, Józef Światło, (b. Izak Fleichfarb), after escaping in 1953 to the West, exposed through Radio Free Europe the methods of the UB which led to its dissolution in 1954.

Some Jewish cultural institutions were established including the Yiddish State Theater founded in 1950 and directed by Ida Kaminska [6] (http://www.teatr-zydowski.art.pl/english.htm), the Jewish Historical Institute [7] (http://www.jewishinstitute.org.pl/?language=eng) an academic institution specializing in research of history and culture of the Jews in Poland, and the Yiddish newspaper Folks-shtime ("People's Voice").

From 1967-1989

In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Poland broke-off diplomatic relations with Israel. By 1968 most of Poland's 40,000 remaining Jews were assimilated into Polish society, but over the next year they became the centre of a centrally organised campaign, equating Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland.

In March of 1968 student-led demonstrations in Warsaw (March 1968 events) gave the goverment of Wladyslaw Gomulka an excuse to channel public anti-government sentiment into another avanue. Thus Gumulka security chief, Mieczysla Moczar, used this affair as a pretext to launch an anti-Semitic press campaign (although the expression "Zionist" was officially used). The state-sponsored "anti-Zionist" campaign resulting in removal of Jews from the Polish United Worker's Party and public services jobs including teaching positions in schools and universities. Due to the economic, political and police pressure, 25,000 Jews were forced to emigrate during 1968-1970. The campaign, despite being ostensibly directed at Jews who had held office during the Stalin era and their families, affected most of the remaining Polish Jews whatever their backgrounds.

There were several outcomes of the March 1968 events, The campaign damaged Poland's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States. Many Polish intellectuals, however, were disgusted at the promotion of official anti-Semitism and opposed the campaign. Some of the people who emigrated to the West at this time founded organisations which encouraged anti-communistic opposition inside Poland.

During the late 1970s some Jewish activists were engaged in the anti-Communist opposition groups. Most prominent among them, Adam Michnik (founder of Gazeta Wyborcza) was one of the founders of the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR). By the time of the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, only 5,000-10,000 Jews remained in the country, many of them prefering to conceal their Jewish origin.


Main article: History of Poland (1989-present)

With the fall of Communism in Poland, Jewish cultural, social, and religious life has been undergoing a revival. Many historical issues, especially related to World War II and the 1944-1989 period, suppressed by Communist censorship has been reevaluated and publicly discussed (see for example the Massacre in Jedwabne, the Koniuchy Massacre, the Auschwitz cross, and Polish-Jewish wartime relations in general).

Jewish religious life has been revived with the help of the Ronald Lauder Foundation, the Polish Jewish community employs two rabbis, operated a small network of Jewish schools and summer camps, and sustains several Jewish periodicals and book series events. In 1993 the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland was establish with the aim of organizing the religious and cultural life of the members of the communities in Poland.

Academic Jewish studies programs were established at Warsaw University and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Krakow became home to the Judaica Foundation [8] (http://www.judaica.pl/english/program_miesieczny.htm), which has sponsored a wide range of cultural and educational programs on Jewish themes for a predominantly Polish audience.

Poland was the first Communist Bloc country to recognize Israel again in 1986, and restored full relations in 1990. Government relations between Poland and Israel are steadily improving, resulting in the mutual visits of presidents and the ministers of foreign affairs. The Polish government will finance the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews [9] (http://www.jewishmuseum.org.pl/start.html) in Warsaw.

In September 2000, dignitaries from Poland, Israel, the United States, and other countries (including Prince Hassan of Jordan) gathered in the city of Oswiecim (the new Auschwitz camp) to commemorate the opening of the refurbished Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue and the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The synagogue, the sole synagogue in Oswiecim to survive World War II and an adjacent Jewish cultural and educational center, provide visitors a place to pray and to learn about the active pre-World War II Jewish community that existed in Oswiecim. The synagogue was the first communal property in the country to be returned to the Jewish community under the 1997 law allowing for restitution of Jewish communal property.

In April 2001, during the 13th March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, several hundred citizens joined 2,000 marchers from Israel and other countries. Government officials participating in the march included Members of Parliament, the province's governor, and Oswiecim's mayor and city council chairman. Schoolchildren, boy scouts, the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society [10] (http://www.israel-kolobrzeg.republika.pl/), and the Polish Union of Jewish Students (PUSZ) also participated in the march. In May 2001, several hundred students from around the world marched through the town in The March of Remembrance and Hope.

In April 2002, during the 14th March of the Living [11] (http://www.motl.org/) from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, several hundred citizens joined 1,500 marchers from Israel and other countries.

In 2000, Poland's Jewish population was estimated to have risen to somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 -- mostly living in Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Bielsk. With Poland joining the European Union, a number of Israeli Jews are emigrating to Poland, although it is not clear how many intend to remain in Poland or are using Poland as a stepping-stone to the more prosperous nations of Western Europe.

See also

History of the Jews in Poland Chronology



  • Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, After the Holocaust, East European Monographs, 2003, ISBN 0880335114.
  • Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947, Lexington Books, 2004, ISBN 0739104845.
  • William W. Hagen, Before the "Final Solution": Toward a Comparative Analysis of Political Anti-Semitism in Interwar Germany and Poland, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), 351-381.
  • Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity, University of California Press, 2004, ISBN 0520238443.
  • Ivo Cyprian Pogonowski, Jews in Poland. A Dcumentary History, Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1998, ISBN 0781806046.
  • David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe 1789-1939, Oxford University Press, 2001.

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