History Of The Jews Of Warsaw Poland , Written By Justyna Laskowska


First traces of Jewish presence in Warsaw can be found at the beginning of the 15th century or even earlier[1.1]. The first documented references about the Jews come from 1414 (Czersk Books)[1.2] and mention money obtained by Lazar Judeo de Varschovia. Next pieces of information already come from town books. The oldest one from municipal books (1421) mentions only ten Jews, so we can assume that the Jewish community was in fact very small. The existence of Jewish inhabitants in the city in 1414 can be confirmed by the oldest aldermen’s books from that time.

The Jews inhabited Żydowska Street, where they had their own synagogue, mikveh and cemetery situated outside the city walls near present-day Krakowskie Przedmieście. This serves as evidence that they formed a well organized, though small, community that numbered 120 members.

Unfortunately, the knowledge of Jewish activities in the 15th century town is quite poor and not specific. It does not allow to draw unambiguous conclusions. Some historians, E. Ringelblum among them, are of the opinion that the Jews suffered persecutions in the 15th century on the side of the Benedictines. They are said to have been expelled from Warsaw in 1483 by prince Bolesław and could not return since 1486. However, a majority of contemporary researchers (e.g. H. Węgrzynek) disagree with this view and emphasize that there is not enough evidence to formulate such a hypothesis[1.3].

We know for sure that the situation of the Jewish community was not easy. The City Council and the townsmen efficiebtly fought for rights, afraid of the competition with the Jews. In 1483, they made the Masovian priest to issue a law that would limit Jewish share in trade[1.4]. Only the city dwellers could trade on weekdays. It should be stressed that this restriction was also harmful for Christians who were not citizens of Warsaw.

When Masovia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland in 1527, Warsaw was granted the “de non tolerandis Judaeis” privilege. King Sigmund I forbade the Jews to live neither in the Old nor in the New Warsaw as well as on its outskirts.The subsequent prohibitions were confirmed and frequently extended on new regions by other monarchs, including Sigmund August (1570), Stefan Batory (1580) and Jan III Sobieski (1693).

Initially, only individuals were permitted to settle in Warsaw and run their own businesses here. King Sigmund I let the royal customs officer Moysem to stay with his family in Warsaw in their own house. In 1570, Sigmund August issued a law by virtue of which the Jews could stay and trade in Warsaw only during the Sejm meetings and when appeals were being lodged by the king. Then, they were supposed to pay charges, so-called Sejm charges. From 1580, the Jews working for the Republic of Poland received residence permits – they were probably customs officers and tax collectors. With time the list of those privileged was gradually extending.

The City Council persisted in their endeavors to dispose of the foreign competitors,in which they included the Jews. The influx of Jews must have been considerable since the citizens were forbidden to let them apartments. Despite the fact that there were more and more bans on residence, as early as in the 17th century the Jews began to settle in nobility-estates in Warsaw, in the so-called ‘jurydyki’, and even in the estates owned by clergy[1.5].For instance, in 1650 they lived in a Lithuanian hetman’s house.

In Warsaw, they made their income by dealing with craft, usury, trade, and by distilling and selling vodka.

The number of Jews in Warsaw was systematically increasing. In 1764, there were 2,519 of them, while in 1778 – as many as 3,512

In 1765, there was rather large agglomerations of the Jewish population in Warsaw, e.g. in Stanisławowo (royal settlement), on Nowy Świat, Tłomackie and Nalewki Streets, in Solec, Grzybów and Aleksandria (one of the oldest settlements, known as the ‘Jewish town’) [2.1]. Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem) settlement was established outside Jerozolimska Avenue from where the Jews were thrown out in 1777 by virtue of a decree dated 28 December 1775[2.2].

It still has not been precisely settled when and how the Jewish community began to organize itself. In the 18th century, the Jews from Warsaw elected seniors from among themselves. The seniors’ task was to represent the whole community in talks with the authorities (Seniores Judaeorum). Later, their rights passed to a syndic (receiver) office[2.3].

The “de non tolerandis Judaeis” privilege in Praga district ceased to be valid in 1775. A large Jewish kehilla was established in this location, however, its precise size is not known as the records kept in the 18th century cannot give any objective information. According to a tax name list from 1765 the Jewish permanent population that paid poll tax numbered 70 members[2.4]. In 1780, Szmul Zbytkowerwas granted a permit to establish a cemetery in Praga district (now Odrowąża Street). The Jews inhabiting Praga district (in 1792 – 904) were subordinated to the Węgrów Kehilla but their goal was to unite with Jews from Warsaw. In Warsaw itself the ban was lifted as late as in 1797 when the city was under Prussian occupation and when Prussian legislation came into force[2.5]. In 1804-1807 the Jewish people were given last names made up by Ernest Theodor Hoffmann.

