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The Jews of Poland

The Khazars, an ancient nomadic Turkic people, reached the lower Volga region sometime in the sixth century. They rose to great power and the Khazar Empire at its height (eighth to the tenth century) extended from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as far west as Kiev.

In the eighth century the king of the Khazars and a fairly large number of his nobles adopted Judaism.

Khazaria was a busy trading centre and Jews from other countries came there to trade and even to live. Persecution by Byzantine rulers drew a great number of Jewish refugees to the Khazar Empire. The Khazar Empire was greatly weakened when in 965 its capital was sacked by the Russians, but it survived in its reduced state until the middle of the thirteenth century when it fell victim to the Mongol invasion.

The Jews of Khazaria may have been among the founders of the Jewish community of Poland and of the other Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. The horrors that followed the First Crusade (1096), drove the Jewish masses to Eastern Europe, to a peaceful Poland, and this emigration continued during the entire twelfth century.

The great Mongol invasions which began in 1240-41 and were repeated in 1259 utterly devastated Poland.

The only way of filling up the gaps in the population of the ravaged land was to invite immigrants with skills, of peaceful disposition but capable of building and defending strong cities.

It was mainly from Germany that the response to the invitation came. The German immigration was accompanied and followed by Jewish immigrants who were encouraged by special privileges granted to them.

The butcheries committed in Southern and Central Germany in 1298 by Christian mobs and the even worse atrocities against Jews at the time of the Black Death in 1348 and 1349, brought fresh masses of German Jews to Poland.

The Jewish privileges were virtually abolished in 1454.

Because of their superiority in numbers, wealth and cultural attainments the arrivals from Germany succeeded in a relatively short time in imposing their own rituals, customs and speech upon the local Jews, and upon Sephardic and Italian Jews who also arrived - in far smaller numbers - in the sixteenth century.

The Yiddish dialect of German, used by the western arrivals, began to dominate the speech of all the inhabitants of the Jewish quarters throughout the realm.

The Jews of Poland played an important part in the economic life of the country. They enjoyed unprecedented economic and social freedom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were revenue collectors on behalf of Polish landlords, bankers, physicians, and Jewish autonomy grew to the point where the Jews virtually governed themselves.

The central institution of Jewish self-government in Poland from the mid-sixteenth century until 1764 was the council of the Four Lands (Greater Poland, Little Poland, Galician and Volhynia). The Jews of Lithuania broke away in 1623 and formed their own Council. The Council for the Four Lands administered the collection of the Jewish tax from the Jews of Poland, and in the formal view of the Polish authorities its powers did not extend beyond that. But the state authorities were well aware that the Council served as an institution of Jewish autonomy in the full sense of self-government.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Jewish culture and scholarship flourished. The first formal yeshiva in Eastern Europe was founded in Cracow by Rabbi Jacob Pollack (1460-1511), who was already famous as the founder of pilpul and hillukim, the sophistic method of talmudic discussion. The yeshiva became famous when Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as Rema) took over its leadership.

When Joseph Caro's shorter codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch (the prepared table) appeared, Isserles wrote his Mappah (Tablecloth) incorporating the Ashkenazi practice. The addition of the mappah to Caro's primarily Sephardic work resulted ultimately in the Shulchan Aruch's acceptance in the Ashkenazi as well as the Sephardic world.

The Yeshivot of Poland became the model for Talmudic study for the rest of Europe. Students from Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, even Italy went to study there. From the second half of the seventeenth century, most rabbis in Germany and Central Europe came originally from Poland.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, however, disaster struck Polish-Jewry, beginning with the Cossacks rising in the Ukraine against the Polish landowners, and the Jews hated from their role as agents of the landowners.

Under the arenda system, Jewish arendators took over practically all inhabitants of villages and estates, collected dues from mills and other establishments, exacted the required days of labour from the serfs, and even administered justice to them all. The arendator paid the landowner a fixed sum for a specified period and in return received all the income.

In 1653, an autonomous Ukraine came under Russian's protection. This launched a new war in which Russian and Cossack forces marched against Poland. Meanwhile, Sweden invaded west Poland.

Between 1648 and 1658 Cossacks, Muscovites, Swedes, Tatars, Transylvanians and Brandenburgers invaded Poland, causing destruction of life and property comparable to that of the Thirty Years' War in Germany.

Cossack cruelty was so great that many Jews preferred to flee to captivity under the Crimean Tatars, to be sold as slaves. This was a harsh fate but final deliverance by Jewish redemption of captives at the slave markets of turkey was a foreseen possibility. Many Jews fled westward, going as far as Alsace, Holland and England.

The Deluge, as the catastrophe came to be known, brought death and devastation to both the Jews and the general population during the years of insurrection, invasions and wars. Famine and epidemics which swept either the whole or parts of the country contributed further to the havoc.

