Jewish settlement in Poland

The first Jews to arrive in Slavic areas were "Radanici"[, which in Persian means "those who know the way" - translator's note]: these were [Jewish] merchants conducting trade with the East who came from Spain and southern France. In the tenth century, Jewish merchants from wealthy German cities on the Rhine and Danube also arrived in Poland. Historical texts by Ibrahim ibn Jakub and other travelers confirm the existence of a trade route through Regensburg, Prague, Wroclaw and Krakow to Kiev. There is no evidence that Jews settled permanently in Polish lands at that time, however. The first mention of permanent settlers refers to the first half of the eleventh century and suggests that trading posts existed, though their locations have not been determined with any certainty.

According to the Czech chronicler Cosmas, in 1097-1098 a group of Jews from Prague fled to Poland to escape unrest sparked by the Teutonic Knights. During that period, Jews from Kiev probably also arrived. The first Polish sources mentioning a permanent Jewish settlement in Poland date back to the twelfth century in Silesia. A document about the endowment of a monastery of regular canons in Wroclaw mentions the village of Tyniec, which was bought in 1153 from Jews and offered to the monastery. In the second half of the twelfth century, the "service village" of Sokolniki in Wielkopolska was also owned by Jews. Another document, written for Henry the Bearded in 1226, told of Jews who were living in the castellany of Bytom in Silesia. They were probably engaged in farming. A tombstone of a cantor named David ben Shalom dating back to 1203 indicates there was a more substantial group of Jews living in Wroclaw at that time. His father, the senior kahalny (cantor) probably came here from the region of Mainz or Worms.

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, increasing numbers of Jews were living not only in Silesia, but also in Malopolska, as demonstrated by the Polish Chronicle of Wincenty, known as "Kadlubek", in Wielkopolska (numerous records mentioning the Jews of Kalisz in particular), and in Mazovia (the town charter of Plock dated 1237 mentions a "Jewish well").
The presence of Jewish merchants (including women) is indicated by the tariffs collected at the customs posts in Olesno and Siewierz. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Jewish minters were employed in Polish mints. (brakteaty)

The first Jewish Communities were founded at the main princely castles that acted as territorial capitals, such as those in Wroclaw, Krakow, Plock and Kalisz. This probably had to do with the fact that Jews were granted the status of servi camerae [Latin, "servants of the Treasury"]. By the fourteenth century, there were Jews living throughout Poland. Most of them were Ashkenazim, and used a Low German dialect. Their presence in Red Rus' was first noted in the second half of the fourteenth century, though a small group had probably arrived there from the east as early as the twelfth century.

Colonization of these territories led to the privilege granted by Kazimierz III the Great possible. (privileges granted to the Jews) At that time, Jews began arriving in Red Rus' from the German lands. The Polish kings supported settlement in economically underdeveloped areas, such as Red Rus'. Jews were well received there because of their technical skills and expertise in trade and crafts. The largest group of Jews in that region was in Lwow.

In the eastern territories of the Polish-Lithuanian state, the Jews lived in small communities in the countryside as well, where they owned mills, inns and even landed estates. Their culture and professions meant they were more apt to settle in the cities, however. They created separate enclaves (Jewish streets), subject to their own self-government. They were granted separate privileges that excluded them from the municipal court system. As a result, the forms of Jewish settlement that developed during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries in Poland differed from those existing in Western Europe and the Mediterranean countries, where ghettos were the norm.
The history of Jewish settlement in Poland can be divided into several stages: until the mid-fourteenth century, Jews settled throughout the country, but the number of Communities was relatively small; these were usually small groups numbering from a dozen to several dozen people. Merchants, and immigrants, arrived in Poland from Germany and the Czech lands, having fled the persecution of the Teutonic Knights who were on their way to crusades in the Holy Lands. Jews from Rus' and Byzantium probably also settled in Polish lands, particularly in the east. From the mid-fourteenth to the late fifteenth centuries, the number of Jewish settlers in Poland grew rapidly. There were violent attacks on Jews, who were accused of having caused the Black Death that decimated much of Europe's population during the years 1348-1350. This prompted a heavy influx of Jews into Poland, particularly from German cities.
From the mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, Jews were leaving territories of the Commonwealth; at the same time, already existing Communities experienced rapid demographic growth. After the massacre during the Cossack uprisings, a large group of Jews left the Commonwealth. Many of them returned after several years, but in the mid-seventeenth century Poland nonetheless was no longer the safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution that it once used to be.

In the second half of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century, many new Jewish Communities were founded (some even on Church lands) thanks to legislation intended to spur economic growth in Poland, destroyed by wars, and also to the numerous privileges granted to the Jews. In addition, previously existing Communities experienced a revival at that time. The Jewish population grew quickly after the 1670's. The demographic structure of cities also changed, where Jews came to represent an ever-larger proportion of the total population.

The Period of the Partitions - In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Jewish settlement was subject to the legislation of the three partitioning powers (legal status of Jews).
In the Prussian partition, privileges of settlement were only granted to wealthier Jews, while most others were forced to pay a duty for every day they spent in town (known in German as Tagzoll, "day duty"); the poorest were resettled elsewhere. After they were granted equal rights in 1869, Jews could settle in the cities of Pomerania and Eastern Prussia.

In Galicia, which belonged to Austria, the most liberal of the three partitioning powers, the distribution of Jews was more equal, and a larger percentage lived in the countryside.

Russia permitted Jews to live only in the pale of settlement and in the Kingdom of Poland. The tsarist government removed the Jews from the countryside by several administrative decrees, which meant there was a significant concentration of Jews particularly in the small towns of Podlasie, Mazovia and Belarus (shtetl), where they often made up the majority of the population. When the tsarist administration reduced the area of settlement, Jews were expelled from many locations. Repression and waves of violence instigated by the authorities (pogroms) resulted in an exodus of Jews to Western Europe, the United States and Palestine (emigration of Jews from Poland), as well as to the Kingdom of Poland (Litwacy).

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