Poland

Fewer than 10,000 Jews live in Poland, a country once known as the center of European Jewish life. On the eve of the Second World War, Poland was home to over three million Jews, making it the second-largest community in the world. Warsaw, the capital, had a population of over 300,000 Jews, more than 30% of the population of the city—and a larger Jewish community than in most European countries. Around 85% of Polish Jewry was annihilated during the Holocaust. Many Jews from other countries were deported to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland and murdered there. After the war, many survivors refused to return to, or remain in, Poland, which was marked by civil war and anti-Semitic violence. Since the end of Communism, the small Jewish community in Poland has been able to reassert its identity and begin the process of rebuilding. Most of the country's Jews live in Warsaw, but smaller communities also exist in Kraków, Wrocław, Łódź, Katowice, Szczecin, Gdańsk and several other cities. Poland’s large number of Jewish historical sites has resulted in a popular place for Jewish heritage tours. The Polish affiliate of the World Jewish Congress is the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.

WJC Affiliate

Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland
ZGWŻP
ul. Twarda 6             
PL-00-950 Warszawa
Tel: +48 22 620 43 24
Fax: +48 22 652 28 05
Email: sekretariat@jewish.org.pl

President: Leslaw Piszewski

 

History

Jewish settlement on the territory that comprises modern day Poland can be traced back more than 1,000 years with the settlement of Jews seeking relief from persecution in Western and Central Europe. In 1264, Prince Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz, the first writ of privileges for Polish Jews and the basis for subsequent protective charters. Successive Polish kings, notably Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century, encouraged Jews to settle in Poland and acted as their patron. Jews were outstanding mint masters, and the first coins issued in Poland bore Hebrew, not Polish, inscriptions. By the middle of the 16th century, some 80% of world Jewry lived on Polish lands.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Jews enjoyed a unique form of self-government known as the Va'ad Arba Aratzot (Council of Four Lands), which functioned as a Jewish parliament. Despite enjoying a great deal of communal autonomy, the period was also one of intense tragedy and in 1648-1649 Cossack hordes led by Bogdan Chmielnicki massacred 100,000–200,000 Jews of eastern Poland (present-day Ukraine). The massacres also led to the impoverishment of much of Polish Jewry and the subsequent rise of faux messianic leaders such as Shabbtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. The Polish territories were also the birthplace of the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Hasidic movement.

The successive partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century meant that Polish Jewry split into several related but different groups. The bulk of Polish Jewry was concentrated in Russian and Austrian-ruled areas of the country, but small communities also existed in the territories annexed to Prussia. Russian-ruled Poland belonged to the so-called “Pale of Settlement.” Jews rallied to the Polish flag in a number of abortive uprisings in which Poles sought to regain their independence. One particularly notable example was Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels, who was arrested by the Russians for his patriotic activism in the January Uprising 1863 and expelled from Warsaw.

Toward the end of the 19th century, when much of Poland was still part of the repressive Czarist Russian Empire, a great wave of emigration began and Polish Jews left for the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, France and the Land of Israel. At the same time, Jews from Lithuania and other parts of the Russian Empire moved to Poland. Jews played a significant role in the economic development of the country, particularly in commerce and industry and especially in textiles and the development of the country’s oil resources. They also made many impressive contributions to Polish arts and sciences. Poland was the birthplace of many of Israel's outstanding political leaders, including David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.

Following World War II, Poland reemerged as an independent country. In the interwar period, despite the government's often ambivalent and at times even hostile policies, Polish Jewry represented one of the most creative communities in the Diaspora. Poland was the heartland of many of the great movements that shaped Jewish life such as Hasidism, Zionism and Jewish socialism—and all of these currents found expression in numerous schools, organizations, political parties and publications. Interwar Poland was also a center of Jewish linguistic and literary creativity, featuring a vibrant Yiddish theatre and film scene. Polish Jewry played an especially important role in the development of Hebrew culture and maintained an impressive network of schools in which Hebrew was the language of instruction.

On the eve of the Holocaust, 20 years after Polish independence, some 3,300,000 Jews lived in the country, constituting the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Warsaw alone was home to over 300,000 Jews. About 85% of Polish Jewry was wiped out in the Holocaust, and many Jews from other countries were deported to German-occupied Poland and killed in the Nazi death camps situated there.
After the war, most of the survivors refused to return to, or remain in, Poland. Emigration accelerated after the pogrom in Kielce in July 1946, in which more than 40 Jews were murdered. Although the situation eventually stabilized, and the Jewish cultural community was revitalized, the Jewish population continued to shrink through successive waves of emigration. One notable wave followed an anti-Semitic Communist party witch-hunt against Jews in 1968.

