"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 

The Jewish Settlement in Plock from 1815-1918.

This period should be divided in two: from 1815 - when the town was designated as the administrative centre of the region, first as a wojwodowa and later as a gubernia - until the suppression of the Polish revolt in 1863; and from 1864 until the restoration of an independent Poland in 1918.

In the first half of the 19th century (until 1862) there existed the revir (Jewish quarter) in Plock, and there were restrictions on Jewish settlement in the town. Jews were not free to choose their place of residence. Nevertheless, the district capital excercised a strong pull on them, and they managed - legally and illegally - to settle there and earn some sort of a living. Eager to enter were the Jews of the surrounding villages, the small towns, such as Naszalsk, Makow, Wyszogrod and others - and from the beginning of the century, as already mentioned, also from Prussia. Up to 1860 the number of Jews in Plock increased sevenfold, compared to their numbers in 1808.

This increase was not, however, the result of economic growth - in production, trade, and crafts. The trade routes to Prussia did not pass through the town, which was also far from the railways begun in Poland in the middle of the century. The town was swamped with cheap goods from Prussia (most of them smuggled) and also with goods from Warsaw, and there was thus no room for industrial development in Plock. Only the hotel and other service banches, such as restaurants and taverns, experienced expansion. These served mainly the administrative personnel and the noble landowners, who came into town to settle their affairs with the authorities, the courts, or the schools attended by their children.

These service and accommodation activities provided a living for very few of the local Jews; the majority suffered hardship, and sometimes hunger. This misery forced them to seek manual work on the land or in road building and the like. In 1823 the wealthy Zalman Pozner opened on his property at Kuchary, near Plock, a clothing factory and many Jews were employed there. In 1840 this same Pozner proposed to the authorities the setting up of a Jewish agricultural settlement at Kuchary - to be followed after three years by settlements in Kodlowowice and Idzikowice. This initiative was favourably received, and as early as 1841 the first 15 Jewish families settled in Kuchary. They received land on permanent lease and also farm implements. They were also exempted from the tax on kosher meat, and from 1845 also from military service. All in all some 170 Jewish families settled in the three places between 1844 and 1850. A report to the Governor in 1850 stated that "the settlers are seriously engaged in working the land". News of the venture spread to the surrounding area and had considerable effect on the Jews of Plock. However, in the second half of the century most of the settlers left their land.

A severe crisis hit the Jews of Plock during the Polish revolt of 1830-1831. A number of young Jews joined the "National Guard" (auxiliary military units of the rebels) and after the rebellion had been crushed some were sentenced to prison or deported to Siberia. Nevertheless, some Jews (also in Plock) were accused of spying for the Russians, and there were even executions of Jews, among them two from the Jewish community in Plock.

In 1831 there was an outbreak of cholera in Plock, which also claimed many victims among the Jews. In 1840 the Kingdom of Poland introduced conscription. This was particularly hard for the Jews of Plock. They had, like others, to serve 15 years, to abandon their traditional way of life (eating non-kosher food, forbidden to pray, etc), and in addition had to suffer seeing the young Jews of Plock and the surroundings part from their families, since Plock was the mobilisation centre.

The clothing decree of 1846 also affected the Jews of Plock., in particular the Chasidim , who objected to giving up their traditional costume (long coats, fur hats - streimels, etc.) in favour of Russian town dress, as demanded by the royal ordinance. Until 1850, however, Jews were permitted to wear their traditional dress against payment of 3 to 50 roubles, according to their means. Many poor Chasidim spent their last grosch in order to continue dressing in the fashion of their forefathers.

In this same period there arose a sharp schism in the community between the two factions - the Chasidim and the "kolkotnikim" (the exact meaning of this word is unknown), traditionalist Jews, apparently mitnagdim, but who were inclined to dress in European style, i.e. shorter coats and styled to ensure greater cleanliness for shirts and boots. The conflict did not, however, limit itself to dress, but included also methods and syllabus of learning. At the head of the "kolkotnikim" stood Z. Pozner and his circle. The group of pupils in the Bet Midrash at Kuchary were known as the "little community". Its students had moved away from "pilpul" and were more open to secular subjects. But though they engaged in research, they tended to revert to conservative methods of learning, in sharp opposition to Chasidism. From these groups came, among others, Avraham Goldschmidt, who preached at the "Neurim" Synagogue in Warsaw; Chaim Raygroder, known as a man of learning and an opponent of chasidism; the rabbi of Schayrpets, Mordechai Hacohen Grünbaum, the grandfather of Yitschak Grünbaum - and many others. The Chasidim in the Plock community regarded the "kolotnikim" with enmity and considered them out-and-out heretics. Zalman Pozner was regarded by them as leader of the sect of Shabtai Zwi.

