History of the Jews in Poland

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The history of Polish Jews reaches back over a millennium, encompassing both a long period of tolerance and prosperity for its Jewish population and the nearly complete genocidal destruction of the community by Nazi Germany in the 20th century. From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in the 10th century through 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, the weakening of the Commonwealth because of foreign invasions and internal cultural changes (Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century on. Consequently, the predicament of the Commonwealth’s Jewry worsened, declining to the level of other European countries by the end of the 18th century.

After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign 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 20th century, immediately prior to World War II it had a vibrant Jewish community of over three million, one of the largest in the world, though anti-Semitism, both from the government and the general population, was a growing problem. Over 90% of the Jews in Poland were killed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, though, with a few tragic exceptions, such as the Jedwabne pogrom, most non-Jewish Poles did not cooperate in the destruction of the Jewish community, and some Poles protected their Jewish neighbors. In the postwar period, many of the 180,000–240,000 survivors chose to emigrate from the communist People's Republic of Poland to the nascent State of Israel. Most of the remaining Jews left Poland in late 1960s as the result of the state-sponsored "anti-Zionist" anti-Semitic campaign. After the fall of the communist regime in Poland in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews has normalized. The contemporary Polish Jewish community is generally estimated to have approximately 8,000 to 12,000 members, though the actual number of Jews, including those who are not actively connected to Judaism or Jewish culture, may be several times larger.

Template:Jew Template:History of Poland

From early history to Golden Age 966–1572

Main article: Jews in the Middle Ages
For more details on this topic, see History of the Jews in Poland (966-1572).

Early history 966–1385

Main article: History of Poland (966-1385)

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. The first permanent Jewish community is mentioned in 1085 by a Jewish scholar Jehuda ha Kohen in the city of Przemyśl.

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 (110239), 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. Bolesław on his part recognised the utility of the Jews it the development of the commercial interests of his country. The Jews came to form the backbone of the Polish economy and the coins minted by Mieszko III even bear Hebraic markings. Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided, 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.

The tolerant situation was gradually altered by the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and by the neighbouring German states on the other. 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 Bolesław Pobożny, 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 granted all Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel. During the next hundred years, the Church pushed for the persecution of the Jews while the rulers of Poland usually protected them.

In 1334, Casimir III the Great (130370) amplified and expanded Bolesław's old charter with the Wiślicki Statute. Casimir was especially friendly to the Jews, and his reign is regarded as an era of great prosperity for Polish Jewry, and 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 tranquillity, toward its close they were subjected to persecution on account of the Black Death. Massacres occurred at Kalisz, Kraków, Głogów, 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.

The early Jagiellon era: 1385–1505

Main article: History of Poland (1385-1569)

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. Although, in 1388, rights were extended to Lithuanian Jews as well, it was under the rule of Wladislaus II and those of his successors the first extensive persecutions of the Jews in Poland were commenced, and the king did not act to stop these events. There were a number of blood libels and riots against the Jews, and official persecution gradually increased, especially as the clergy pushed for less tolerance.

File:Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk.jpg
Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk confirmed and extended Jewish charters in the second half of the 15th century

The decline in the status of the Jews was briefly checked by Casimir IV the Jagiellonian (144792), but under pressure from the Church, he soon issued the Statute of Nieszawa that abolished of the ancient privileges of the Jews "as contrary to divine right and the law of the land." he 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 (1501–06), who expelled the Jews from Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495.

The Center of the Jewish World 1505–72

Alexander reversed his position in 1503, just as the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, as well as from Austria, Bohemia, and Germany, thus stimulating the Jewish emigration to comparatively much more tolerant Poland. Indeed, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, 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.

The most prosperous period in the life of the Polish Jews began following this new influx of Jews with the reign of Sigismund I (150648), who protected the Jews in his realm. His son, Sigismund II Augustus (154872) followed in the main the tolerant policy of his father and also granted autonomy to the Jews in the matter of communal administration and laid the foundation for the power of the Kahal, or autonomous Jewish community.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: 1572–1795

Main article: History of Poland (1572-1795)
For more details on this topic, see History of the Jews in Poland (1572-1795).

