The first Jews to arrive in Poland were merchants, the Radanici who came as early as the tenth century. Merchants who established trade colonies also became the first permanent settlers. The Jews' trading and mercantile activities are confirmed by the oldest known records noting any Jewish presence in the Polish lands. By the twelfth century, the Jews had become so important that they were named in the customs tariff of 1226 of the customs post in Siewierz, on the west-east trade route, as well as in Olesno, on the route from Morava to Kujawy. It mentioned Jews from Poland as well as those from other countries.

The oldest privileges issued by the Polish authorities (Kalisz privilege) guaranteed freedom for traders throughout the country. This allowed Jews to engage in wholesale and retail trade, both locally and farther afield. They played an important role in trade with the Muslim countries (primarily Turkey), where Christian merchants' access was hindered for religious reasons. In the fifteenth century, long-distance trade developed to the east and north. The Tatar raids led to the fall of the main towns of Kievan Rus', including Kiev, which meant a shift in trade routes and an increased significance for Lwow. Jews from Red Rus' (Eastern Galicia) and Wolyn (Volhynia) (from Lwow, Drohobycz, Luck and Wlodzimierz) participated in trade with cities on the Black Sea and in Asia. A source dated 1440 mentions Jews from Kaffa and Lwow who founded trading companies. Lithuanian Jews from Troki, Grodno and Brzesc provided Baltic ports (especially Gdansk) with eastern goods as well as domestic grain, furs, hides, wax, tar and ash. In addition, they gained trading rights in areas belonging to the Teutonic order. Jewish merchants from Mazovia also went to Gdansk.

Jews maintained trade contacts with many of Poland's neighbors. They and bought horses in Hungary, and brought oxen from Moldavia, which they then sold at Silesian fairs. Many sources mention their activities in Constantinople, Venice, Florence, Hamburg, Frankfurt an der Oder, Leipzig, Moscow and Riga, and even in far-off Asian cities.

The fact that there were Jewish Communitites scattered throughout many countries made these activities easier for Jewish traders, sometimes acting as trading posts. In the Commonwealth, too, Jewish traders could count on help from the Communities, whose responsibility it was to help travelling Jews, though few were involved in long-distance trade. Most limited their activities to local markets, where they sold various foods and crafts. The wealthier Jews had shops on the ground floors, the poorer ones had booths and stalls. Often, they would simply hawk their wares on the street. Jewish artisans also sold their own products.

The development of Jewish trade, facilitated by various privileges and also by the exclusion of Jews from the control of Christian merchants' guilds, gave rise to increasing conflict with Christian merchants. As a result, cities strove to limit Jews' trading rights, particularly in larger cities. The first bans were issued by the Silesian princes as early as the early fourteenth century. Theirs was a ban on retail sales of broadcloth in Wroclaw and Glogow. On the basis of an agreement signed in 1485 in Krakow, Jews were forced to relinquish their trading rights. From that time, they could only engage in the sale of pawned goods that had not been reclaimed, and of caps and collars produced by Jewish artisans. In 1488, Kazimierz IV Jagiellon limited Jews' trading rights in Lwow, limiting Jews to wholesale trade and the sale of pawned goods.

In 1521, the largest Polish cities formed a coalition whose aim was to curtail Jewish trade. Some of the cities even demanded that Jews be completely expelled from their territories, allowing them to trade on fair and market days.

The bans on Jewish trade were annulled many times, only to be subsequently renewed. Jewish merchants tried to evade the restrictions that were impairing their ability to function. Attempts were made to normalize the situation by concluding agreements between cities and Jewish Communities. Such was the case in 1581 for example in Lwow, when an agreement was made for a period of eight years. Most of the Polish rulers confirmed the privileges that allowed Jews to freely run their businesses. The restrictions announced by those same rulers only affected a few cities. Some kings, despite the bans they themselves had issued, accorded special privileges to certain Jewish merchants who were serving their own court.

The burghers did not make concerted efforts to squelch their Jewish competition, since the rivalry between cities was also strong. Despite the bans that existed, they rented shops and storage space to Jews. The szlachta (Polish nobility) allowed Jews to operate freely within the jurydyki (the private areas that were excluded from the jurisdiction of municipal authorities).

Beginning in the sixteenth century, they played an important role as mediators in the sale of goods produced on the noble estates. Their services were used by the majority of the large landholders and the most influential magnates, including the Radziwills, Ostrogskis, Wisniowieckis, Potockis, Zamoyskis and Opalinskis.

The Jews played a special role in the Commonwealth's southeastern voivodships. They mediated in the sale of grain and forest products, such as wood, ash and wax. They sent these products not only to Gdansk, but also to the ports of Koenigsberg and Riga.

From the second half of the seventeenth century, Jewish merchants from Wielkopolska participated in the fairs at Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder with increasing frequency. From the early eighteenth century, the largest Communities of Wielkopolska maintained permanent commercial agents in Gdansk and Wroclaw.

