Jews in Poland

The First Jews in Poland

      The date of the arrival of the first Jews onto Polish soil is unknown. Ibrahim ibn Jakub (a Jewish traveler, merchant and diplomat from Tortosa, Spain) in the account of his journey in 965, mentioned Krakow and wrote of his first historic Duke of Poland, Mieszko I. The author of these historically valuable notes was certainly not the only Jew to travel through the Piast lands. Some settled here permanently with their families to make their livelihoods through commerce and the crafts. In later times, banished from many countries, victims of social and religious upheavals, intolerance, and persecution, Jews looked to Poland for asylum and here they found it.

      Polish dukes and kings, such as Boleslaw Pobozny (1221-1279) and Kazimierz Wielki (1310-1370), appreciated their talents and thus granted them privileges and conditions for a peaceful life. Boleslaw Pobozny's Charter of Kalisz (1264) guaranteed full security for Jews, their communities, and property.

      Accounts have survived of the "Rhodans", citizens of the cities in the Rhne River valley in Switzerland and France. Jewish traderstraveled to the countries of Eastern Europe with their wares. Many remained on Polish lands. They founded staging points for traveling Jews; many occupied themselves with commerce and crafts. Refugees from one powerful Khazar Empire located between the Volga and the Don Rivers, smashed in 965, wandered to the lands of Poland and settled here permanently. The religion practiced by the Khazars, a tribe of Turkish origin, was Judaism because Jewish traders had been responsible for their conversion. A third group consisted of Orient Jews who came from the Near East.

      The major influx of Jews into Poland took place between the 12th and 15th centuries. This was the period when the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition led to the persecutions of Jews in the countries of Western Europe and their subsequent wandering eastwards in search for asylum. They found the protection and tolerance they sought in Poland, a country which was, at that time, poorly developed and in need of merchants and craftsmen.

Polish Jewish Life

      Poland became host over time to the largest concentration of Jews in Europe and the most potent hub for Jewish culture as well. Poland became home to primarily the Ashkenazi (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe), and the Sephardi (Southern European Jews including refugees from 15th century Spain and Portugal). There existed a diversity of various religious and cultural currents, from Chassidim ( a movement for religious renewal in Poland as Podolia (now the Ukraine) under the leadership of the legendary Baal-szem-tov (born 1700) all the way through progressive movements of the Enlightenment - the Maskilim (proponents of assimilation).

Jews in Poland's Development

      A major role in the industrialization of the nation was played by eminent group of Jewish entrepreneurs, bankers, industrialists, and merchants. Many well known families - the Kronenbergs, Natansons, Epsteins, Toeplitzes, Wawelbergs, Rotwands, Fajanses, Reichmans - initiated, organized, and developed many fields of economic and cultural life. Jews were in the vanguard of modern banking, industry (including the sugar refining, textile, paper, and mechanical), commerce, export-import trade, and transportation (the construction of railway lines and river traffic on the Vistula). The Wawelbergs and Rotwands, for example, founded one of the first polytechnic colleges on Polish soil.

Jews and Polish Culture

      Jewish citizens were prominent in the fields of publishing, photography and motion pictures.

      Jews were also active in such fields as music and the fine arts. The well known composers, Adam Muncheimer and Ludwik Grossman, directed the Warsaw Opera for a time during the 19th century. The primary founder of the Warsaw Philharmonic (opened in 1901) was Aleksander Reichman, while its acclaimed director for many years during the period between the two World Wars was Grzegorz Fitelbe. Numerous Jews, both writers and poets, left their distinct mark on the history of Polish literature (Julian Tuwim, Boleslaw Lesmian, Antoni Slonimski, Mieczyslaw Jastrun, Wlodzimierz Slobodnik, Arnold Slucki, Jan Brzechwa (a favorite poet of Polish children), Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Anatol Stern, Janusz Korczak, Bruno Schulz and others) made notable contribution to Polish literature. In the world of art, many famous names are the Seidenbeutal twins, the Gotliebs, Maurycy Trebacz, Roman Kramsztyk, Artur Szyk, Leopold Pilichowski, and Marek Wlodarski as well as renown sculptors Abraham Ostrzega and Henryk Kuna. Their works may be viewed in countless Polish and foreign museums, as well as in the Jewish Museum of the Historical Institute of Warsaw.

Jewish Culture

      A unique Jewish culture blossomed in pre-World War II Poland. Eminent writers and poets Icchak Lejb Perec, Szalom Alejchem, Szalom Asz, and Hirsz Dawid Nomberg created classic works. Jewish schools, both secular and religious, existed in Poland. The YIVO (Jidiszer Wissenszaftlecher Institute) Scientific Institute was based in Wilno before transferring to New York during the war. The Main Judaic Library and the Institute of Judaic Studies are located in Warsaw in what is now the Jewish Historical Institute Building. Religious centers had at their disposal Talmudic Schools (Jeszybots), as well as synagogues, many of which are architecturally outstanding.

Jews in the Battle for Polish Independence

      Jews actively participated in the national uprisings which took place on Polish lands. A colonel of the Polish Army, Berek Joselewicz, formed a Jewish cavalry regiment in 1794 which took part in the Kosciuszko Insurrection. The Colonel was killed during the battle of Kock in 1809. Jews were represented in the November Insurrection (1830 - 1831), the January Insurrection (1863), as well as in the revolutionary movement of 1905. Many Polish Jews were enlisted in the Legions, commanded by JOZEF Pilsudski, which fought for the independence finally achieved in 1918. About 100,000 Jewish soldiers found themselves in the ranks of the Polish Army at the start of World War II in September of 1939. Many were killed and wounded on the battlefield. For the duration of the war, many Jews were in the Polish Armed Forces in the West, in the Polish People's Army formed in the Soviet Union, as well as in civilian resistance movements and guerrilla detachments. Many lost their lives or were wounded; very many received the highest combat distinctions.

Social and Political Life

      During the period between the two World Wars, Jews accounted for 10% of Poland's population of 33,00,000. The Jewish community developed many social and cultural organizations, and political parties including the left-wing Bund, and the Poalej Syjon, the Communists, as well as the Zionists, the orthodox "Mizrachi"and the "Agudas Izrael". There were also the Folksists (People's Party), groups favoring assimilation, as well as many vigorous trade unions. The interests of Jews in Poland were represented by politicians and leaders with seats in the Sejm or the Senate, as well as in municipal councils and in Jewish religious communities. The interests of Polish Jewry were also served by the potent and well developed Jewish press published in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish. There were about thirty dailies and over 130 Jewish periodicals in circulation just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1939; these figures do not include the publications of the many small provincial towns throughout the nation.