Early History of the Jews in Poland

By Mike Rosenzweig


Artur Szyk: "Kalisz Statute" privelege granted to the Jews by king Boleslaus the Pious


The earliest verifiable records of Jewish settlement in Poland date from the late 11th century. However, it is generally believed that Jews arrived in Poland much earlier. Many scholars discard the theory that a large number of followers of the Judaic faith came to Poland from the east in about 965 after the fall of the Khazar state. While it is true that the rulers of Khazar converted to Judaism, there is substantial disagreement amongst researchers as to whether or not their subjects  converted in significant numbers.


The first Jews to arrive on Polish territory were merchants who were referred to as Radhanites. The Radhanites were merchants whose trade extended over vast distances between east ans west. They were fluent in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Spanish, "Franklish" and "Slav" languages. Their entrance occurred simultaneously with the formation of the Polish state. One of them was Ibrahim ibn Jacob, the author of the first extensive account about Poland. In the summer of 965 or 966 Jacob made a trade and diplomatic journey from his native Toledo in Moslem Spain to the Holy Roman Empire and Slavonic countries.


Feudal disintegration, the birth of towns and the development of commodity money relations favored the settlement by Jews in Poland. Nevertheless, the influx of Jews was brought about mostly by their persecution in Western Europe, which gained in force during the crusades. Among the first Jews to arrive in Poland (in 1097 or 1098) were those banished from Prague. Jews from Bohemia and Germany settled primarily in Silesia. They usually engaged in trade and agriculture and some owned landed estates. By the middle of the14th century they had occupied thirty-five Silesian towns. Jewish settlement in other parts of Poland proceeded at a much slower pace and the first mention of Jewish settlers in Plock dates from 1237, in Kalisz from 1287 and a Zydowska (Jewish) street in Krakow in 1304.

Earlier, Mieszko III, the prince of Great Poland between 1138 and 1202 and the ruler of all Poland in 1173-77 and 1198-1202, employed Jews in his mint as engravers of dies and technical supervisors of all workers. Until 1206, Jews worked on commission for other contemporary Polish princes, including Casimir the Just, Boleslaus the Tall and Ladislaus Spindleshanks. From pure silver they struck coins called bracteates, which they emblazoned with inscriptions in Hebrew.


In 1264, a successor to Mieszko III in Great Poland, Boleslaus the Pious, granted Jews a privilege known as the Kalisz statute. According to this statute, (which was modeled on similar decrees issued in Austria, Bohemia and Hungary) Jews were exempted from municipal and castellan jurisdiction and were subject only to princely courts. The same statute granted Jews free trade and the right to conduct moneylending operations which were, however, limited only to loans made on security of " immovable property".


The Kalisz statute, which described the Jews as "slaves of the treasury", ensured protection of persons, protection of property and freedom in conducting religious rites. They were also given the opportunity to organize their internal life on the principle of self-government of their individual communities. Similar privileges were granted to the Silesian Jews by the local princes, Prince Henry Probus of Wroclaw in 1273-90, Henry of Glogow in 1274 and 1299, Henry of Legnica in 1290 - 95 and Bolko of Legnica and Wroclaw in 1295.


These privileges resulted in hostile reactions against the Jews by the Catholic clergy. In 1267, the Council of Wroclaw created segregated Jewish quarters in citiesand towns and ordered Jews to wear a special emblem. Jews were banned from holding offices where Christians would be subordinated to them and were forbidden to build more than one prayer house in each town. These resolutions, however, though they were reiterated during the subsequent councils in Buda in 1279 and Leczyca in 1285, were generally not enforced due to the profits which the Jews' economic activity yielded to the princes.


The turn of the 13th and 14th centuries saw the end of feudal disintegration in Poland. In the reunited kingdom the role of towns and the burghers grew. The rulers, interested in the development of a commodity money economy, encouraged Jewish immigration. The most outstanding of those rulers was Casimir the Great who in 1334, a year after ascending the throne, acknowledged the privilege granted the Jews in Great Poland by Boleslaus the Pious in 1264. As a result Jews were exempted from German law and came under the jurisdiction of the voivodes.


In the 14th and 15th centuries the main occupation of Jews in Poland was local and long distance trade. Jews performed the role of middlemen in trade between Poland and Hungary, Turkey and the Italian colonies on the Black Sea. They also took part in the Baltic trade and commercial operations in Silesia. Owing to their links with Jewish communities in other countries as well as experience in trade and moneylending operations, Jewish merchants gained the advantage over local merchants, both in European and overseas trade.


