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Wladyslaw T. Bartoszewski

Man sweeping the street, Warsaw 1938. Photograph by Roman Freulich.
Source: SWC Archives #93-010

Street Scene, Warsaw 1938. Photograph by Roman Freulich.
Source: Source: SWC Archives #93-010

Polish-Jewish relations go back to the 10th century when the first Jewish communities appeared in the country. Poland lay between western and eastern markets and well-traveled trade routes soon developed across the country's plains. There was also considerable Arabian trade with northern and eastern Europe. The role of the Jews grew with the introduction of monetary trade. Soon there were Jews in charge of the mints producing coins bearing the Polish sovereign's name in Hebrew letters. Between the 10th and the 13th century the everyday language of the Jews was Slavonic, which was only later overtaken by Yiddish. The big development of the community occurred in the 13th century during the great migration wave from western Europe. Faced with growing religious intolerance and expulsion, which began during the Crusades and intensified in the 13th century, Jews began to move eastwards in large numbers.

In 1264, Boleslaus the Pious granted the Jews a privilege known as the Kalisz Statute. This, and the later Extended Privilege, became the two main documents regulating the Jewish legal and social position in Poland until the 18th century. The privileges ensured the personal protection of the Jews, their property, and religion. It allowed them to organize their communities according to principles of self-government, and to engage freely in trade and money-lending. Their main occupation for the next couple of centuries was trade. Many of them leased property, including the royal mint and salt mines, and collected customs and tolls. Few of them were engaged in agriculture, although some owned villages, manors, fish ponds and mills.

In the later Middle Ages, Jewish economic activity expanded to encompass fur-making, tailoring, tanning, and other crafts - all of which aroused the opposition of the Christian burghers. In the 14th and 15th centuries there were anti-Jewish riots in various cities as a result.

The 16th century witnessed a flood of immigrants as a result of widespread persecution and expulsions from Eastern Germany. The Jewish population increased to constitute five per cent of the overall population. The Polish rulers welcomed this influx which they considered to be beneficial to the country's economy and granted the Jews a variety of privileges. Even Spanish and Portuguese Jews found their way to Polish cities, despite the local resistance of burghers who feared Jewish competition and obtained privileges de non tolerandis Judaeis which forbade the Jews to reside in some towns. The result was often segregation of the Jews in separate quarters, or their settlement just outside the city walls, which were under the rule of the nobility and the Church.

The later centuries were characterized by the constant struggle between the townspeople and the Jews. The latter were often supported by the kings and the nobility who drew considerable benefits from the Jewish presence. The nobility was by law forbidden to trade (with the exception of grain and timber) and therefore relied largely on Jewish craftsmen and tradesmen residing on their estates. The Jews were also engaged in managing noble estates, and in toll and tax farming.

Selling apples in an open market, Warsaw 1938. Photograph by Roman Freulich.
Source: SWC Archives #93-010

Selling apples in an open market, Warsaw 1938. Photograph by Roman Freulich. Woman and children with arms raised surrendering during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April - May 1943. This photo was part of The Stroop Report.

The Jews who, unlike the burghers, did not compete with the nobility politically, operated in a sense outside the estate structure. They were not tied to the land like peasants. They did not have many of the rights enjoyed by the townsmen (as a result of the above-mentioned laws). On the other hand, they enjoyed self-governing autonomy under their own diet (between 1581 and 1764) and from 1588 were automatically ennobled if they embraced Christianity (1). During that time Polish Jews enjoyed more autonomy than anywhere else in Europe. Community elders took care of all internal matters, be they economic, legal, cultural or religious, and the Diet, the Council of the Four Lands, represented all the Jews in their relations with the Polish state. From the point of view of the monarch, the Council's most important function was to organise and collect the poll-tax from Polish Jews.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Jews entered into what may be described as a marriage of convenience with the nobility. As a result of the legal protection enjoyed by the Polish Jews, their economic co-operation with the magnates and their autonomy within the state, 16th and 17th century Poland was described as 'heaven for the Jews, paradise for the nobles, hell for the serfs.'

The Jewish community suffered greatly during the 1648 Cossack uprising which had been directed primarily against the Polish nobility. The Jews, perceived as allies of the nobles, were also victims of the revolt, during which about twenty per cent of them were killed.

The second half of the 17th and the 18th century brought a significant deterioration in the Jewish situation. Constant wars fought on Polish soil led to the pauperization of towns and practically paralysed all long distance and foreign trade. During that period many Jews became traveling craftsmen and petty traders, the so-called peddlars [sic], who moved between small towns and villages selling small items to the peasants and repairing things on the spot. They became indispensable to the rural economy as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, haberdashers, blacksmiths etc. The interdependence between Polish village and small Jewish town (shtetl) which was unique in Europe persisted until 1939.

In the 18th century Poland lost its independence following three partitions by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Polish Jews became subjects of foreign monarchs, some of whom - like Catherine the Great - had not previously ruled over Jews. They determined the legal position of the Jews until 1918, when Poland regained independence.

