"Pinkas Hakehilot" - Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities - Poland; Vol. 4: Warsaw and District, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1989

Plock (Plock) (Region: Plock; Province: Warsaw).

Pages 358 - 372

Written by Abrahan Wein
Translated from the Hebrew by Morris Gradel

Devi Tuszynski: Plock 

Ancient Jewish Community of Mazowia 1237 - 1815

Plock was one of the oldest urban settlements in Mazowia and in the whole of Poland. Archaeological excavations on the spot revealed remnants of a pagan ritual centre of Slav tribes from the the centuries preceding the adoption of Christianity and its expansion in Poland from the year 966 onwards. In the 11th century Plock was the seat of the castellan (the district governor for the king of united Poland); the town was then also the capital of the district of Mazowia. In 1075 it was the see of a bishop. In the years 1079-1102 Prince Wladislaw Harman ruled areas of Poland from his centre in P. He was even buried in Plock, and also buried there was the Polish King Boleslaw "Crooked Mouth". From 1138 Plock was the capital of one of the principalities of divided Poland - Mazowia.

The development of Plock as a political and economic centre took place in the 12th century. In 1237 the town was granted a charter which set out the rights of its inhabitants. Plock was conquered by the Pomeranians in 1243 and by the Lithuanians in 1260 and 1286. The invaders destroyed much of the town, which was built mainly of wood. In 1353 the Polish king Wladislaw Lukeitik conquered the town, and he too destroyed many of its houses. In 1351-1370 the district of Mazowia passed under the tutelage of the Polish king Casimir the Great, who restored Plock and built a fortress; in 1361 Plock was granted the status of a town and its citizens given considerable privileges. After Casimir's death Plock again came under the protection of the princes of Mazowia until the union of the region with Crown Poland in 1495. In the 16th century Plock was the most important town in the kingdom after the capital Cracow. The development of the town was dependent on the trade of the towns of the kingdom with Danzig that took place along the Vistula, and thus passed through P. A quarrel then broke out among the merchants and tradesmen of the town ( weavers, brewers, brandy distillers, etc.) who organised themselves in guilds. Towards the end of the 16th century the decline of Plock began, mainly because it could not compete with Warsaw, which had become the capital of Poland instead of Cracow.

The crisis that afflcted Plock grew worse during the wars with the Swedes. In the middle of the 17th century, after the destruction that these brought with them, there were in 1661 only 40 houses intact. Neither did the wars with Sweden at the beginning of the 18th century spare P, and they left behind many marks of destruction. With the second division of Poland in 1793 Plock was incorporated into the Prussian area. From 1807 Plock was the seat of the Governor of the Woiwoda (County) in the principality of Warsaw. From 1815 Plock was the chief town of the Woiwoda (after 1837 of the province or Gubernia) of the Kingdom of Poland.With the restoration of Polish sovereignty in 1918 the town was designated the district capital. During the German occupation of 1939-45 it was incorporated into the Third Reich.

The earliest mention of the Jews in Plock was from the year 1237. In the charter granted to the town in that year by Conrad, Prince of Mazovia, the "Jewish well" is recorded among the landmarks of the town boundaries. It may be presumed therefore that at that time there was a Jewish population concentrated in one area. Documents from the 15th century mention this quarter as the Jewish "town". It was situated at that time near the town wall to the north and spread across the market square. The quarter contained two streets known until the period between the two world wars by names reminiscent of Jews. One bore the name "Jeruszolimiska" (Jerusalem), in Jewish mouths called "de gyldene gass" (the golden street), and the other was "Synagogolna" (Synagogue Street).

The existence of the Jewish settlement in P, one of the first in Mazovia and the whole of Poland, originated mainly in the role played by the town as the capital of Mazowia and as the most important town on the banks of the Vistula, it being the centre of international trade from the south to the Baltic and westwards, to Novgorod in the north and south to Kiev in Russia Jews from Moravia, and more especially from Germany, participated in this trade and some of them settled in the district. In the 13th century there were signs of the existence of some other permanent Jewish settlements along the Vistula or near P, such as in Gneisenau, Poznan, Kalisch - and in the south, in Cracow.