Following protests by the rich Polish burghers and the clergy, the scope of credit operations conducted by the Jews was seriously curtailed in the early 15th century. In 1423 the statute of Warka forbade Jews the granting of loans against letters of credit or mortgage and limited their operations exclusively to loans made on security of moveable property.


The amassed capital was invested by the Jews in leaseholds. In the 14th and 15th centuries rich Jewish merchants and moneylenders leased the royal mint, salt mines and the collecting of customs and tolls. The most famous of them were Jordan and his son Lewko of Krakow in the 14th century and Jakub Slomkowicz of Luck, Wolczko of Drohobycz, Natko of Lvov, Samson of Zydaczow, Josko of Hrubieszow and Szania of Belz in the 15th century.


For example, Wolczko of Drohobycz, King Ladislaus Jagiello's broker, was the owner of several villages in the Ruthenian voivodship and the soitys (administrator) of the village of Werbiz. Also Jews from Grodno were in this period owners of villages, manors, meadows, fish ponds and mills. However until the end of the 15th century agriculture as a source of income played only a minor role among Jewish families. More important were crafts for the needs of both their fellow Jews and the Christian population (fur making, tanning, tailoring).


The expansion of the scope of economic activity carried out by the Jews sharpened competition between them and their Christian counterparts. In the 14th century anti-Jewish riots broke out in Silesia which was ruled by the Bohemian-German dynasty of Luxembourg. These reached their climax during the epidemics of the Black Death when, as earlier in Western Europe, Jews were accused of systematically poisoning the wells. In 1349 pogroms took place in many towns in Silesia and some of the refugees from those towns, as well as Jews banished from West European countries, sought shelter from persecution in Poland.


Streams of Jewish immigrants headed east to Poland during the reign of Casimir the Great who encouraged Jewish settlement by extending royal protection to them. First mentions about Jewish settlements in Lvov (1356), Sandomierz (1367), Kazimierz near Krakow (1386) and several other cities date from the second half of the 14th century. In the 15th century Jews appeared in many cities in Great Poland, Little Poland, Kuyavia, Pomerania and Red Ruthenia. In the 1450s Polish towns gave shelter to Jewish refugees from Silesia which was then ruled by the Habsburgs.


In 1454 anti-Jewish riots flared up in Wroclaw and other Silesian cities. They were inspired by the papal envoy, the Franciscan friar John of Capistrano. Though his main aim was to instigate a popular rebellion against the Hussites, he also carried out a ruthless campaign against the Jews whom he accused of profaning the Christian religion. As a result of Capistrano's endeavors, Jews were banished from Lower Silesia. Shortly after, John of Capistrano, invited to Poland by Zbigniew Olesnicki, conducted a similar campaign in Krakow and several other cities where, however, anti-Jewish unrest took on a much less acute form.


Forty years later, in 1495, Jews were ordered out of the center of Krakow and allowed to settle in the "Jewish town" of Kazimierz. In the same year, Alexander Jagiellon, following the example of Spanish rulers, banished the Jews from Lithuania. For several years they took shelter in Poland until they were allowed back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1503.


Towards the end of the Middle Ages Jews lived in 85 towns in Poland and their total number amounted to 18,000 in Poland and 6,000 in Lithuania, which represented merely 0.6 per cent of the total population of the two states. The 16th and the first half of the 17th century saw increased settlement and a relatively fast rate of natural population growth among both Polish and Lithuanian Jews. The number of immigrants also grew, especially in the 16th century.


Among the new arrivals there were not only the Ashkenazim, banished from the countries belonging to the Habsburg monarchy, that is Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Lower Silesia (in the 1580's the whole of Silesia had only two Jewish communities, in Glogow and Biala), but also the Sephardim who were driven away from Spain and Portugal. Moreover many Sephardic Jews from Italy and Turkey came to Poland of their own free will.


Towards the end of the 16th century the flood of immigration abated and new communities were founded generally as a result of the movement of the population from the crowded districts to new quarters. In around 1648 Jews lived in over half of all cities in the Commonwealth, but the center of Jewish life moved from the western and central parts of Poland to eastern voivodships where two out of three townships had Jewish communities. Beginning in the middle of the16th century Jews started to settle in the countryside in larger numbers. In the middle of the 17th century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland, which meant some five per cent of the total population of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.


The legal position of the Jews was still regulated by royal and princely privileges and Sejm statutes, with the difference that in 1539 Polish Jews from private towns and villages became subordinated to the judiciary and administration of the owners. From that time on, an important role was played by privileges granted by individual lords. On top of that, the legal status of Jews was still influenced by synodal resolutions and the common law.


