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.