Increasing isolation

Following Sigismund, Stephen Bathory (157686) was elected King of Poland; and he proved both a tolerant ruler and a friend of the Jews, but the populace in general was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic. Political and economic events in the course of the sixteenth century forced the Jews to establish a more compact communal organization, becoming 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. 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 Sigismund III Vasa (15871632) and his son, Wladislaus IV Vasa (16321648), the position of the Jews was gradually reduced as blood libel accusations increased.

The Cossak's Uprising and the Deluge

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 emigration, deaths from diseases and jasyr (captivity in the Ottoman Empire).

Then the incompetent politics of the elected House of Vasa kings brought the weakened 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 (165558). Charles X of Sweden, at the head of his victorious army, overran Poland; and soon the whole country, including the cities of Kraków 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, Kraków, Poznań, Piotrków, and Lublin perished en masse by the sword of the besieging armies and the plague.

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 and Poland remained as the spiritual center of Judaism, and the through 1698, the Polish kings generally remained supportive of the Jews, despite a hostile clergy and nobility. It also should be noted that while Jewish losses in those events were high, estimated by some historians to be close to 500,000, the Commonwealth lost 1/3 of its population – approximately 3 millions of citizens.

Decline under the Saxon Dynasty

With the accession to the throne of the Saxon dynasty the Jews completely lost the support of the government. The szlachta and the townsfolk were increasingly 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 Poznań and Kraków, quarrels between the Christians and the Jewish inhabitants were of frequent occurrence. Attacks on the Jews by students, the so-called Schüler-Gelauf, became everyday occurrences in the large cities, the police regarding such scholastic riots with indifference.

The Partitions

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 (176495). In 1772, in the aftermath of the Confederation of Bar, the outlying provinces of Poland were divided among the three neighboring nations, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Jews were most numerous in the territories that fell to the lot of Austria and Russia.

File:PolishJewish Dress.jpg
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 (177388) 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. The famous Komisja Edukacji Narodowej ("Commission of National Education"), the 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 broadmindedness in dealing with the Jewish question. But all these reforms were too late, a Russian army soon invaded Poland, and soon after a Prussian one followed.

A second partition of Poland was made in July 17, 1793. Jews, in a Jewish regiment led by Berel Joselewicz, took part in the Kościuszko Uprising the following year, when the Poles tried to again achieve independence, but were brutally put down. Following the revolt, the third and final partition of Poland took place in 1795. The great bulk of the Jewish population was transferred to Russia, and thus became subjects of that empire, although 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 (181531).

The development of Judaism in Poland and the Commonwealth

The culture and intellectual output of the Jewish community in Poland had a profound impact on Judaism as a whole. Some Jewish historians have recounted that the word Poland is pronounced as Polania or Polin in Hebrew, and as transliterated into Hebrew, these names for Poland were interpreted as "good omens" because Polania can be broken down into three Hebrew words: po ("here"), lan ("dwells"), ya ("God"), and Polin into two words of: po ("here") lin ("[you should] dwell"). The "message" was that Poland was meant to be a good place for the Jews. During the time from the rule of Sigismund until the Nazi Holocaust, Poland would be at the center of Jewish religious life.

Jewish learning

Yeshivot 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 Kraków, Poznań, 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 Kraków; 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.

File:Zabludlow syn.jpg
Synagogue in Zabłudłów, 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. 15001558), 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) (152072) achieved an international reputation among the Jews as the coauthor of the Shulkhan Arukh, (the "Code of Jewish Law"). His contemporary and correspondent Solomon Luria (151073) of Lublin also enjoyed a wide reputation among his coreligionists; and the authority of both was recognized by the Jews throughout Europe. 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. This period of great Rabbinical scholarship was interrupted by the Chmielnicki Uprising and the Deluge.