All this amounted to a considerable differentiation in the legal position of the Jewish population. In some cities Jews were granted municipal citizenship, without, however, the right to apply for municipal positions. In many towns, especially the gentry towns, Jews were given complete freedom in carrying out trade and crafts, while in others these freedoms as well as the right to settle were restricted. Finally there were also towns where Jews were not allowed to settle.


In the 16th century more than twenty towns obtained the privilegia de non tolerandis Judaeis. These included Miedzyrzec in 1520, Warsaw in 1525, Sambor in 1542, Grodek in 1550, Vilna in 1551, Bydgoszcz in 1556, Stryj in 1567, Biez, Krosno and Tarnogrod 1569, Pilzno in 1577, Drohobycz in 1578, Mikolajow in 1596, Checiny in 1597. In practice, however, this ban was inconsistently observed. In other locations, separate suburbs, "Jewish towns", were formed (for example in Lublin, Piotrkow, Bydgoszcz, Drohobycz and Sambor) or the Jews fought for and won the revocation of those discriminatory regulations, for example in Stryj and Tarnogrod. The restrictions imposed on the territorial expansion of Jewish quarters forced the Jews to seek the privlegia de non tolerandis christianis, or bans on Christian settlement in Jewish quarters. Such privileges were won by the Jewish town of Kazimierz in 1568, the Poznan community in 1633 and all Lithuanian communities in 1645.


Between 1501 and 1648 Jews further intensified their economic activity. This was accompanied by a basic change in the occupational structure of the Jewish population in comparison with the previous period. The primary sources of income for Jewish families were crafts and local trade. The magnates for whom Jewish traders and craftsmen were an important element in their rivalry with the royal towns, generally favored the development of Jewish crafts.


On the other hand, in larger royal towns as well as in the ecclesiastical towns Jewish craftsmen and also Christian craftsmen who were not members of a guild (known as partacze or patchers) were exposed to permanent harassment from the municipal authorities and the Christian guilds. They could carry out their occupations only clandestinely. In a small number of towns, for example in Grodno, Lvov, Luck and Przemysl, some Jewish craftsmen managed to wrest for themselves the right to perform their trade from the local guilds, but that only after having to pay heavy charges.


Despite these difficulties Jewish crafts, which were encouraged by royal starosts and owners of gentry jurisdictions, not only maintained their state of ownership but expanded it considerably. In the middle of the 17th century Polish and Lithuanian Jews practiced over 50 trades (43 in Red Ruthenia) and were represented in all branches of craftsmanship. The most numerous of them were those who made food, leather and textile products, clothing, objects of gold and pewter and glass manufacturers. In the first half of the 17th century Jewish craftsmen founded their own guilds in Krakow, Lvov and Przemysl. In Biala Cerkiew several Jewish craftsmen (tailors and slaughterers) belonged to Christian guilds in 164I.


In the 16th and the first half of the 17th century Jews played an outstanding role in Poland's foreign trade. They contributed to the expansion of contacts with both the east and the west and were instrumental in importing foreign commercial experience to Poland. Particularly animated trade contacts were maintained by Jewish merchants with England and the Netherlands through Gdansk, and Hungary and Turkey through Lvov and Krakow. Jews exported not only Polish agricultural produce and cattle but also ready-made products, particularly furs and clothing. In return they brought in goods from east and west which were much sought after in Poland. Jewish wholesalers appeared at large fairs in Venice, Florence, Leipzig, Hamburg, Frankfurt on Main, Wroclaw and Gdansk. In order to expand their trade contacts they entered into partnerships. For example in the mid-16th century Jewish merchants from Brest Litovsk, Tykocin, Grodno and Sledzew founded a company for trade with Gdansk, while in 1616 a similar company was established by merchants from Lvov, Lublin, Krakow and Poznan. At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, in many towns Jewish and Christian merchants set up joint ad hoc companies in order to conclude profitable financial operations. In European and overseas trade only a relatively small number of Jews were engaged. The most numerous group among Jewish merchants were owners of shops as well as stall keepers and vendors whose whole property was what they put on show on the stall in front of their houses or on a cart, or what they carried in a sack on their backs.


