Jews in Poland

Medieval Jews found religious tolerance and economic opportunity in Poland

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Merchants Came Long before Settlers

Immigration of Jewish settlers to Poland, which began in the first half of the thirteenth century, led to the establishment of settlements in the western part of its territory.... Within the borders of the Great Duchy of Lithuania this immi­gration began only some 140years later…

Earlier, merchants--mostly from Babylon, Persia, and the Caucasus--[had] crossed through the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe in search of markets in the West, and there were incidents of Jewish merchants, such as these who remained for a certain period (a few months or even years) engaging in incidental busi­ness or enterprises, such as the minting of coins at the request of local authorities (tenth and twelfth cen­turies) or in connection with trade in amber or valu­able furs. The Jewish merchants also handled slaves, assigned to them by their Slavic masters for care and transfer to the lands of the Islamic 'Abbasid empire….

This temporary presence of individual Jews or small Jewish groups in Polish lands in the tenth through twelfth centuries did not result in a perma­nent Jewish settlement there... .But, in contrast to the political and economic situation of the earlier cen­turies, during the 1240sconditions developed which were conducive to a permanent Jewish settlement….

Mutual Interests Led to Settlement

During this period, the Polish rulers endeavored to rehabilitate their ruined lands by attracting immigrants from neighboring Germany to settle in the unoccupied territories of the land. The princes and rulers of the land between the Oder River to the West and between the lands along the tributary streams of the Vistula River and its sources, the Bug and the San in the East, who strove to establish settle­ments in these areas, also looked favorably upon Jew­ish immigration from Germany to both old and new cities.

Many of the Ashkenazic Jews, who had been persecuted by the crusaders and by burghers who viewed them as undesirable rivals, found their way mainly to western Poland. With time, this movement of Jewish immigrants from Germany gave rise to a permanent Jewish settlement there. Not only did this mi­gration from Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Italy, and Seljuk (and later Ottoman) Turkey aid the growth of Jewish settlement in Poland and Lithuania. Increasing sources of income, together with natural demographic development, also brought about a rise in Jewish population and Jewish communities in the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which, in the mid‑fourteenth century, became united under one king.

The Best Little Charter Anywhere

The Jews of Poland learned from experience, and after a few years in their new settlements, they orga­nized themselves into communities which would serve as a base for their continued existence there. To this end they also endeavored to obtain from the authority governing the land on which they were living, a charter of privileges and rights, and in 1264 Boleslaw the Pious, ruler of western Poland, granted this privilege. In an expanded form (beginning in 1453) this charter served the Jewish commu­nity of the entire kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the second half of the eigh­teenth century.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.