This development stagnated in the 14th century, at the time of the conflicts between Mazowia and the Teutonic-Crusader Order that ruled over the area bordering the Vistula, East Prussia and the port of Danzig. The insecurity that permeated the area made trade impossible. However, the Jews faced another obstacle, namely the decree issued by the Head of the Order in 1309, whereby the Jews were forbidden to enter its territory. This situation also had a negative effect on the Jewish settlement in P. The Jews there changed from trade to small-scale loan activity. For about 150 years documents mentioned but few Jews in P. Only towards the end of the Middle Ages, after an agreement in 1466 between the Order and the Kingdom of Poland was signed in Turin, were the trade routes to Danzig resumed, and the Jews of Plock returned to their former activity, trade; but there is talk here of a mere handful of families. As late as 1483 only two Jewish families from Plock paid tax to the Prince's treasury. The same period carries mention of the Prince's personal physician, the Jew Eliahu of Plock.

The end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th was marked by an increased emigration of Jews from Germany to Poland, and with it an increase in the number of Jews in P. At the beginning of the 17th century the community in Plock numbered 400 souls, who lived mainly in two streets - Zidowska (the Jewish) and Szabska (of shoemakers). The other inhabitants did not look upon the presence of Jews in PLOCKwith favour, and especially not on their activity in trade and crafts. They therefore turned to the King and demanded that these be restricted. They demanded limitations in the sphere of weaving, furs, and bakeries. King Sigismund I acquiesced and in 1521 and 1523 issued decrees forbidding the Jews of P to engage in retail trade and allowing them to engage in wholesale trade only on market days and within the market-place. The Jews, however, did not submit passively, and in 1555 they obtained from King Sigismund August annulment of these restrictions, on condition that they would contribute to the expenses of the municipality. Ten years or so later the number of Jews in P had increased, and in 1565 120 Jews were paying poll tax. The non-Jewish inhabitants now complained that the Jews were not fulfilling their obligations to the municipality, and for a time they made it difficult for the Jews to buy land for a cemetery and building plots in the Jewish streets. In 1576 and 1580 King Stephen Batory restored the Jewish privileges (they were allowed to buy plots and to engage in trade almost without restriction) and in 1658 these were confirmed by King Jan Casimir.

In this period the Jewish community in P was consolidated. Documents showed that in 1522 there was a synagogue. At the end of the 15th century the Archbishop of P names the rabbi of the Jewish community in P, Rabbi Yitzhak (who bought a house from the local apothecary, Piotr). In 1616 the Jews owned about 25 houses. At about the same time we read of some 30 local Jewish merchants in the customs lists. Their activities included the import of textile materials, metal utensils, perfumes and spices, and the export of grain, cattle, trees, hides, etc. Their commercial activities extended as far as Breslau, Leipzig and even Nuremberg in the west, and in the east - to Wallachia. But the closest economic ties were with Danzig. Conversely, Jewish merchants came to P from Lublin, Opatow and Cracow.

Artisans too occupied a considerable place among the Jews of P. Among them were weavers, glaziers, bakers, butchers, shoemakers, furriers, tailors, and even a blacksmith who made swords. Some of the Jews of P contributed to the state and municipal taxes (poll tax, customs, market tax) for the lease of land. The tax lists of 1621 mention two Jews who paid taxes for town fields. Another source from the same period tells of Jews owning flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. During the 16th century six Jewish doctors are mentioned. Their status was shown by the fact that some of them were leaders of the Jewish community. One of them, Joseph, was its leader in 1561. Later he became a Christian and was baptized under the name of Sigismund. Despite the signs of prosperity displayed by the Jews of P, there was no lack of difficulties. Jewish involvement in trade and crafts was ever a thorn in the eyes of their competitors in the town, who lost no opportunity in trying to undermine it. In 1617 the Jews of P were forced to sign an agreement with the municipality, which led to the imposition of a series of restrictions, amongst others a limit on the production and distribution of strong drink and beer, and trading in fish, pickles, oil, sweets and iron. Dealing in fish was completely forbidden for Jews, except for personal consumption. Furriers and shoemakers were forbidden to sell sheepskin and high boots. Purchase was permitted only in the market and that from local tradesmen alone. The agreement also included a ban on market business on Christian Holydays (except for the sale of meat for a few hours within the Jewish quarter). Contrariwise to these restrictions Jews were allowed to do business on Fair Days and to rent shops and storerooms in the market place. Although the Christian artisans tried to undermine the activities of their Jewish counterparts, it seems that the Jews suceeded in circumventing the restrictions, sometimes even helped by local citizens (both merchants and craftsmen) who saw an advantage in cooperating with the Jews. Ignoring the restrictions often involved bribes. The agreement also laid down that any Jew coming to settle in P had to pay money to the town chest - the more well-to-do had to pay a gulden and those deemed poor 15 grosch. In addition, the Jews paid to the fortress half a stone of pepper and a pound of cloves (spices). For a stand in the local market the Jews of P paid 40 gulden a year.