The expansion of Jewish trade troubled the burghers for whom Jewish competition was all the more painful since they now had yet another rival in the developing gentry trade. The struggle of part of the burghers against Jewish merchants manifested itself among other things in attempts at curtailing Jewish trade. The monarchs, though generally favorably disposed towards the Jews, under the pressure from the burghers and the clergy passed a number of decrees which restricted Jewish wholesale trade to some commodities or else to certain quotas of purchases they were allowed to make. More severe restrictions were contained in agreements concluded between municipal authorities and Jewish communities, though these were seldom observed in practice. In private towns, Jewish trade, which yielded considerable profit to the owners, could develop without any obstacles.


The Jews' trading activity also encompassed credit operations. The richest Jewish merchants were often at the same time financiers. The most famous Jewish bankers were the Fiszels in Krakow and the Nachmanowiczs in Lvov as well as Mendel Izakowicz and Izak Brodawka in Lithuania. Those and a number of other Jews pioneered centralized credit operations in Poland. Though banking institutions created by them mainly financed large Jewish tenancies and wholesale trade, as a sideline they also lent money to the gentry on pledge of incoming crops and to Jewish entrepreneurs. A positive role was also played by much smaller loans granted by Jews to many small craft and trade shops. In many cases these loans were instrumental in opening a business. However, the other side of the matter must not be overlooked. The lending of money at high interest led to the impoverishment of both Jewish and Christian debtors. Some of them were put in prison as a result and their families were left with no means of subsistence. This money lending activity aggravated prejudice against Jews among the burghers, something which had always been there anyway due to their religious and traditional separateness.


An important field of the Jews' economic activity were tenancies. In the period under discussion, next to rich merchants and bankers who held in lease large economic enterprises and the collecting of incomes from customs and taxes, there appeared a numerous group of small lease holders of mills, breweries and inns. There also increased the number of Jewish subtenants, scribes and tax collectors employed by rich holders. Some of the latter sometimes attained important positions. For example, in 1525, during the ceremonies connected with the Prussian Homage, without relinquishing his Jewish faith the main collector of Jewish taxes in Lithuania, Michal Ezofowicz was knighted and given the crest of Leliwa. His brother Abraham Ezofowicz, who had been baptized, was also knighted and granted the starosty of Minsk and the office of Lithuanian deputy treasurer.


In the first quarter of the 16th century, Jewish lease holders performed their functions as full-fledged heads of enterprises subordinated to them, for example salt mines and customs offices. "In this period," wrote in 1521 Justus Ludwik Decius, the chronicler of Sigismund the Old, "Jews are gaining in importance; there is hardly any toll or tax for which they would not be responsible or at least to which they would not aspire. Christians are generally subordinate to the Jews. Among the rich and noble families of the Commonwealth you will not find one who would not favor the Jews on their estates and give them power over Christians."


The gentry, who in the 16th century conducted an unrelentless struggle against the magnates, came out against the leasing of salt mines, customs and tolls to the Jews by the lords and the king. Under the influence of the gentry, the diet of Piotrkow in 1538 forbade Jews to take in lease public incomes. This ban was reiterated several times by subsequent diets but it proved only partly effective. In 1581 the autonomous representation of the Jews (the Diet of the Four Lands), which gathered in Lublin, took a decision which, under penalty of anathema, forbade fellow Jews taking the lease of salt mines, mints, taxes on the sale of liquor and customs and tolls in Great Poland, Little Poland and Mazovia. This ban was justified in the following way: "People fired by the greed of great income and wealth owing to those large tenancies, may bring unto the whole [Jewish population]- God forbid-a great danger."


From that time on, Jewish lease holders were active only in Red Ruthenia, Podolya, Volhynia, west bank Ukraine and Lithuania. In the tenancies supervised by the Jews as well as in the estates run by the gentry, feudal exploitation of the peasant serfs often led to local revolts which in the Ukraine turned into a Cossack and peasant uprising. The cooperation of the Jewish lease holders with the magnates in the latter's colonial policy caused these revolts often to be held under the slogan of struggle against the Poles and Jews.


Next to crafts, trade, banking and leasing operations, agriculture had become an increasingly important source of income for the Jewish population in the eastern regions of the Commonwealth. Maciej Miedhowita, author of the Polish Chronicle (1519), when mentioning Jews, says that in Ruthenia they were engaged not only in moneylending and trade but also soil cultivation. In towns Jews owned fields and gardens. In Chelm in 1636 Jewish landless peasants were forced to do serf labor. In villages Jews also toiled the land adjoining the inns, mills and breweries they held in lease.