During the reign of King Stanisław August, the most popular Jewish professions were those of merchants, craftsmen and bankers[2.6]; the wealthiest Jews were Szmul Zbytkowerand Ajzyk and Szymon Enochowicz. Obviously, the richest group constituted small merchants and craftsmen. People dealt most willingly with such fields of craft as cloth and food production, gold smithery and watch making. There were many inn-keepers, carters, carriers, musicians and servants. The impoverished Jews, who were immensely numerous, cannot be forgotten. They used each and every opportunity to earn some money, often including peddling. There were very few Jewish intelligentsia representatives in the city.

On 14 May 1784, the City Office (Magistrat) ordered to remove from Warsaw those Jews who did not live in private estates (jurydyki)[2.7]. A designated area, the so-called Pocieje, was granted to them on the site of the former Warszyckich Square. Making up 21% of the total population, 541 Jews lived there in the year 1781. During the sittings of the Great Sejm, when they could freely stay in the city, they settled neighboring Tłomackie, Długa, Bielańska and Senatorska Streets.

In the second half of the 18th century, all the Jews who stayed in Warsaw had to pay so-called ticket charges that had been collected probably since 1768; it rose to one zloty for a two-week stay in 1884. The sum one had to pay for this tax was growing continuously which was quite burdensome.

A very significant event in the history of the Jewish community in which the Jews of Warsaw took part was the Kościuszko Insurrection in 1794 [3.1]. The formation of a horse regiment, headed by Berek Joselewicz, was financed entirely by the Jews. The subsequent slaughter perpetrated by Suworow against the people living in Praga district, including Jews, did not put a halt to the development of the Jewish community as it numbered approximately 1,500 people in 1796.

In 1797, there were 7,700 Jews in Warsaw which made them constitute about 12% of the whole population of the city. The Prussian authorities legalized the residence of the Jews staying in Warsaw and let them establish their own kehilla in 1799. The decision was not supported by the City Office that continued to make attempts to remove the Jews. After the Duchy of Warsaw had been formed, the President of Warsaw Paweł Bieliński stated that the old regulations were still in place[3.2]. He did not recognize the Jewish kehilla board and appointed a receiver. It was not until 1808 that the central authorities recognized the existence of the kehilla.

The Jewish community in Warsaw was developing quickly. In 1802, Izaak Flatau built a progressive synagogue at Daniłowiczowska Street, whereas in 1806, the kehilla got permissions to establish its own cemetery behind the Wolska buildings (now 49/51 Okopowa Street). The kehilla had its seat in a private apartment and was managed by the Misnagdim (in opposition to Hasidim) [3.3]. The first rabbis worked without being paid.

In the years 1804-1807, the Prussian authorities gave the Jews German-sounding last names prepared by Ernest Theodor Hoffmann.

One of the most important events in the life of the Warsaw Jews was undoubtedly the establishment of the first Orthodox Hospital in 1799. Soon, it turned out that the hospital was too small for the needs of the whole community. Thus, it was relocated a few times (for example on Marszałkowska Street) and eventually it ended up at Pokorna Street, corner of Inflancka Street. First patients were moved there in 1883 but the construction was finished in 1873[3.4]. The hospital had its own pharmacy, kitchen and prayer house.

By the virtue of a decree issued by Prince Fryderyk August on 16 March 1809, terms of the Jewish settlement were specified. The places that the Jews were forbidden to inhabit were being frequently changed and they were always forced to settle in the least presentable parts of the city. Of course, the displacements did not concern all the Jews (there were legally-approved exceptions) and ‘they were not tantamount to forcing all the Jews to move to assigned places that were territorially limited’ [3.5]. E. Bergman thinks that the word “district” (rewir), used commonly in many publications about Warsaw, is misleading because you cannot call an area without delineated borders, streets or quarters a district. The Jews still lived in Wola, Powiśle, Praga and Powiązki. The ban was lifted in 1862 when Aleksander Wielkopolski issued a regulation.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Jews settled a few districts, including Muranów, Powązki, Leszno, Grzybów and the southern part of Śródmieście (Downtown), together called Northern District or Jewish District. They also had their apartments in Praga, especially in the area called Szmulcowizna.

In 1821, the kehillas were liquidated and Temple Supervision Boards, which had limited competences, were called into being in the Kingdom of Poland. They dealt for tmostly with religious affairs, supervised religious education in public and private schools and engaged in charity. The Temple Supervision Board in Warsaw was made up of a rabbi and three other members[3.6]. A term of their office was supposed to last three years and all adult male members could cast their votes. The rules of electing members of the board underwent several modifications in the 19th century. In 1830, poor people, who did not pay a tax for the kehilla, were removed from the voter list by virtue of a document issued by the Managing Council.

The first chief rabbi of Warsaw, elected in 1821, was Salomon Zalman Lipszyc (alias Salomon Posner, Chemdat Szlomo) who from 1819 worked as a rabbi in Praga district[4.1]. He performed this function until his death in 1839. In 1832, the Jewish kehilla from Praga was incorporated into the Warsaw kehilla. After Lipszyc’s death, Chaim Dawidsohn was appointed as the chief rabbi.