The security situation of the P Jews was little different from that of the other Jewish communities in the Principality of Mazowia. A similar situation prevailed among the Hebrew communities in Greater Poland even after 1495, when Mazowia was incorporated into Crown Poland. As citizens of the Prince (tributaries), the Jews enjoyed his protection and that of his officials, and later of the local representative of the Crown - the Starosta. However, as with other Jewish communities in the same period, there were anti-Jewish riots and sometimes extreme violence by the town rabble. In 1494 the deputy mayor of P, Lomsze, was charged with not reacting energetically against the students (dzekkes) who had assaulted Jews and stolen their property (and thus indirectly had attacked a source of income for the Prince). In 1534 too riots broke out against the Jews of P. They were also shocked in 1556 by the execution in P of two Jews from Sochachew who were accused of desecrating a statue of the cross. The two were hanged outside the town wall, and their bodies were not delivered for burial until January 1557. In P itself the incited mob attacked the Jews in that year. Anti-Jewish violence was also renewed in 1570, 1579 and 1590. In addition to incidents of mob violence there were also dozens of cases of clashes between Jews and Christians. In 20 such cases the Jews are described as having attacked the Christians, and if this is to be believed, it must be presumed that the Jews of P in the 16th century were not prepared to accept meekly the attacks upon them but could stand up for themselves.

Nevertheless, documents of the period also tell of good neighbourly relations between Jews and Christians. There were times when Jews sat at a festive table together with their Christian neighbours and enjoyed a drink. Jews and non-Jews attended family celebrations, and so forth. It was the church authorities who were opposed to this phenomenon: they insisted on a rigid separation of Christians and Jews by isolating the latter in a ghetto. There were also cases where an ecclesiastical court put on trial Christians suspected of leaning towards Jewish (obeying the commandments, circumcision, and keeping the sabbath). These charges against not a few Christians, both townspeople and the country gentry, were not indicative of conversion, but were rather a symptom of a Christian sect diluting the principles of the Church and assuming some principles of Judaisation.

As for the internal organisation of the Jewish community in P, it is necessary to distinguish between the period of the Mazovia Principality (until 1495) and that of the incorporation of the area into Crown Poland. During the reign of the princes the authority of the Jewish community was limited, compared to that of Jewish communities in Crown Poland. The Prince was the judge in disputes between Jews and Jews, even when the proceedings were according to Jewish law. Apparently the judge (the Prince or his representative) was counselled by an expert on Jewish law. The Jews were forbidden to appeal against such judgments before rabbinical courts outside the country, and violation of this rule involved a fine of 20 gulden. It would appear that after the area passed under Crown-Polish rule the status of the P community was made that of the Jewish communities in the Kingdom of Poland as a whole.

From 1519 the community in P came under Greater Poland, together with some other communities in Mazovia and Koiavi, such as Plonsk, Sochaczew, Inowroclaw, and others. The seat of the State Council of Jews was in Invoroclav, but the community of P held a respected place in it, and played a prominent part in the discussions on the distribution of the poll-tax among the communities, and other matters. The first representative of the Plock community in the State Jewish Council was Avraham de Plocky (i.e. Avraham from Plock), leader of the community in the first half of the sixteenth century. The importance of the Plock community at that time may be gauged from the fact that the delegation of the communities of Greater Poland which addressed King Stefan Batory in 1582 and obtained from him favourable concessions for the Jews - was composed of representatives from the community of Plock.