Some Jews earned their living as paid kahal officials, musicians, horse drivers, factors on gentry estates and in the houses of rich merchants, as middlemen known as barishniki, servants, salesmen, etc. There was also a large group of beggars and cripples without any means of subsistence. Only some of them obtained from time to time assistance from charity organizations and were given a place to sleep in an almshouse. In view of the growing financial differentiation among the Jews social conflicts intensified. The middle of the 16th century saw the beginning of opposition by Jewish craftsmen against individuals who placed their capital in leather, textile and clothing manufacture. The struggle of the populace against rich merchants and bankers was reflected in the activity of Salomon Efraim of Keczyca, an outstanding plebeian preacher. In his book Ir Gibborim (The Town of Heroa), published in 1580 in Basle, he sharply criticized the exploitation of the poor by the rich. He also attacked the rabbis who tried to gain the favor of the wealthy Jews. He presented his views not only in his books and lectures in the synagogue, but also during fairs which were attended by numerous Jews.


There are records of joint revolts by Jewish craftsmen and Christian "patcher" against the guild elders. There were also joint revolts of the Jews and the burghers against the gentry. This found expression in an agreement which in 1589 Jews in Kamionka Strumilowa concluded with the municipal authorities "with the consent of all the populace". The councilors "accepted the Jews into their own laws and freedoms while they [the Jews] undertook to carry the same burdens as the burghers". Jews pledged themselves to help in keeping order and cleanliness in the town, hold guard and take part in anti-flood operations together with Christians. The latter promised that they would "defend those Jews as our real neighbors from intrusions and violence of both the gentry and soldiers. They would defend them and prevent all harm done to them... since they are our neighbors."


The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by expansion of their self-government organization. In the 16th century its structure had no equal in all of Europe. As in the Middle Ages, every autonomous Jewish community was governed by its kahal or a collegiate body composed of elders elected as a rule from among the local wealthiest The kahal organized funerals and administered cemeteries, schools, baths, slaughterhouses and the sale of kosher meat. In the closed "Jewish cities" it also took care of cleanliness and order in the Jewish quarter and the security of its inhabitants. To this should be added the administering of charities such as the organization of hospitals and other welfare institutions and the dowering of poor brides. Another important function was to establish the amount of taxes each individual household in the given community was to pay.


The further hierarchic development of the Jewish autonomous institutions was connected with the difficulties which in the early 16th century the authorities encountered in exacting taxes. Between 1518 and 1522 Sigismund Augustus decreed the foundation of four Jewish regions called lands. Each of these lands was to elect at a special diet its elders, tax assessors and tax collectors. In 1530 the king established a permanent arbitration tribunal based in Lublin which was to examine disputes between Jews from various lands. In 1579 Stephen Bathory called into being a central representation of Jews from Poland and Lithuania with responsibility for exacting poll taxes which had been introduced for the Jewish population in 1549. This institution, known as the Diet of the Four Lands (Va 'ad Arba Arazot), was constituted at a congress in Lublin in 1581. The Diet of the Four Lands, which usually was summoned once a year, elected from among its number a council, known as the Jewish Generality. The latter was headed by a Marshal General and included a Rabbi General, Scribe General and Treasurers General. The diets were attended by representatives of both Poland and Lithuania until 1623 when, following the establishment of a separate taxation tribunal for Lithuanian Jews, a separate diet of Lithuanian Jews was also set up. These institutions continued in existence until 1764. The diet of Polish Jews usually convened in Lublin, sometimes in Jaroslaw or Tyszowce, while the Lithuanian diets debated most often in Brest Litovsk.


The diet or Va 'ad represented all the Jews. It carried out negotiations with central and local authorities through its liaison officers (shtadlans) who, by their contacts with deputies, tried to influence the decisions concerning Jews taken by the Sejm and local diets of the gentry. During the sessions of the ra 'ads not only fiscal matters were discussed but also those related to the well-being and cultural life of the Jewish population in the Commonwealth. They took decisions on the lease of state products, the amount of interests in credit transactions among Jews, the protection of creditors against dishonest bankrupts, the upbringing of young people, the protection of the family, etc.


The Va 'ad also took decisions on the taxation of the Jewish population, for example for defensive needs of the country. The main tax was the poll tax. In addition the Jews, like the rest of the burghers, paid taxes for the city's defenses. Besides taxes, all townsfolk, irrespective of religion, were obliged to perform certain tasks and contribute money in order to build and expand defensive systems and maintain permanent crews of guards. The Jews, like the Christian population, had personally to contribute to the town's defense preparedness. In the Jewish quarter the most important structure was the fortified synagogue. In the 16th and 17th centuries several dozen such buildings were erected in Poland's eastern borderlands, including such places as Brody, Buczacz, Czortkow, Husiatyri, Jaroslaw, Leszniow, Lublin, Luck, Podkamien, Pomorzany, Sokal, Stryj, Szarogrod, Szczebrzeszyn, Szydlow, Tarnopol, Zamosc and Zolkiew.