Among the local rabbis of this period mention may be made of Eliezer Cohen (he served in Plock from 1856-1862), who revived study of the Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi of the 13th century). In his youth Nahum Sokolow studied at Eliezer Cohenís Bet Midrash. On the fringes of the "kulturkampf" between the Chasidim and the "kolkotnikim" there was in Plock a small group of educated persons of the school of Moses Mendelsohn. These went so far as to ask the authorities not to authorise the opening of Chasidic prayer houses, as a result of which none were allowed until 1823. The Plock representatives of the "Jewish Committee", set up on government orders in 1823 as an advisory body on reform of Jewish life in the Kingdom of Poland, were the intellectuals Daniel Landau and Yosef Frankel. They too were against the establishment of Chasidic houses of prayer and for "the eradication of superstition among the Jews". They demanded, for instance, that rabbis be obliged to acquire a knowledge of spoken and written Polish, and that they should not be appointed by the leaders of the community, as this constituted discrimination of the poor, who did not have the right to vote.

Resident in Plock from 1815 to 1840 was Dr. Philip (Feivel) Lubelski. He had served in Napoleonís army and been wounded at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, and at the time of the Polish revolt in 1830 was a military doctor with the insurgents. During the cholera epidemic in Plock of 1831 he was active in tending the sick. Dr. Lubelski was highly decorated by the rebel government, and in later life was awarded a pension by the French government. Another learned Jew, Dr. Sigmunt Farkal, was a doctor in Plock in the 1830s, and served as chairman of the regional medical association. Another name worthy of note was that of Yitshak Hacohen Neschelseker, renowned for his knowledge of philosophy and European languages. The years 1861-1862 were marked by pride in Polish nationalism, which, among other things, was reflected by the existence in Warsaw of the "Fraternity of Poles and Jews". In Plock also there were signs of a rapprochement between Jews and Poles, the proponents of such a fraternity being the educated members of the community; and in this period the Jewish merchants were accepted as members of the Christian Chamber of Commerce.

After the abrogation of restrictions on Jewish residence by the Tsarís decree of June 1862 Jews also participated in the municipal elections of that year. Two Jews - Shmuel Hirsch Levinson and Shmaryahu Olshwitz - were elected, and under them were 5 Jewish assistants.

During the revolt of 1863 the insurgents failed to occupy Plock and the Russian garrison wreaked its revenge on the inhabitants of the town. The soldiers broke into houses, arrested and beat up people and even resorted to pillage. Many Jews were attacked. Some Jewish youths who had taken part in the revolt, or who had aided the rebels, were put on trial and imprisoned, while others were sent to Siberia.

The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th witnessed an increase in the Jewish population of Plock, despite the fact that in the 1890s some hundreds of Jewish families left for overseas.

The attraction of Plock for Jewish settlers was due to the fact that it was a central point in the grain trade with Danzig, in which 30% of the Jewish merchants in Plock were engaged. The same branch provided employment for various brokers, servants and day-labourers. In the 1880s, however, there was a recession, mainly because of the "customs war" between Prussia and Russia. Another negative consequence was the attempt of the credit institution of the Polish landowners to oust the Jews from the grain trade. This organisation displayed great activity in the period under review. To fight the crisis and the resulting hardship, the Jewish merchants took the initiative in setting up two institutions in common with the Poles. One was the "Zgora" (of the cooperative for food distribution and credit) established in 1870; and the second was the "Urban Credit Institution of Plock". The majority of members and leaders of these organisations were Jews.