The development and prosperity of the community was hampered for some time during the Swedish wars in the middle of the 17th century. The town was almost completely destroyed, The streets of the Jews were set on fire, and what was left was plundered by the rioting soldiery. In 1656 the soldiers of the Polish hetman Stefan Czarnicki attacked the Jews, killing many of them: few indeed managed to escape with their lives.

After the storm of battle had subsided, the Jews of Plock set about rebuilding their community. King Jan Casimir granted their request, and in 1657 a decree was issued whereby they were permitted to build new houses to replace those destroyed. They were likewise given permission to trade and open shops and butcher shops in all towns without restriction. These rights were afterwards confirmed by all the kings of Poland up to and including the last of them, Stanislaw August Poniatowski. However, before they managed to recover, the Jews were beset by natural catastrophes: in 1688 a fire broke out that destroyed almost the whole Jewish quarter. In its wake came an epidemic that claimed many victims. The work of rehabilitation demanded the giving of much credit. The Plock community borrowed large sums of money from the nobility and from the clergy. These loans were usurious, and the Jews had to repay not only the capital but also compound interest. In the middle of the 18th century there were some 140 Jewish families in Plock, and their debt to the Jesuits of the town alone amounted to 50,000 gulden.

In the 18th century the situation of the Jews of Plock worsened, mainly because of the growth of Catholic reaction in Poland as a whole and in the bishopric of Plock in particular. Among other things, the regional synod decided in 1733 to inflict heavy punishment on noblemen who leased inns to Jews. A pastoral letter from Bishop Lenbern in 1752 accused the Jews of Plock of "fraudulent dealings". In 1775 the bishop's aide summoned the leaders of the community and rebuked them for building new prayer-houses without permission from the bishopric. The Jews were ordered to close off the exit from their quarter during church processions "in order that they would not commit sacrilege in the eyes of the Christians". In the footsteps of the clergy followed the nobility of the impoverished class, who at the regional assembly of the nobility (the seimik) in 1788 adopted a resolution to annul all the leases and renting of inns to Jews. The Jews of Plock, in keeping with all the Jewish communities of Mazowia, were in the 1770s and 1780s threatened with expulsion. This decree was, however, not implemented, but the threat was sufficient to cause unrest among the Jews of the area.

Moreover, the Plock community did not escape accusations of blood libel. In 1754 a child in a nearby village died immediately after birth. The rumour at once spread that that the child had been murdered by Jews for ritual purposes. The regional governor (the starosta), Tomasz Dambowski, who was himself among the rumour-mongers, ordered the arrest of the town's innkeeper, a Jew by the name of David. After cruel torture he died in prison. The tumult did not abate, and the Jews of Plock had to pay to Dambowski extortion money to the tune of 2,400 gulden, and promised to pay a similar sum to him in the course of the next three years (800 gulden each year). After the community had redeemed this debt, the governor wanted to turn this bribe into a permanent contribution of 800 gulden in the years to come. The leaders of the community, however, refused, and the governor then threw them into prison and even ordered them to be flogged; but they stood firm in their refusal, in the knowledge that the community was unable to bear such a financial burden.

At the time of the Confederation of Bar (a union of nobles against Russian domination of the Polish Kingdom), and in the wake of the battles that took place near P in1768, a fire broke out in the town, also damaging Jewish property. During the episode of the confederation one of the conspiratory noblemen pursued by the Russians sought refuge among the Jews. They hid him in the mikveh building, "Hakadesh", and afterwards helped him to escape disguised as a carter.