At that time, most of the remaining Jewish communal infrastructure, including the Jewish school system, was shut down, and it was widely believed that the story of Polish Jewry had come to an end. However, in the years leading up to the collapse of Communism, Poland's Jewish community was gradually able to reassert its identity and today has a very high profile. Polish society has also faced revelations about the sinister episodes of its contemporary past—in particular, the terrible wartime massacre of the Jewish population at Jedwabne and several neighboring communities by local citizens—with considerable introspection. For the most part, Polish scholars of the younger generation were at the forefront of this movement to reevaluate Polish history. However, since the ruling Law and Justice party took power in 2015, efforts have been made to legislate a historical narrative more in line with nationalist sentiments. This has led a number of Holocaust scholars to severely criticize the Polish authorities, alleging that they are turning back on the significant progress of recent years.

 

The Years of the Holocaust

Some 85% of Polish Jewry was murdered during the Holocaust. Many of the primary Nazi concentration camps were established on Polish soil, making it one of the primary locations for the Holocaust. These camps included Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Chełmno, Treblinka, Bełzec, Majdanek, Stutthof, and Gross-Rosen.

The best-known of many acts of armed resistance to the Nazis by the Jews of Poland was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place in April 1943. In addition to armed resistance, there were also acts of cultural and spiritual resistance. In October 1939, historian Emanuel Ringelblum started the “Oneg Shabbat” documentation project in the ghetto, in which he was joined by dozens of intellectuals. This collective produced a trove of material on practically all facets of life and death in the ghetto, providing important documentation for future generations.

 

Demography

It is difficult to determine an exact figure for the Jewish population of contemporary Poland.  Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that between 3,500 and 7,500 Jews lived in Poland as of 2002, while some local community estimates suggest somewhat higher numbers. The Polish Jewish community is primarily concentrated in Warsaw, but there are also communities in Kraków, Łódź, Szczecin, Gdańsk and in several cities in Upper and Lower Silesia, notably in Katowice and Wrocław. Very few Jews live in once great centers of communal life in the eastern part of the country such as Lublin, Białystok, and Przemyśl. Over the past 25 years there has been a reawakening of Jewish consciousness, and young people of Jewish origin who had no previous Jewish affiliation have joined the community. There are also several hundred Israelis in Poland. Jewish activists from abroad, including several members of both the Chabad and Reform movements, have also taken up residence in Poland and established communities.

Community Life

Today, in addition to the "official" community, there are a plethora of Jewish organizations and institutions catering to virtually every type of Jewish identity. This includes an organization comprising persons orphaned in the Holocaust and raised by non-Jews. Many of these orphans only discovered their Jewish origins late in life. Kosher food is readily available and some is produced locally for export.

High on the community's agenda is the preservation of the large number of Jewish historical sites (including cemeteries and synagogues) that cover the length and breadth of the country. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage administers restituted Jewish property. Among the properties restored to the Jewish communities is the monumental building of the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, which, before the war, was one of the world's greatest institutions of Jewish learning. That building has been restored, and in addition to its vast sanctuary, houses a hotel for Jewish travelers. Poland has yet to enact a comprehensive law restoring property to pre-war owners or their heirs or to compensate them for their losses.

Anti-Semitism remains a problem, manifesting itself in the vandalism of Jewish sites, graffiti, the publication and distribution of anti-Semitic literature, and anti-Jewish utterances by public figures, including certain extreme members of the clergy. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church sponsors an annual day devoted to the study of Judaism, which is held each year in a different city.

 

Religious and Cultural Life

The annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, the largest Jewish festival in Europe, features concerts, lectures and workshops and draws tens of thousands of participants from Poland and abroad. Similar, though smaller, festivals are held in a number of other Polish cities. The Jewish Community Centre of Kraków (JCC), in the city's historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, offers myriad Jewish activities, both religious and cultural. It was officially opened in April 2008 by the Prince of Wales. The Center for Jewish Culture, which is located nearby, is also a central venue for much of the city's Jewish activity, including exhibitions, lectures, films, meetings and various educational courses.

The state-supported E.R. Kaminska Jewish Theater in Warsaw is the only regularly functioning Yiddish theater in the world. Audiences can listen to its productions in Polish (and occasionally in other languages) with the use of headphones. Today most of its actors are non-Jews. In 2017, the building housing the theater was torn down and the company will be housed in new premises in a skyscraper being built on the same site.