The rise of Hasidism

Main article: Hasidim

The decade from the Cossacks' uprising until after the Swedish war (164858) 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. 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, culminating in a series of false "Messianic" movements, most famously Sabbatianism was succeeded by Frankism.

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. The rise of Hasidic Judaism within Poland's borders and beyond had a great influence on the rise of Haredi Judaism all over the world, with a continuous influence that has been felt from the inception of the Hasidic movements and its dynasties by famous rebbes, including the Aleksander Hasidism, Bobov Hasidism, Ger Hasidism, Nadvorna Hasidism, and Sassov Hasidism, among others. More recent rebbes of Polish origin include Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (18801950), the sixth head of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, who lived in Warsaw until 1940 when he moved Lubavitch from Warsaw to the United States. See also: List of Polish Rabbis

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

Main article: History of Poland (1795-1918)
For more details on this topic, see 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 were to 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.

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 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which was falsely blamed on the Jews.


The assassination prompted a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots, called pogroms throughout 1881–84. 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 to 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 occurred on Polish territory, where majority of Russian Jews lived then, and included the Białystok pogrom of 1906, in which up to a hundred Jews were killed and many more wounded.

A Bundist demonstration, 1917

Haskalah and Halakha

Main article: Haskalah

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. Polish Jews generally were less influenced by Hasklah, rather focusing on a strong continuation of their religious lives based on Halakha ("Jewish law") following primarily Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, and also adapting to the new Religious Zionism of the Mizrachi movement later 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 socialist party as well as the religious Polish Mizrahi, and the increasingly popular General Zionists. Jews also took up socialism, forming the Bund labor union which supported assimilation and the rights of labor. The Folkspartei (People’s Party) advocated for its part cultural autonomy and resistance to assimilation. In 1912, Agudat Israel, a religious party came into existence.

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

Interwar period 1918–39

Main article: History of Poland (1918-1939)

Independence and Polish Jews

Jews also played a role in the fight for independence in 1918, some joining Józef Piłsudski, 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 West became alarmed by reports about alleged massive pogroms in Poland against Jews. Pressure for government action reached the point where president Woodrow Wilson sent an official commission to investigate the issue. The commission, led by Henry Morgenthau, Sr., announced that the reports of pogroms were exaggerated, and in some cases may even have been fabricated (Morgenthau Report). It identified eight major incidents in years 1918–19, and estimated the number of victims at 200–300 Jews. Four of these were attributed to the actions of deserters and undisciplined individual soldiers, none were blamed on official government policy. Among the incidents, in Pińsk a Polish officer accused a group of Jewish communists of plotting against the Poles, shooting 35 of them. In Lviv (then Lemberg) in 1918, after the Polish army captured the city, hundreds of people were killed in the chaos, among them about 72 Jews. In Warsaw soldiers of Blue Army assaulted Jews on the streets, but they were punished by military authorities. Many other events in Poland were later found to have been exaggerated, especially by contemporary newspapers like New York Times, although serious abuses against the Jews, including pogroms, continued elsewhere, especially in the Ukraine[1]. The result of the concern over the fate of the Jews of Poland was a series of explicit clauses in the Paris Peace Conference protecting the rights of minorities in Poland. In 1921 the March Constitution gave the Jews the same legal rights as other citizens and guaranteed them religious tolerance.

Hasidic school children in Łódź, circa the 1910s.

Jewish and Polish culture

Template:Main2 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 193738 there were 226 elementary schools and 12 high schools as well as 14 vocational schools with either Yiddish or Hebrew as the instructional language. Jewish political parties, both the Socialist General Jewish Labor Union (The Bund), as well as parties of the Zionist right and left wing and religious conservative movements, were represented in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) as well as in the regional councils.