During the anarchy that reigned in Poland in the last two decades of the 18th century the arbitrary nature of the administration also had repercussions for the Jews. At the end of the 80s a rabbi named Joachim was chosen, with the approval of the regional governor. In 1792 the new governor demanded of the leaders of the community the sum of 800 gulden. These leaders presented to the governor the letter of privileges granted to them by King Stephan Batory, whereby they were to pay to the governor's treasury only 60 gulden a year. The governor, however, was not convinced, and ordered the leaders and the rabbi imprisoned and flogged. After a time they were released, but at once a "bailiff's crew" was sent to the Jewish quarter and collected the sum demanded. A year later a new era began for the Jewish community of Plock: in 1793, in the second division of Poland, the town was incorporated into the Prussian sphere.

We possess no detailed information on the internal affairs of the Plock community in the 17th and 18th centuries. Known are some names of rabbis in that period. In the second half of the 17th century the office was occupied by Zwi Hirsch Monek, son of Feitel Monek, who was a rabbi in Vienna. In 1684 the rabbi was the saintly Menachem Ben Hakadosh Israel. Among other rabbis in the 18th century may be noted Shmuel Ben Israel and Chaim Ginzburg. The latter was rabbi in Plock and for the whole district of Mazowia in 1777. Until 1783 his place was taken by Issachar Ben Yehuda Leib, who afterwards was appointed rabbi in Slotsk.

A native of Plock was also Zelig Margolit ben Yitschak Eizik (Aviezri), author of the books "Kesef Nivchar" (Selected Silver), "Chidushei Sha"s" (New Aspects of the Mishna), and "Chiburei Likutim" (Selected Essays). In the last essay of the latter work Rabbi Margolit paints a negative picture of the general situation at the time in Poland and also of the internal situation of the Jewish communities. From the 1670s to the 1690s Rabbi Margolit was a preacher in Kalisz. Later he occupied a similar office in Prague, and from 1703 he served as rabbi in "Kläuz" in Halberstadt, Germany.

During the period of the Prussian occupation (1793-1807) the Jewish population of Plock more than doubled, compared to 1793 (in 1803 there were 1,783 souls). This increase was mainly at the expense of the Jews of the nearby villages, but there were also indications of an immigration of Jews from East Prussia to Plock (among the new settlers were persons with names typical of Prussian Jewish families). On the one hand, the Prussian authorities abrogated some of the restrictions on Jewish dwellings, and the Jews were not limited to settling only in the former Jewish enclave (Street of the Jews and Street of the Shoemakers). On the other hand, the Prussian authorities attempted to make the Jews more "effective" by forcing them away from their traditional occupations, such as the production and distribution of strong drink, innkeeping, and peddling. These efforts, together with an increased tax burden on the Jews, reduced many of them to poverty. The records of the time tell of an increase in the number of Jewish building workers employed by Jewish contractors (one of them, Moshe Wasserzug. who had come from Prussia, built a number of houses which remained almost to the present day) - but the majority of Jewish artisans continued to work in their trades, despite the pressure and threats of the authorities.

Preserved from this period is the chronicle of the Jewish Company of Tailors in Plock (the earliest date entered is 1798, though the record is apparently a continuation of earlier chronicles from the last decades of the 17th century). The chronicle tells of the company's independence of the community leaders and its dependence on the Christian "tsek" (guild). The Jewish tailors and furriers had to pay dues to the tsek, without enjoying any member benefits. The Jewish guild embraced dozens of Jewish craftsmen, with a directorate of 11 members (3 beadles, 3 trustees, and 5 accountants). Among the immigrants of this period were the first intimations of the Haskala (see Notes at end), as expounded by Moses Mendelssohn. They are principally evident among the financiers with connections to German businessmen, who adopted the external characteristics (in European dress and knowledge of German) that would facilitate their contacts with the non-Jewish world. It should be noted here that the Jews were obliged to fill out their documents in German.

Typical of this period was Yitzhak Eizik ben Shmuel Hacohen (Itzikel of Plock), a wealthy merchant with connections in Danzig and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. He represented the community of Plock at the gathering of heads of communities in the new districts of Prussia, that took place in Klatszbo in 1797. The purpose of this assembly was to find a common stance against the new law (the Jewish ordinance) governing Jews resident in the areas of Prussia formerly belonging to Poland. Itzikel of Plock was already conversant with worldly affairs, and in the course of his business had had frequent contact with his co-delegates at theatre performances, a rarity among the Jews of Plock at that time.