According to the census of 1897 656 Jewish families earned their living from trade - 196 of them from agricultural produce, 101 from weaving and clothing, while the remainder were food retailers, ironmongers and haberdashers. Most of them dealt in whatever came to hand - they were market stallholders or took their wares to the surrounding villages. 294 Jewish earners were described as house owners or "capitalists". 660 owners of firms or workshops and 393 servants and day-labourers lived from crafts or small industry. Two factories for agricultural machinery established in Plock belonged to the Jews Margolit and Sarne. 36 Jews were engaged in transport (carters, porters, and the like).

In addition to the various production activities in P there were 33 religious functions, 52 teachers, 16 doctors and healers, and 3 government clerks. 19 heads of families defined themselves as farmers (apparently having kitchen gardens or orchards, and among them perhaps some who had returned to P from the settlement at Kuchary). The category "poor" consisted of 288 families (25 of whom obtained money from charity, and 263 who were unemployed, miscellaneous workers, and others).

The economic and social position of the Jews of Plock at the end of the 19th century may be gauged from the list of taxpayers to the Jewish community. For example, in 1901 the number of families registered with the community was 1,338. Of these 438 were completely exempt from tax, as they were unable to contribute anything at all; 521 families paid a mere average of 1.67 roubles a year; while 225 families paid an average of 8 roubles a year, and 35 families together paid 3,474 roubles out of a total of 8,761 roubles, which was the sum required by the community in that year.

We may conclude from these figures that a third of the Jewish inhabitants of Plock were destitute; another 40% paid minimal taxes only, and were thus ineligible to vote in elections to the community institutions, i.e. did not possess the minimum capital required. This fact was clearly reflected in election to the communityís governing body from among the small circle of persons of standing.

It should at the same time be noted that the more affluent members were active in community affairs and contributed to the setting up of public and social welfare institutions. In 1866 construction was begun on the new synagogue (called the "Great"), which was completed some years later, thanks to such contributions. In 1870 the corner-stone was laid for a modern hospital, which received patients two years later. The old-age home was opened in 1891, as was a shelter for poor young girls. Together with all these institutions the charity organisations continued to function, again thanks to philanhropic contributions.

In 1863 Azriel Aryeh Leib Rakowski was appointed rabbi of the community. He was a mitnaged and, moreover, had a modern education, and was therefore harrassed by the Chasidim - to such an extent that in 1867 he was obliged to abandon office. A year later, however, he was invited to return, and he then continued in office until 1880. From 1892 to 1909 the rabbinate was occupied by Yehezkiel Lifschits. After the First World War Rabbi Lifschits was elected chairman of the "Rabbinical Association" of Poland. Towards the end of the century and the beginning of the next the number of Chasidim in Plock increased; they were concentrated mainly around the prayer-houses of Gora, Aleksandrow, Starikow, etc. Yet at the same time modern education and culture began to gain ground. Before 1865 only 10 Jewish pupils (from well-to-do families) attended the Christian school in the town; the majority of Jewish children went to cheder, or had private teachers. In 1865, upon the recommendation of the authorities, the first secular Jewish school was opened in Plock. The curriculum included not only Jewish religious subjects but also foreign languages, arithmetic and handwriting. Owing to the small number of pupils the school was closed in 1871. However, in 1888, at the behest of the authorities and financed by the Jewish community, an elementary school of one class was opened for the Jewish children. Their education lasted 3 years; there were 3 teachers; and about a 100 pupils. In 1868 a Talmud Torah had been opened, and under the influence of persons with a modern education, secular subjects were introduced at the end of the 90s, and even handicrafts (mechanics, etc.) were added. In 1903 a "reformed cheder" was opened, where Hebrew lessons were conducted in Hebrew.

In addition to these educational institutions Plock also possessed a few private elementary schools. Their language of instruction was Russian, but they also provided some lessons in Judaism. To facilitate the admission of Jewish pupils to the three gymnasia in Plock the community committee gave an annual grant. Thus in 1891 there were 40 Jewish pupils at the Reali Gymnasium; while at the Gymnasium for girls there was but one pupil. In 1878/79 the local Gymnasium for Humaniora had 13 Jewish pupils (mainly from the rural towns; one of the pupils was Yitschak Grünbaum). Shortly before the First World War a Yeshiva was opened in Plock; it soon became well-known, and pupils streamed to it even from distant places.