The Jewish cultural scene was particularly vibrant. There were many Jewish publications and over 116 periodicals. Yiddish authors, most notably Isaac Bashevis Singer, went on to achieve international acclaim as classic Jewish writers, and in I.B. Singer's case, win the 1978 Nobel Prize. Other Jewish authors of the period, like Bruno Schulz or Julian Tuwim, were less well-known internationally, but made important contributions to Polish literature. Yiddish theatre also flourished, Poland had 15 Yiddish theatres and theatrical groups. Warsaw was home to the most important Yiddish theater troupe of the time, the Vilna Troupe, which staged the first performance of The Dybbuk in 1920 at the Elyseum Theatre.

Rising Anti-Semitism

Main article: Anti-Semitism

As the Second Republic matured, 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 government, and the fact that a substantial proportion of Jews lived separate 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 Józef Piłsudski (1926–35), who opposed anti-Semitism, they deteriorated after his death. Academic harassment, anti-Jewish riots, and semiofficial or unofficial quotas (Numerus clausus) introduced in 1937 in some universities halved the number of Jews in Polish universities between independence and the late 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 during this entire period. 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 Białystok 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 (1939–45)

Main article: History of Poland (1939-1945)
File:Poland Bekanntmachung.jpg
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 - Częstochowa 9/24/42

The Polish September campaign

Main article: 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 noncommissioned 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

Main article: Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union
Major Jewish Ghettos in Poland and Eastern Europe

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 Katyń Massacre there were 500–600 Jews. Between 1939 and 1941 between 100,000 and 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 Władysław 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

Template:Main3 The Polish Jewish community suffered the most in the Holocaust. About 6 million Polish citizens perished during the war, half of them (3 million) being the Polish Jews (all but about 300,000–500,000 of the Jewish population) were killed at the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór, Chełmno or died of starvation in ghettos[2]. 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[3]) and 1,600 (Jan T. Gross) 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[4]. 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 the Lódź Ghetto, the second largest, holding about 160,000. Other Polish cities with large Jewish ghettos included Białystok, Częstochowa, 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 kept the inhabitants at about the same number. Average food rations in 1941 for Jews in Warsaw were limited to 253 kcal and 669 kcal for Poles as opposed to 2,613 kcal for Germans. On July 22, 1942, the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants began; during the next 52 days (until 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 soldiers, 200 soldiers of the Latvian Schutzmannschaften Battalions, 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 ŻOB (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Jewish Combat Organisation), 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 of 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.

The fate of the Warsaw Ghetto was similar to that of the other ghettos in which Jews were concentrated. With the decision of Nazi Germany to begin the Final Solution, the destruction of the Jews of Europe, Aktion Reinhard began in 1942, with the opening of the extermination camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, followed by Auschwitz-Birkenau. The mass deportation of Jews from ghettos to these camps, such as happened at the Warsaw Ghetto, soon followed, and more than 1.7 million Jews were killed at the Aktion Reinhard camps by October 1943 alone.

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) 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 organized a resistance movement inside the camp itself[5]. The Polish government in exile was also the only government to set up an organization (Żegota) specifically aimed at helping the Jews in Poland.

Communist rule: 1945–89

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 Soviet 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 postwar peak, there were 180,000–240,000 Jews in Poland settled mostly in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków, and Wrocław.

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 prewar 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 and 1948. Their departure was largely organized by the Zionist activists in Poland such as Adolf Berman and Icchak Cukierman 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 and 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 Żydów Polskich, CKŻP) headed by Bund activist Szloma Herszenhorn. CKŻP was providing legal, educational, social care, cultural, and propaganda services. A countrywide Jewish Religious Community, led by Dawid 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 1949–50.

A number of Polish Jews participated in the establishment of the Communist regime in People's Republic of Poland between 1944 and 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 Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (UB). After 1956, during the process of destalinisation in Poland under Władysław Gomułka's regime, some Urząd Bezpieczeństwa 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 anticommunists (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 Kamińska, the Jewish Historical Institute, 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 1967–89

In 1967, following the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states, Poland broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. However, since the Arabs were seen as Soviet satellite states, many Poles cheered the Israelis. By 1968 most of Poland's 40,000 remaining Jews were assimilated into Polish society, but over the next year they became the center of a centrally organized campaign, equating Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland.