One of the main duties of all townsfolk, including the Jews, was to defend the city as a fortified point of resistance in case enemy troops succeeded in forcing their way through into the country. In the early 16th century in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to this was added the duty of providing a contingent of soldiers. After 1571 this duty was changed to appropriate money dues. For the first time Jews were ordered to provide an army contingent in 1514 but this obligation began to be exacted more consistently only after 1648. As was the case with the remaining population Jews acquired their military training during obligatory exercises and their fighting preparedness and ability to wield arms were tested during special parade.

The first mention of a Jew's direct participation in battle against enemies of the Commonwealth dates from the middle of the16th century. During the reign of Stephen Bathory there served in the Polish army one Mendel Izakowicz from Kazimierz near Krakow. He was a bridge builder and military engineer and during the war against Muscovy rendered considerable services to the Polish army. During the war with Muscovy in 1610-12 in one regiment only, probably one of those belonging to Lisowski's light cavalry, more than ten Jews served at one time. A certain number of Jews also fought on the Polish side in the Smolensk war of 1632-34 and some of them were taken prisoner by the enemy.


The year 1648, when the Cossack uprising under Bohdan Chmielnicki broke up, was a breakthrough in the history of both the Commonwealth and Polish Jewry. The country was plunged into economic crisis made worse by war devastation. The wars against the Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the Tartars, which Poland fought almost uninterruptedly between 1648 and 1717, brought in their wake a permanent downfall of towns and agriculture and decimated the population. During Bohdan Chmielnicki's revolt and wars against the Ukraine and Russia Jewish communities in the areas occupied by enemy troops were completely wiped out. Some Jews were murdered, some emigrated to central Poland and the rest left for Western Europe. The drop in the number of the Jewish population during the Ukrainian uprisings (1648-54) is estimated as amounting to some 20 to 25 per cent, that is between 100,000 and 125,000. A rapid growth in the number of the Jewish population was recorded only in the 18th century, after 1717. It is estimated that in 1766, when the census of Jews obliged to pay poll taxes was concluded, there were in the Commonwealth as a whole some 750,000 Jews, which constituted seven per cent of the total population of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. According to Rafal Mahler, at this time some 29 per cent of all Jews lived in ethnically Polish areas, 44 per cent in Lithuania and Byelorussia and 27 per cent in regions with a predominantly Ukrainian population. Two thirds of all Jews lived in towns and the remainder in the countryside.


Following the first partition of Poland some 150,000 Jews found themselves under Austrian occupation, about 25,000 in the Russian zone and only 5,000 in Prussia. The population census conducted in Poland in 1790-9I demonstrated a further increase in the number of Jewish inhabitants. Tadeusz Czacki estimated them at over 900,000, that is some 10 per cent of the total population of the then Commonwealth. In the same period (1780) in the Austrian zone there were over 150,000 Jews and several tens of thousands in the remaining partition zones.


The reconstruction of towns after each war took a long time. The quickest to emerge from ruin were the estates of magnates who willingly employed the Jewish population. In the eastern part of the Commonwealth and partly in central Poland Jews played an important role in reactivating crafts, and not only such traditionally Jewish branches as goldsmithery, pewter, haberdashery and glass manufacture, furriery and tailoring, but also tin and copper working, arms production, carpentry, printing, dying and soap manufacture. There appeared in this period a large number of Jewish craftsmen who traveled from village to village, from manor to manor, in search of temporary employment. The material situation of Jewish craftsmen was generally difficult. The pauperization of towns and villages made it hard to sell their products both for Jewish craftsmen and their Christian counterparts. In the large cities, rivalry between the guilds on the one hand and the Jewish and Christian "patchers" on the other bred conflicts. These often ended in compromise and Jews more often than ever before were admitted to Christian guilds. At the same time, next to the old ones, new, purely Jewish guilds were formed, for example in Poznari, Krakow, Lvov, Przemysl, Kepno, Leszno, Luck, Berdyczow, Minsk, Tykocin and Bialystok.