The first Jewish Public Library in Plock was established in 1896, on the initiative of members of the Zionist organisation "Mazkeret Shmuel" (In Memory of Samuel). The moving spirit was Y. Grünbaum, who also presented the library with books from his private collection and from the library "Hochma Utoshiya" (Wisdom and Wisdom), founded by his father some years previously. In 1907, when the "Hazamir" (Nightingale) organisation (to further music and knowledge of music) was formed, it took upon itself the administration of the library, which thereafter assumed the name of the "Hazamir Library". Its considerable collection of books was preserved until the Second World War.

Widespread cultural activity was shown by the "Tikvat Yisrael" Society, established in 1900. It gave courses in Jewish history and Hebrew literature. The period under review was marked by an awakened political consciousness among the Jews of Plock. In 1891 the "Hovevei Zion" (Lovers of Zion) Society was founded and embraced some 200 members (most of them former pupils of the Bet Midrash, graduates of the Gymnasia, and young people from the first wave of "maskilim" (see Notes at end) in Plock. From "Hovevei Zion" emerged too the organisation "Mazkeret Shmuel", mentioned above. In 1904 the local branch of Socialist Zionists (SZ) was established, following the advent in 1900 of a branch of the "Bund". These two bodies organised the demonstrations and strikes that took place at the time of the revolutionary events of 1905; and prominent among the participants were several Plock. Jews who were members of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP). Foremost among them was Yosef Kwiatek, known throughout Poland as one of the leaders of the Polish socialist movement. Kwiatek moved from his birthplace to Warsaw, where he played a leading role in the mass demonstration of workers in Gazibowski Square in 1904. In this demonstration. following bloodshed, the Tsarist police were forced to withdraw. For his revolutionary activity Kwiatek was arrested by the Tsarist police on numerous occasions and even exiled to Siberia. After the schism in the PSP in 1906, he joined the nationalist faction of Josef Pilsudski, aiding him in Krakow in the organisation of the legions that played an important part in the restoration of Polish independence in 1918. During the two world wars a street in Plock was named after Kwiatek.

Among natives or long-time residents of Plock worthy of note were two names already mentioned here, namely Nahum Sokolow, who studied in Plock in his youth, and Yitshak Grünbaum, whose Zionist activities continued for some 20 years. The writer, educator and literary critic, Avraham Yaakov Papirne, taught Judaism at the State gymnasium, and for a time was head of the Talmud Torah and Government Inspector of the "cheders". Papirne wrote schoolbooks on Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, and Russian. He left Plock in 1915 and went first to Bobroysk and from there to Odessa, where he died in 1918. At the end of the 19th century, a native of Plock, Aharon ben Moshe Kanstam, was a known educationalist and a pioneer of modern Jewish pedagogics. He continued his activities in Lodz and Peterburg, and in Grodno, where he was head of the Hebrew Teachersí Training College.

In the wake of the German conquest of Plock in 1915 the Jewish community experienced a period of development in public, social and cultural affairs. The branches of the political parties that had had a semi-legal status under the Tsarist regime were now accorded legal status by the German authorities. The Zionist bodies increased their organisational and information activity. In 1915 came the "Agudat Hatsofim" (Scouts Association), from which "Hashomer Hatsair" Zionist youth movement (The Young Watchman) emerged in 1919.

The local branch of the "Bund" also emerged from the underground and opened the "Zukunft" (Future) Club, which included a drama group. Active locally and after the war also in the national movement was the writer Pinchas Schwartz (Krok). In 1917, on the initiative of the Zionists and of the townís rabbi, Yona Mordechai Zlotnik, a Jewish Gymnasium was opened with 7 classes and even pre-gymnasial classes. The language of instruction was Polish for general subjects and Hebrew for Jewish ones (Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish History). At about the same time a Hebrew kindergarten was started and survived until 1921, when it closed due to budgetary problems.During the First World War members of the "Mizrahi" in Plock established a few cheders on the pattern of the "Cheder Metukan" , one of which continued to exist until 1939. In 1915 the Zionist Society inaugurated Hebrew lessons in the "Hazamir Library", and in the same year the Maccabi Sports Club was established, with sections for sport and gymnastics. From the beginning the club attracted dozens of Jewish youth. Party members were active in setting up peoplesí kitchens, providing food and heating for the poor, whose suffering was accentuated by the war.

Back to Plock History Page

Back to P.R.I.

Back to Ada Web Page