Another Jew from Plock, Daniel Landau, a large-scale army contractor, was the only Jewish member of the Plock region's chamber of commerce. In the period of the Principality of Warsaw Landau represented the communities of the Plock region at a meeting of all the communities of the principality.

Under Prussian sovereignty the holder of the rabbinical office was Yehuda Leib Margolit, who was regarded as one of the pioneers of the Haskala. He had served previously with communities in Galicia (he was born in Zaborow in that province) - Sochstew and Kopiczince - and from there moved to Bodzanow and Szczebrzeszyn in the district of Lublin, and from there again to Plock. From Plock he went on to Inowroclaw and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. In addition to various responsa and halachic innovations, he published some essays on natural science, philosophy, and ethics. His essay "Or Olam" (Light of the World) enjoyed much popularity. In his work "Bet Hamidot" (The Mansion), devoted to ethical and social subjects, he criticised sharply the then leaders of the Jewish communities, their spiritual leaders (the rabbis), and the corruption prevalent in Jewish social life at the time. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Margolit was a rationalist in the spirit of his time; but he saw no conflict between science and faith. In his view, science reinforced faith, which had to be upheld without compromise or concession.

With the coming of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, the Plock region was included in its boundaries. The situation of the Jews deteriorated even more than in the previous period.The burden of new taxes weighed heavily upon them. Among these were the tax on kosher meat and the recruiting tax (implemented in 1812 as a substitute for military service by Jews). The Jews of Plock were obliged to pay tens of thousands of gulden (6 grosch for each pound of meat), even if they were prepared to eat kosher meat only on sabbaths and festivals. The state decree of October 1812 forbad the Jews of the principality to engage in the production and distribution of strong drink. In fact, after representations to the Ministry of the Interior and the Treasury, the ordinance was postponed until 1815; but the prefect (governor) of Plock hastened to implement it at once. Only after further approaches by Jewish representatives (among whom was the member of the Plock community, Yosef Frankel) to the Ministry of the Interior was the decree annulled.

In 1810 a fire broke out in Plock, involving 90 houses - most of them in the Jewish quarter, in Synagogue Street. Yet even before the persons affected had had time to repair the damage, and when they were still living in temporary accommodation in other parts of the town, a proposal was put to the ruler of the Duchy of Warsaw, the Saxon King Friedrich August, to establish a revir (i.e. a special quarter or ghetto) for the Jews of Plock. The motive for this proposal was that if such a quarter were not established the Jews would not hurry to restore their fire-damaged houses. The proposal also mentioned the dishonest competition of the Jews in trade and business. Another reason was that collections of Jews in all parts of the city would lead to fires and to plague and the pollution of the whole town, "since their tendency to dirt was well-known". However, Friedrich August did not accept the proposal, explaining that the Jews of Plock should be left alone, as they had recently suffered a natural catastrophe - but the Ministry of the Interior would not relent and reiterated the proposal, which was finally accepted in November 1811. From then on a Jewish quarter in Plock was made compulsory: Jews were only permitted to live in 8 streets - and this quarter existed in Plock until 1862.

During the period of the Duchy of Warsaw and for some time thereafter the rabbi of Plock was Aryeh Leib bar Moshe Zunz (or Zilz), known as Rabbi Leibush Harif (the Sharp One). From Plock Rabbi Aryeh Leib moved to Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, and afterwards settled in Warsaw itself, where he died in 1833. Rabbi Leib was considered the prodigy of his generation and his pen produced 17 works. One of his pupils was Rabbi Avraham Landau, known as the rabbi from Czechanow. He was head of the yeshiva in Plock when Aryeh Leib was head of the Beth Din (the rabbinical court). Another pupil of Aryeh Leib was the last rabbi of Kolel (Yeshiva) of Warsaw, Ya'akov Gesundheit. Rabbi Aryeh Leib was followed in Plock by Rabbi Uziel Yehuda bar Yerucham Fischel; he died in Plock in 1825.


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