During the 19th century Jews ceased to be a feudal estate and gained civil rights (in Prussia in 1850, in Austria in 1867-8, partially in Russia in 1862). Their relations with the Poles were largely linked to the question of Polish independence. The Jews participated in two armed uprisings against the Tsars in 1830- 31 and 1863-64. The second half of the century witnessed an industrial revolution and the breakdown of traditional rural society. This resulted in the creation of a Jewish middle-class which was first glorified by the Poles as a harbinger of economic progress, but was soon criticised on the grounds that capitalism went against their traditional value-system. Any sign of Jewish co-operation with the (foreign) authorities was considered by the Poles to be detrimental to the central issue of independence and was regarded as unpatriotic. The accusation of lack of patriotism has been a constant one throughout the 20th century and was to intensify with the emergence of the concept of a communist-Jewish alliance, commonly referred to as 'Judeo-Communism.'

The Jews perceived the Poles in an equally stereotypical way. in early modern times the Jews considered all other nations to have been created for their benefit - 'were it not that there is some good [that comes from them] they would not have been created at all' - preached Rabbi Levi Yitshak of Berdichev to his followers at the end of the 18th century. (2) In the 19th century this image was enriched by some new elements according to which all Gentiles could be divided into revolutionary philo-semites and reactionary anti-semites. The transformation of the country from the feudal system of complementary estates to the modern world was characterised by the growth of nationalism, industrial development, and economic competition. The difficult adaptation to the new socio-economic structure raised a variety of problems including the acculturation, assimilation and secularisation of the Jews. The newly emerging national identities put great strain on Polish-Jewish relations. The new Polish and Jewish political parties fought the prolonged battle with each other which continued until the outbreak of the Second World War. Polish nationalism and especially the National Democratic Party of Roman Dmowski had a dramatic and adverse effect on Jewish life in Poland, and modern political anti-semitism established itself as a significant force.

The traditional Jewish responses to the Gentile world: the fight for civil rights, emancipation and assimilation, proved ineffective. The anti-Jewish policies of Tsar Alexander III, largely continued by his successor Nicholas II (under whom most of Polish Jewry lived, since they inhabited the area of Poland incorporated into Russia during the partitions), prompted the emergence of Zionism and Jewish socialism, represented by the Bund, and the mass emigration to the United States and Western Europe.

After the re-creation of the Polish Republic in 1918 its Jewish community was still the largest in Europe, constituting approximately ten per cent of the Polish population. Most of them lived in the cities although almost a quarter lived in villages, which allowed for the continuation of the unique shtetl communities. The overwhelming majority of Jews worked in commerce, industry, and the professions and in some areas the Jews constituted a majority. Tailoring and shoemaking were typical Jewish occupations, as was shopkeeping. At the same time 56 per cent of all doctors, 43 per cent of teachers, 33 per cent of lawyers, and 22 per cent of journalists were Jewish. Most Jews belonged to the petty-bourgeoisie and were not well off. (3) Depressed economic conditions and anti-semitism, which was rampant in Poland especially between 1918-1923 and 1936-38 forced many Jews to emigrate. As Ezra Mendelsohn stated 'The experience of Polish Jews between the wars was a combination of suffering, some of which was caused by anti-semitism, and of achievement made possible by Polish freedom, pluralism, and tolerance.(4) Despite the anti-semitism, Jewish politics, culture, and religion flourished and made for a spiritually rich and varied life. Jewish education and scholarship prospered. The press was in three languages (Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish). Social, communal, political and religious organisations blossomed in a way which made autonomous Jewish life in Poland richer and more interesting than that in Western Europe and America.

Almost 40 per cent of the pre-war Polish population belonged to ethnic minorities (apart from the Jews there were Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Germans, and others). After some hesitation the Polish government opted for the 'nation state' instead of a 'state of nationalities' which made the lives of minorities more difficult.

Almost the entire three and a half million strong Jewish population perished during the Second World War. There are no accurate figures about the number of survivors but it is estimated that only 100,000 of them remained in Poland by 1945. The majority of those left soon after because they did not want to live on amongst the ashes of the community, because they feared Communist power, and because they were shocked by the anti-semitic violence which swept the country in 1946, (especially after the Kielce pogrom, in July 1946, during which 42 Jews were killed).

Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw T. Chap, in The Convent at Auschwitz. New York: G. Braziller, 1991.
*Title added by the staff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center


  1. See A. Ciechanowiecki, 'A footnote to the history of the integration of converts into the ranks of the szlachta in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth', The Jews in Poland ed. C. Abramsky et. al. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 64-9.
  2. M.J. Rosman, 'A Minority Views the Majority: Jewish Attitudes Towards the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and Interaction with Poles', in POLIN: A journal of Polish-Jewish Studies, vol. 4, 1989 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), pp. 31-41.
  3. E. Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), pp. 25-8.
  4. E. Mendelsohn, 'Interwar Poland: good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?', in Abramsky et. al., op. cit. pp. 138-9.

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