The economic crisis that hit the Commonwealth in the first half of the eighteenth century hampered the development of large-scale Jewish trade, but the most important merchants from Lwow, Brody and Leszno, for example, managed to maintain their positions. Small-scale and local trade played an ever-increasing role. The fall of Polish cities, the collapse of crafts, and the return of city dwellers to agricultural activities meant it was easier for trade to become concentrated in the hands of small-scale Jewish merchants and small shopkeepers.
In the late eighteenth century, about 35-38% of Polish Jews made their living from trade, which can be broken down into several categories. The first was comprised of banking, along with suppliers, moneylenders and large-scale merchants. It is quite difficult to distinguish particular specializations, because mercantile and banking capital were intertwined. Large-scale merchants were involved in exporting raw materials amd agricultural and forest products (such as potash and lumber) from Poland through Baltic ports. They also sent oxen, horses and hides to Silesia and Prussia, and exported wax, lard, and other goods. The most prominent of these included Szmul Zbytkower, Ajzyk, and Szymon Enochowicz. They employed several hundred agents who would for example buy cattle in Podole, Wolyn (Volhynia) and Ukraine, and bring hides from Lithuania. Oxen and horses intended for resale were imported to Poland, as were salt, furs, metal products, copper, silver, cloth, jewelry, precious stones, glass and porcelain, tobacco, tea and Jewish books.

Jewish merchants had contacts with other Jews throughout Europe, and traveled to Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main, Wroclaw and Moscow. They traded with Turkish merchants, as well as with English ones, from whom they bought broadcloth. They were involved in supplying the Polish army with grain, spirits, horses, uniforms and fodder, in addition to the royal court and embassies in Warsaw. They also supplied the rebel army in 1794. Jewish merchants grew more important in the Principality of Warsaw, and contributed to the development of domestic trade and the spread of commercial contacts between Poland and Prussia, Silesia and Western Europe.

The numbers of small-time traders, hawkers, stall-keepers, door-to-door salesmen and middlemen were even greater, making up about 40% of all Jewish traders. Jews also worked in related professions, such as running inexpensive restaurants and cafes.

Because the partitions each had a different legal system, Jews began to be employed in a greater variety of professions. This was particularly apparent in trade. The textile industry and related trading activities were seriously undermined because the Prussian partition was cut off by a border from the rest of the Polish lands, which had been a significant market.

In 1815, in the Principality of Posen, large population of Jews there (63.3% of the total population) was involved in trade and credit. Later, however, this percentage shrank considerably; this tendency continued until the late 1870's and early 1880's. Polish-Jewish competition in trade was growing, and was linked to the Poles' own efforts to strengthen their role in economics and culture, often giving rise to expressions of anti-Semitism. This in turn brought about a fall in the number of Jewish merchants in Wielkopolska - in 1882, they comprised 36.6% of traders; by 1907, this figure was just 21.3%.

In the Austrian partition, Jews, who had suffered greatly as the result of the wars of the eighteenth century, found themselves in a difficult economic situation. In 1776, Empress Maria Theresa issued the Judenordnung, which banned Jews from trading in articles that were subject to the state monopoly, as well as from engaging in certain activities, while at the same time subjecting them to additional taxes. Nevertheless, the situation improved in the 1870's and 1880's as agriculture developed, which also brought increased trade.

Jewish merchants were prominent in the trade of cattle, feathers, bristles, poultry and rags. Most of the trading in Galicia, particularly in its eastern regions, took place in small Jewish shops run by the owner and his family. In the early twentieth century, Jews began losing their position in Galician trade. The cooperative movement was gaining ground, both among Poles and Ukrainians. The regional authorities, dominated by Polish conservatives, supported these developments.

In 1911, concessions were required in order to trade in alcoholic drinks; only 8,000 Jews were granted them, which meant that approximately 40,000 lost their source of livelihood. Jews were no longer allowed to trade in salt (a state monopoly), their ability to work on Sunday was limited (due to the law forbidding work on Sunday), and they were banned from the cattle trade.
In the early nineteenth century, most Polish Jews were living in the Russian partition. The pattern of Jewish employment changed as the result of new legal restrictions, just as had been the case in Galicia. Jews were excluded from trade in rural areas. The poorest engaged in small-scale trade in towns, and sometimes in crafts; the wealthier tried to adapt and find new possibilities in the changed conditions. A small but quite powerful financial elite formed, and renewed contacts in Russia and Europe. According to the 1897 census, as many as 79.2% of all those employed in "trade, credit and insurance" were Jewish. Jews were also involved in the trade of grain (93.5%), hides and furs (90.6%), metals, machines and weapons (83%), clothing (82%), and cattle (80.5%), as well as textile products, paper and technological products, books, lumber, poultry, bristle products, watches and toys. Trade in the Kingdom of Poland was closely tied to the Russian market, especially insofar as the export of textiles and clothing was concerned. Most of the Jews engaged in trade were small-time businessmen whose activities brought only limited profits; they were involved in retail sales, running small shop or stalls, or were traveling salesmen serving the impoverished countryside.