During the wars of the middle of the 17th century Jewish wholesale trade, both long distance and foreign, came nearly to a standstill. Only in some cities, for example Brody and Leszno, Jewish merchants, thanks to considerable support on the part of the magnates, succeeded in renewing contacts with Gdansk, Wroclaw, Krolewiec, Frankfurt on Oder and to a lesser degree with England. Thanks to the magnates' assistance local, Jewish trade also began to expand. Most shops in the reconstructed town halls were leased to Jews (for example in Staszow, Siemiatycze, Kock, Siedlce and Bialystok). Peddling was also spreading as a result of which trade exchange between town and country, interrupted during the wars, was revived.


After the middle of the 17th century wars radical changes took place in the organization of credits. Large banking houses disappeared and the kahals, instead of being creditors, turned into debtors. Representatives of the gentry and the clergy increasingly often placed their money in Jewish communities at the same time forcing the latter to take genuine responsibility for the debts of individual Jews. In case a kahal was unable to repay its debts, the gentry had the right to seal and dose down its prayer house, imprison the elders and confiscate goods belonging to merchants. In order to safeguard themselves against the lightheartedness of individual debtors the communities applied the credit hazakah, which consisted in the community issuing permissions to its members who wanted to avail themselves of credit. Whether someone was given a loan or not was often decided by a clique consisting of the kahal elders. Part of the capital leased from the gentry and the clergy and augmented by means of interest disappeared into the pockets of the kahal oligarchy, while part of it was turned over to nonproductive purposes, for example to financing defense in ritual murder trials, paying for the lords' protection, etc.


In the first half of the 18th century the gentry and the clergy became anxious of the fate of money located in the Jewish communities and the interests from unpaid debts which were growing in a landslide. When the above mentioned methods failed to produce adequate results, the krupki were applied, that is a consumption taxation, the income from which was destined totally for paying off the debts. Finally in 1764 a decision was taken on abolishing kahal banks altogether and servicing debts by taxing each Jew.


As a result of the general impoverishment of the Jewish population in the second half of the 17th and in the 18th century, differences between the people and the kahal oligarchy deepened, the latter trying to pass the burden of the growing state and kahal taxes onto the shoulders of the poorer classes. In several cities, for example in Krakow, Leszno and Drohobycz, the Jewish poor revolted against the kahal oligarchies. A fierce struggle against the kahals was carried out by Jewish guilds which tried to free themselves from their economic dependence. At the same time, especially in larger royal towns, conflicts fired by economic rivalry broke out between Jews and Christians. The tense atmosphere of this struggle, conducted usually under religious slogans, was conducive to the outbreak of anti-Jewish riots and pogroms, for example in Krakow, Poznan, Lvov, Vilna, Brest Litovsk and several other cities. Particularly menacing were ritual trials organized in the period of religious prejudices. However much more dangerous was the situation in the Ukraine where the Jews returned only in the late 17th century. The role played in the 18th century by Jewish lease holders in the Polish magnates' colonial policy turned the anger of the local populace, as was the case during Bohdan Chmielnicki's uprising, against both the Polish gentry and Jews generally. In 1768, during a peasant rebellion called kolisczzyz na, which was organized under the slogans of "winning independence" and defense of the Russian Orthodox religion, in Humari and several other Ukrainian cities several thousand gentry and several tens of thousand Jews were murdered.


The events in the Ukraine in 1768 turned the minds of the more enlightened section of Polish society to the problem of carrying out fundamental political reforms and solving both the peasant and the Jewish question. The latter was not only discussed in the last decades of the Commonwealth but practical ways of solving it were sought. Many pamphlets and Sejm speeches dealt with this matter. Some were for the further limitation of the Jews' economic activity while others spoke of turning the Jews into subjects of the gentry, as was the case with the peasants. Finally there were also those who demanded the expulsion of Jews from Poland. These views were opposed by an enlightened group of the gentry, led by Tadeusz Czacki and Maciej Topor Butrymowicz. This group demanded the limitation of the authority of the kahals and a change in the occupational structure of Jews through their employment in manufacturing and agricultural farms. It was also for the assimilation of the Jews and their inclusion in the burgher estate.


In the 1760s the Jewish question was the subject of Sejm debates. In 1764 the Sejm passed a resolution on the liquidation of the central and land organization of the Jews. In 1768 it decided that Jews might perform only such occupations which were allowed to them by individual agreements with towns. From the point of view of Jews, this meant full dependence on their all-time rival in the economic field, that is on the burghers. The Sejm of 1775 undertook the problem of agrarianization of the Jewish community and passed a resolution granting tax exemptions to those Jews who settled on uncultivated land. The same law forbade rabbis to wed those who had no permanent earnings.