There are functioning synagogues (and mikvehs) in a number of cities. Some of these are historical edifices, such as Kraków’s Remu Synagogue, which is associated with the great sage Rabbi Moshe Isserles, and the Templum in Kraków. In Warsaw, the Nożyk Synagogue is the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of worship. Poland has an Orthodox chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, whose seat is in Warsaw, and several other rabbis tend to the spiritual needs of Jews in other cities. There is also a Chabad House in Warsaw, as well as a Progressive Jewish congregation, Ec Chaim. The Beit Warszawa Jewish Cultural Association, affiliated with the Reform movement, runs its own educational programs.

 

Jewish Education

The Lauder Morasha Schools in Warsaw, sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, operate educational facilities catering to children from kindergarten through high school. Various Jewish courses (including Hebrew) are offered at Warsaw University, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and other institutions. In 2009, the Higher School of Hebrew Philology was established in Torun.

youth

There are several groups directed at Jewish youth in Poland, including the Polish Union of Jewish Students (PUSZ), and Hillel.

jewish media

Several Jewish publications regularly appear in Poland, including two monthlies, Midrasz and Slowo Zydowskie. The Jewish Historical Institute publishes its own scholarly journal, Jewish History Quarterly, and the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences publishes one called Zagładą Żydów. Every year, an impressive number of books and publications on Jewish themes is published, including original scholarship on the history of Polish Jews by Polish non-Jewish scholars and translations of Jewish literature.

Information for Visitors

Poland, particularly the central and eastern parts of the country, contains a vast number of places of interest for Jewish visitors.

The Polin Museum, in what was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw, has become one of the country's preeminent cultural institutions. The Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH) is an important repository of documentation on the history of Polish Jewry, especially the Shoah. It also maintains a permanent exhibition of Jewish art and artifacts from the Holocaust. In Warsaw, there are also a number of sites connected with the ghetto uprising and the life of the city's once-vibrant Jewish community. These include the Central Ghetto Monument, designed by the sculptor Natan Rapoport, and the permanent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute, which also houses a collection of paintings and sculptures by Polish-Jewish artists. In Kraków, which was spared the destruction to which the capital was subjected, there are a number of old synagogues that can still be visited, among them the Remu and the 14th-century Stara Synagogue (the oldest in Poland), which today houses a Jewish museum. In the 1990s, the Galicia Jewish Museum was established, devoted to telling the story of the Jewish experience in Galicia.

Łódź is the site of one of the largest Jewish burial grounds in Europe. Of particular interest are the mausoleums and palaces of the city's great Jewish textile magnates. The Radegast railway station in Łódź, from which Jews were deported to the Chełmno death camp, has been converted into a somber monument designed by the Polish-Jewish architect Czesław Bielecki. Many of the smaller towns contain remnants of Jewish presence.

In recent years, a "Hasidic Trail" has been demarcated, which includes Baligród, Biłgoraj, Chełm, Cieszanów, Dębica, Dukla, Dynów, Jarosław, Kolbuszowa, Kraśnik, Lesko, Leżajsk, Lublin, Łańcut, Łęczna, Przemyśl, Radomyśl, Wielki, Ropczyce, Rymanów, Sanok, Tarnobrzeg, Ulanów, Ustrzyki Dolne, Wielkie Oczy, Włodawa, and Zamość. Zamość contains one of the most important monuments of Jewish sacral architecture: a restored 17th-century renaissance-style synagogue, which has been included on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. There are also many historic cemeteries, some containing the graves of famous Hasidic rabbis, such as those in Góra Kalwaria (Ger) and Leżajsk (Lezensk).

Many Jewish visitors go to the sites of former Nazi death and concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Bełzec, Chełmno, Stutthof, and Treblinka. Of the last, no trace remains, and the grounds are the site of an evocative monument consisting of thousands of shards of broken stone.

 

Israel

Israel and Poland resumed full diplomatic relations in 1990 after a hiatus of 23 years. Since the resumption of relations with Israel in 1989/1990, Warsaw has become one of Jerusalem’s most important European allies.

Embassy of the State of Israel:
ul. Krzywickiego 24
PL-02-278 Warsaw
Tel: +48 22 597 0500
Fax:+ 48 22 8251 607

Email: publicaffairs@warsaw.mfa.gov.il
Website: http://embassies.gov.il/warsaw-en/Pages/default.aspx

 

updated

 

February 2018

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