As in the other partitions, in the Kingdom of Poland, competition from Christian merchants also began to increased during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prompted by societal changes in the wake of the January Uprising and urbanization. In addition, there was an influx of people from the countryside and members of the Polish petty-bourgeoisie into the trade-related professions, such as trade in technological, chemical and textile products, and in the food sector.
At the start of the First World War, a large portion of the Russian partition was under German occupation. The Germans confiscated most raw materials and means of production, and introduced rationing of foodstuffs. Coal, ores, lumber and salt became monopolies; the private slaughter of cattle was banned, as was the trade in grain. These steps in effect eliminated private trade.
The Austrians implemented similar policies. The only sectors of trade that continued to function well were those serving the army. Speculation in foodstuffs and manufactured goods was booming.
After 1918, when Poland regained its independence, the Jews played an important role in rebuilding economic life, despite the enormous wartime losses. Thanks to them, the clothing industry and related branches could be rebuilt quickly. In 1919-1920, the underclothing and shoe industries were reestablished. Jewish watchmakers continued to cooperate with Swiss firms. Medium- and small-scale trade not requiring large amounts of start-up capital was established.

Nevertheless, the Jewish role in trade diminished throughout the interwar period. The economic crisis after the First World War forced some to find work in other areas of the economy. State policies did not help the Jewish merchants, since they were designed to support Polish participation in various sectors of the economy. The official attitude was that "Jewish trade" as a separate economic phenomenon had no justification, because both the suppliers and consumers were non-Jewish, despite the fact that Jewish business activities were an integral part of Poland's economy. In 1931, trade and insurance employed 36.6% of the Jewish workforce, which was 58.7% of the total number of people employed in those two branches. In the 1930's, these indicators fell significantly, the result of the continuing depression and also the economic boycott advocated by the national camp. Jews were most active as hawkers and door-to-door salesmen, and somewhat less in retail; they were least active in wholesale trade and credit.

Within the different branches, strictly "Jewish" specializations existed as well. In the foodstuffs trade, Jews dealt heavily in flour, groats, rice and fish. Shops selling sweets, fruits and vegetables were split equally between Jewish and Christian shopkeepers. Few Jews ran shops selling beer and alcoholic drinks, which required a state-issued concession. Jews owned most of the shops selling furniture and wood products. In the chemical branch, Jews dominated pharmacy warehouses and soap, dye and lacquer shops. Their role Poland-wide in the metal goods trade was over 60%, while in the watch-making and jewelry branch, they made up 68.7%. Most shopkeepers in the clothing trade as a whole were Jewish, including those selling cloth, furs, machine knits, ready-made clothing, hats and caps, shoes and leather.

Trade's territorial patterns had developed during the partitions, and did not change much during the interwar period. The west of Poland had the fewest number of Jewish traders, though in the 1930�s they began moving into those areas as well. They played a large role in the towns and cities of the central voivodships, but it was in the east that their numbers were most numerous. The economic backwardness of the countryside in the east meant that trade was most primitive there, with a low profit margin.

In the villages, cooperative shops opened at the initiative of the national parties and the Church. These competed with private trade, and usually went hand in hand with agitation for the economic boycott. The boycott was often accompanied by anti-Semitic excesses, and sometimes even pogroms. The boycott, approved by the sanacja government in 1936-1939, had a negative impact on Jewish traders. Poor merchants and artisans were not able to sustain their enterprises. The number of d�class� petty-bourgeois Jews increased. These individuals then had to depend on charity and material assistance from abroad.

During the Second World War, Jews were deprived of the right to own any property whatsoever. When the Germans occupied Poland, they confiscated the Jewish-owned warehouses, industrial plants and larger shops, leaving them with only the smallest shops and crafts workshops, which had to be marked with a Star of David.

During the deportation actions that took place as the ghettos were being created, the deportees were allowed only personal baggage (20-30 kg). The ghettos' only shops dealt in food rations. In these conditions, the black market and smuggling played an important role-as the only way to supplement the starvation-level rations.

In the Soviet zone, private firms were taken over by the state, middlemen were replaced with central distribution, and retail black-market trade quickly died out, for a lack of goods.
In People's Poland, among the few Jews who survived the Holocaust, trade-related professions were no longer as important as they had been before the war. As the result of the nationalization of industry and trade, it was not easy to reclaim the companies confiscated by the Germans during the war. Private trade was of only marginal importance, employing just 5% of all Jews in the workforce (approximately 1,000-1,500 people in 1947-48). Although they were active in the black market, as a supplementary activity, not much is known on the subject. The only information available is contained in the decisions handed down by special courts in "speculation" cases.

The Central Committee of Jews in Poland, as part of "productivization" (i.e., employment in production), organized trade cooperatives, such as the one known as the Central Economic "Solidarity", which included twenty-four department stores (1948). As early as 1949, all the Jewish cooperatives were nationalized. By 1968, several dozen Jewish specialists worked in central state trade and economic offices. Most, however, were forced into emigration as a result of the purges and harassment during the anti-Semitic campaign launched by the communist regime in 1968.

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