File:1968 Poland banners.jpg
Banners from March 1968. They read: Anti-Semitism: no, Anti-Zionism: yes, Zionists go to Moshe Dayan, and Students, don't let yourselves be provoked.

In March of 1968 student-led demonstrations in Warsaw (March 1968 events) gave the government of Władysław Gomułka an excuse to channel public antigovernment sentiment into another avenue. Thus Gomułka's security chief, Mieczysław 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 1968–70. 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 organizations which encouraged anticommunist opposition inside Poland.

During the late 1970s some Jewish activists were engaged in the anticommunist 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 preferring 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 1944–89 period, suppressed by Communist censorship have been re-evaluated and publicly discussed (like the Massacre in Jedwabne, the Koniuchy Massacre, the Kielce pogrom, the Auschwitz cross, and Polish-Jewish wartime relations in general).

However the very same freedom of speech and advent of multiparty democracy allowed a proliferation of nationalist and populist political parties like Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish families) and Samoobrona (Self-Defence) both of which are represented in parliment (Sejm) having collectively received nearly 20% of the votes in 2005, and which employ xenophobic and anti-semitic propaganda as one of their tools, often accusing their opponents of being a part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy aiming to take control of Poland (called "Żydokomuna"). While there has been anti-Semitic vandalism in Poland in recent years, violent anti-Semitism is extremely rare, though according to a 2005 survey, the portion of the population holding anti-Semitic views is somewhat higher than in many other European countries[6].

In the meantime Jewish religious life has been revived with the help of the Ronald Lauder Foundation, the Polish Jewish community employed 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 established 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 Kraków. Kraków became home to the Judaica Foundation, which has sponsored a wide range of cultural and educational programs on Jewish themes for a predominantly Polish audience. The Polish government will finance the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Poland was the first Communist Bloc country to recognize Israel again in 1986, and restored full diplomatic relations in 1990. Government relations between Poland and Israel are steadily improving, resulting in the mutual visits of the presidents and the ministers of foreign affairs.

File:Auschwitz march of the living 2000 friends.jpg
Transparent reads: Friends of Israel from Poland during the Polish-Jewish March of the Living, Auschwitz, 2000

There have been a number of Holocaust remembrance activities in Poland in recent years. In September 2000, dignitaries from Poland, Israel, the United States, and other countries (including Prince Hassan of Jordan) gathered in the city of Oświęcim (the site of the Auschwitz camp) to commemorate the opening of the refurbished Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue and the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The synagogue, the sole synagogue in Oświęcim 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 Oświęcim. 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. Additionally, in April of each year, the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, draws Poles as well as marchers from Israel and elsewhere. There are also more general activities, like the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków.

In 2000, Poland's Jewish population is generally estimated to have risen to somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 — most living in Warsaw, Wrocław, and Bielsko-Biała, though there are no census figures that would give an exact number. According to the Polish Moses Schorr Centre and other Polish sources; however, this may represent an undercount of the actual number of Jews living in Poland, since many are not religious. The Centre estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Jews in Poland, of which 30,000 to 40,000 have some sort of direct connection to the Jewish community, either religiously or culturally.

See also

In addition to the links in the article above:



Further reading


  1. ^ Andrzej Kapiszewski's article on the reports of the situation of the Jews (pdf)
  2. ^  Death tolls in the Holocaust, from the US Holocaust Museum
  3. ^ Summary of IPN's final findings on Jedwabne (English)
  4. ^  Discussion of IPN findings
  5. ^  Note of December 10th, 1942, addressed by the Polish Government to the Governments of the united nations concerning the mass extermination of Jews

External links


History of Polish Jews

World War II and the Holocaust

Contemporary Polish Jewish organizations and life