Soon, the Jews started to increase again in numbers and follow economic diversification, and progressively deepened their peculiar brand of East-European Jewish culture. Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, and its descendants became the main reservoir of Jewish manpower and intellectual dynamism for many lands - sending out émigrés first into neighbouring countries - and soon to Central and Western Europe and its New World dependencies as well.

For the Jews of Poland, most of the eighteenth century, was a period of harassment and blood libels aimed at igniting the religious fanaticism of the mob.

In 1764, the Polish Sejm established a different system for collecting the Jewish poll tax, and adopted a resolution which brought the Council of the Four Lands to an end.

In 1772 fearing that Russia may take over Poland, Prussia proposed and Russia and Austria agreed that each take a piece of Poland.

In 1793 Russia, under Catherine the Great, again moved against Poland and there was a second partition of Poland-Lithuania.

The third Partition of Poland which followed in 1795 was the end of an independent Poland until after World War I.

Disturbances and pogroms in Russian areas of the Pale of Settlements led in 1882 to the influx of the so-called "Litvaks" into Poland.

They played a major role in spreading the ideas of Jewish nationalism in Poland; it was they, for example, who led the Warsaw Hovevei Zion, the precursor of Modern Zionism.

By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population of Poland had become more and more dominant in the cities.

Their role in urban commercial ventures became more pronounced. By the end of the 19th century, a numerically small but highly influential Jewish professional class had made its appearance, particularly in Warsaw. The Jews, therefore, constituted an urban, middle-class and proletarian element within the great mass of Polish peasantry.

However, it had become apparent that the Jews were gradually losing ground to non-Jews in trade. The rise of non-Jewish middle-class, with the resulting increase in competition between Jew and gentile marked a process which gained impetus in the 20th century.

The collapse of Germany, Russia and Austria at the end of World War I was followed by victories for Polish armies in a number of conflicts; the most important, victory in the war between Poland and the Soviet Union, resulted in Poland's reconstruction as a sovereign state, enlarged by the addition of large tracts of Belorussia, Ukraine, Germany and Austria. Galacia was restored to Poland. The new state was approximately one-third non-Polish, the important minorities being Ukrainians, Jews, Belorussians and Germans.

As in the case of other newly created states, Poland signed a treaty with the Principal Allied and Associated Powers obligating itself to protect the national rights of its minorities, specifically promising Jews their own schools and to respect the Jewish Sabbath. The Polish constitution, too, formally abolished all discrimination based on religion, race or nationality, and recognised the Jews as a nationality.

But Jewish hopes were not fulfilled. Far from barring discrimination against non-Poles, the policy of the inter-war Polish state was to promote the ethnic Polish element at the expense of the Jews, the most vulnerable of the national minorities.

What distinguishes the inter-war years from the pre-war era was the anti-Semitic policy of the Polish state, which Jewish leaders accused of leading to the economic extermination of Polish Jewry. Jews were not employed in the civil service, there were very few Jewish teachers in the public schools, practically no Jewish railroad workers, no Jews employed in state-controlled banks, and no Jewish workers employed in state-run monopolies (such as tobacco and liquor). But all was not unrelieved gloom.

In 1937-38, the wave of pogroms and attacks swelled and as Polish fears of its mighty German neighbour increased, government and public anti-Semitism was intensified.

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. On the 17th Soviet forces entered Poland. On the 27th Warsaw surrendered to the Germans. On September 29th, a Soviet-German treaty of Friendship was announced. Poland was partitioned; the Soviet Union got slightly more territory, but the majority of the population came under German control.

On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched an attack on the Soviet Union. The Russians were taken by surprise, and within a matter of days they were forced out of Poland. They re-entered Poland in June 1944 but it was not until early 1945 that they drove the German forces out of Poland.

On October 28, 1939, all the Jews in German-occupied Poland were rounded up and confined to ghettos in a number of cities. The first major ghetto to be created was the Lodz ghetto in April, 1940, and Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were among those deported to Lodz. The first death camp to be completed was at Chelmno, sixty kilometres from Lodz; it began functioning on December 8, 1941, with mobile vans, using engine exhaust gases. Extermination camps were established also at Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec and Oswiecim (Auschwitz).

By the liberation, the great Polish Jewry, numbering more than 3,000,000 in 1939, had been almost entirely annihilated in the Holocaust. Those who survived mostly did so by taking refuge in the USSR. The majority of these were repatriated to Poland between 1945-47 and in 1956-58. Anti-Semitic incidents after the war caused many of the survivors to emigrate, mainly to Israel.

Between 1948 and 1958 about 140,000 Jews left for Israel. After the Six Day War in 1967 a further outbreak of anti-Semitism, which took the form of an anti-Zionist campaign resulted in a new wave of emigration. Today, the Jewish community numbers less than 6,000.

A very recent postcard issued by the Polish government intended to celebrate the post-Holocaust prospect of Warsaw



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