Crafts were one of the Jews' main occupations, next to trade and credit activities. Religious laws about ritual slaughter and kosher food meant that only products made by Jewish craftsmen could be used. The ban on using linen thread to sew woolen clothing meant garments made by Christians could not be used.

Jewish settlers who came to Poland from Western Europe in the twelfth century were well versed in a great number of crafts (including some rare ones), thanks to which they made an important contribution to the development of Polish cities and trade, though the lack of a market for luxury goods did not allow them to develop the most highly specialized of these fields.

The oldest privileges granted by Polish rulers allowed Jews to freely practice their trades. In the thirteenth century, sources mention Jewish minters who were making bracteates. Fifteenth century sources indicate that Jews were also engaged in specializations unrelated to religious laws, such as glaziery, working with bronze, blacksmithing and coopery.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some crafts became the domain of Jewish artisans, such as goldsmithery. Both Jews and Christians bought the goods they produced.

Since Jewish artisans were competition for the Christian craftsmen, cities began limiting the privileges allowing Jews to practice their crafts freely.

The large number of Jewish tradesmen also meant competition within the Jewish community itself, and spurred the establishment of Jewish guilds in the early seventeenth century. In some towns, Jews were accepted into Christian guilds.

In the eighteenth century, crafts and trade were the main sources of livelihood for Jews in Poland. Many Jews were involved in crafts production in the following specializations: goldsmithery, jewelry-making and watch-making, as well as tailoring, furriery and cap-making. They were also engaged in rare trades, such as the making of seals, dyeing, glaziery and printing. In the food-related trades, Jews dominated in baking, candy-making, butchering, and alcohol production, including breweries and distilleries.

The partitioning powers restricted the Jews' choice of profession, particularly in the fields that were subject to state monopoly, such as the production of hard liquor and beer, and the milling of grain. Jews were also forbidden from having pharmacies and forming their own professional associations.

Jews in the Russian partition could not be employed outside their district of residence. It was made difficult for them to gain qualifications, and the Christian master craftsmen in the guilds as a rule did not take on Jewish apprentices. As a result of these restrictions, in the mid-nineteenth century the number of Jewish craftsmen fell, and increased again only after emancipation.
In the Russian partition, specializations related to textiles and clothing dominated, such as weaving, broadcloth manufacturing, tanning, tailoring, shoemaking, sewing undergarments, cap-making and glove-making. Other related specializations also developed, such as soap-making, dying, thread-making and button-making. The largest centers of crafts and clothing manufacturing were in Lodz, Warsaw and the Bialystok district. Jews also produced candles, vinegar and paper packaging. In the services sector, they were engaged in tinsmithery, interior painting, carpentry and glaziery. In the food sector, they owned bakeries, breweries, and butcher shops specializing in beef.

In Galicia, too, the greatest number of Jewish craftsmen were involved in the clothing industry. The most important Jewish crafts were silver- and goldsmithery, production of foodstuffs, wood products and alcoholic beverages. In the oil-producing region of western Galicia, Jews specialized in the manufacture of paraffin candles (known as "kosher").

Poland's independence did not fundamentally change the structure of Jewish crafts. Workshops destroyed during the First World War reopened, thanks to foreign aid (from Joint, for example) as well as Jews' own efforts. The high demand for clothing in the 1920's meant a high proportion of Jews continued to work in tailoring and related activities-detrimental to the overall development of the Jewish economy.

As the demands of the internal market were met, incomes began to fall as the result of strong competition and the fact that the Russian market had been cut off. New technologies brought increased competition through machine knits, knitted undergarments and factory-made shoes, which took away the clientele of traditional workshops.

Many artisans, in an attempt to avoid bankruptcy, limited their number of employees or suspended operations. The new Polish state did not take steps to prevent their pauperization. As a result of the difficult economic situation and increasing competition from Christian artisans, fewer and fewer Jews were working in their traditional specializations, such as goldsmithery, jewelry-making and watch-making, or in services, such as interior painting and construction carpentry. They did, however, continue to dominate in the field of furniture making.

Jews played virtually no role in new specializations that demanded investments be made in technology, such as electrotechnics and automobile mechanics. The numerous Jews who owned photography shops were an exception. Most of the artisans were members of the old professions that did not require long periods of apprenticeship. An example of this were the artisans who continued producing paper products, such as paper packaging, envelopes, notebooks and stationery.
The backwardness of Jewish crafts became apparent when the 1934 legislation on industry become law. Inspections showed that 78% of Jewish bakeries in Warsaw did not have mechanical equipment, and 55% were located in cellars.

The economic crisis and boycott of Jewish-run businesses instigated by nationalist groups had devastating effects for the entire Polish economy. They also meant further impoverishment for Jewish craftsmen and contributed to higher unemployment in that sector. Increasing numbers of independent artisans were engaged in cottage industries and illegal production. Low incomes prevented them from investing in and expanding their businesses. Assistance from no-interest loans office could be used for the purchase of the documents allowing owners of enterprises to legally practice their trade. Jewish artisans also tried to organize self-help programs.

The Second World War put an end to attempts in the late 1930's to reform the crafts sector, as well as searches for new markets. During the German occupation, many Jews were forced to work in factories for the Germans and for war aims. Beginning in 1941, German firms established workshops (szopy) that produced clothing, upholstery, furniture, brushes, metal goods and electrical products. These were usually equipped with stolen machines.

In the ghettos, people also engaged in underground crafts and cottage industries. In attics and cellars, they produced clothing, soap, thread, textiles, knitted materials, buttons and toys, for example, which were then smuggled to the "Aryan side". Services, such as watch repair, were also performed. The conditions for this illegal work were very difficult, and incomes low, but this was sometimes the only way to survive.

After the war, the Central Committee of Jews in Poland began creating production cooperatives with government aid and donations from Joint. These produced clothing, leather goods, food and metal goods. Some of the Jewish artisans (15.1% of all those employed in 1946) opened small shoe-making, tailoring, millinery, and jewelry-making shops. After the Jewish cooperatives were liquidated in 1950, only a small group of private artisans remained active.

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