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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.