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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.