Jewish reforms were also discussed during the Great Sejm which elected a special commission for Jewish affairs. However this commission did not manage to submit its findings before 14 April 1791, that is the date when the law on towns was passed, on the basis of which Jews were not included in the burgher estate. Later the Jewish question was dealt with several times; however the Four Year Sejm failed to approve any fundamental reforms in this field. The only important concession for the Jews during the debates of the Four Year Sejm was contained in the law of the police commission of 24 May 1792 which said that Jews, like all other citizens of the Commonwealth, could avail themselves of the right not to be put in prison without a court verdict.


Though no important law concerning the solving of the Jewish question was approved by the Four Year Sejm, the very fact that the matter was discussed was welcomed by part of the Jewish community with appreciation. On the first anniversary of the passing of the Third of May Constitution services of thanksgiving were held in all synagogues and a special hymn was published.


Neither was the difficult Jewish question solved in the Prussian and Austrian partition zones. In the Prussian zone, according to the decree issued by Frederick II, the Jewish population was to be subordinated to the Prussian Jewish ordinance (General Judenreglement) of 17 April 1797. The right to permanent residence in towns was granted only to rich Jews and those engaged in trade. Jews were forbidden to pursue those occupations which were already represented in the guilds. The poor Jews, the Bettel Juden, were ordered by Frederick II to be expelled from the country. The activity of Jewish self-government organizations was limited almost exclusively to religious affairs.


In the Austrian partition zone the attitude towards the Jewish question went through two stages, In the initial period, that is during the reign of Maria Theresa and the first years of rule of Joseph II, the separateness of the Jewish population from the rest of Galician society was retained and, with only slight modifications, Jewish self-government was preserved. The poorest Jews were expelled from the country. The remainder were limited in their right to get married, removed from many sources of income and forced to pay high taxes. In the second half of the reign of Joseph II the Jews were recruited into the army (1788) and then, on the strength of the grand Jewish ordinance of 1789 certain restrictions in relation to the Jewish population were lifted and attempts were made to make them equal with the burghers. Expulsions of the Jewish population from Galicia were discontinued, the separate Jewish judiciary was abolished, Jewish self-government was restricted. Jews were ordered to wear dress similar to the Christian population and obliged to attend either German or reformed Jewish schools. However the separate Jewish tax was retained and their economic activity in the countryside was restricted. Some of these decrees met with a decided opposition on the part of the Jews and were eventually revoked. In 1792 Leopold II, Joseph II's successor, changed the military duty of the Jews into a money contribution, while the decree ordering the Jews to wear Christian dress was never introduced in practice.


In the second half of the 17th century Jews took an increasingly numerous part in the wars fought by the Commonwealth. During wars against the Cossacks and the Tartars, the Jewish population provided infantry and mounted troops. Some young Jews fought in the open field, for example in the battle of Beresteczko. Jews also fought in defense of besieged cities, for example Tulczyn, Polonne, Lvov and others. During Poland's wars with Sweden (1655-60), Russia (1654-67) and Turkey (1667-99) Jews provided recruits and participated in the city's defense (for example Przemysl, Vitebsk, Stary Bychow, Mohylew, Lvov and Trembowla), together with the burghers and gentry organized sorties to the enemy's camp (for example at Suraz in 1655, in the vicinity of Podhajce in 1667 and in Przemysl in 1672). The military engineer Jezue Moszkowicz of Kazimierz near Krakow, who in 1664 served in the Polish army, saved heavy mortars and other weapons from being sunk during the war against Russia.


During the Kosciuszko Insurrection and wars against Tsarist Russia in 1794 Jews supported the uprising either in auxiliary services or in arms. For example they took part in the April revolution in Warsaw where many of them perished. After the Russian army was repulsed from Warsaw the idea was born to create a separate military unit composed of Jewish volunteers. This idea was backed by the commander in chief of the Insurrection, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. "Nothing can convince more the far away nations about the holiness of our cause and the justness of the present revolution," he wrote in a Statement on the Formation of a Regiment of Jews, "than that, though separated from us by their religion and customs, they sacrifice their own lives of their own free will in order to support the uprising." The Jewish regiment under Colonel Berek Josielewicz took part in the fighting during the storming of the Praga district of Warsaw by Tsarist troops on 4 November 1794. With the blood shed in this war they documented the loyalty of the Jewish population to the cause of the revolution and the slogans it upheld-equality and fraternity.


Source: History of the Jews in Poland - Early History - created by Mike Rosenzweig, Ph. D.



Last updated March 19th, 2006 



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