One of the greatest achievements of the Jews from Warsaw was creating the Rabbinical School (1826) connected with the assimilation movement[4.2]. The School contributed to the growing number of the Jewish intelligentsia members that were closely attached to the Polish culture. It inspired a patriotic attitude and was bitterly criticized by the Orthodox Jews’ circles. It happened very often that its students became teachers in Jewish schools or graduated from universities. It was closed in 1863.

The first three government elementary schools were established in Warsaw in 1820.

When the November Uprising started, the Jews wanted to participate in it as well. They came up with an idea of forming a separate Jewish regiment that was received rather reluctantly by the uprising authorities and the very Jews who saw this initiative as a sign of Jewish separatism. Those who commanded the uprising consented that the wealthy Jews, who could speak Polish, French or German and had their beards shaven, could join the National Guard. In spite of these restrictions, 400 Jews were enrolled into the Guard. The imposed conditions caused a strong protest of the Jewish circles, among others, of the Warsaw rabbi Chaim Dawidsohn.

The Jews formed the City Guard of Orthodox Jews (Gwardi Miejska Starozakonnych) (28 February 1831) which had 1,268 members. The chief rabbi, Salomon Zelman Lipszyc, opposed the obligation of shaving beards[4.3]. As a result of protests on the side of the Jews, the uprising authorities allowed them to wear beards. Moreover, the Jews established the Security Guard (Straż Bezpieczeństwa) that consisted mainly of representatives of poorer social classes who were not uniformed and did not carry any weapon save scythes and pikes[4.4]. Wealthy Jews established a hospital for the participants of the uprising.

Mathias Rosen served as the president of the Temple Supervision Board from 1841 to 1844. At that time, the City Office provided the premises for the Board[4.5]. In 1840, Icchak Meir Alter entered the Warsaw rabbinate that included a chief rabbi and five district rabbis then.

A round synagogue, at Szeroka Street, was erected in 1840 in Praga district. In 1852, Zelig Natanson founded a more progressive synagogue (called Polish) in Warsaw. It was situated at Nalewki Street where Izaak Kramszyk gave sermons in Polish[4.6].

In 1856, Dow Ber Meisels, an Orthodox Jew advocating Polish-Jewish rapprochement, was appointed as the chief rabbi of the Warsaw kehilla thanks to the support of assimilationists. From 1859, a preacher Markus Jastrow delivered sermons in Polish in the synagogue located at Daniłowiczowska Street.

Officially, at that time there were 142 synagogues in Warsaw. Again, procedures of electing members of the Temple Supervision Board changed (e.g. electors had to be proficient in written Polish). An important event for the Warsaw kehilla was the fact of acquiring a house at Długa Street, between Krasińskich Square and Freta Street, which was destined for the seat of the Temple Supervision Board and rabbi’s apartment[4.5].

In 1859, the so-called Polish-Jewish war took place having been initiated by a baseless press attack against the Jews. The assimilationist circles protested strongly and also expressed their indignation in the press. Ultimately, to end this case, the financier Leopold Kronenberg (who joined the Evangelical-Reformed Church over a dozen years ago) purchased ‘Gazeta Codzienna’ daily

In 1861, the Jews took part in patriotic demonstrations predating the outbreak of the January Uprising. Three very important incidents occurred during that same year. Five Poles were shot dead and many people received wounds during demonstrations organized in Warsaw in which Poles participated jointly with Jews. Assistant rabbi Dow Ber Meisel and preachers Dr. Markus Jastrow and Izaak Kramszyk were present, along with priests, at the funeral ceremony of the deceased that was held on 27 February[5.1]. Meisels said prayer for the dead.

The next demonstration, on 8 April, caused the death of Michał Landy who took a falling cross from the hands of a dead Pole and who died at Zamkowy Square. He was a student of the Rabbinical School.

When the Russian army burst into the Bernardine Church where an anniversary mass for Tadeusz Kościuszko was held, the assistant rabbi, in agreement with the boards of progressive synagogues, ordered to close all the prayer houses and synagogues as a sign of a united protest[5.2] for which, on 11 November 1861, he was arrested along with other protesters (among others Dr. Jastrow, Kramszyk and president of the Temple Supervision Board Mojżesz Feinkind) [5.3]. They were put in the Citadel and convicted. Rabbi Dow Ber Meisels, as an Austrian subject, was expelled from the country. In September 1862, he was allowed to return and occupy the position of a chief rabbi. His funeral in 1870 was the last demonstration of the Polish-Jewish alliance. After his death, Jakub Gesundheit took over his duties[5.4].

In 1862, the Jews living in the Kingdom of Poland were granted civil rights and restrictions connected with apartments were lifted. The rights were also valid in Warsaw. Additionally, the ticket tax, which limited the possibility of coming to Warsaw, was lifted.

The Jews from Warsaw engaged actively in the January Uprising. Committees for the Relief to Jewish families and sanitary units were created. The Temple Supervision Board did not take a stand on the January Uprising.

The prevailing majority of the Jewish residents of Warsaw were Hasidim. Various tzadiks, who had their own supporters in the city, arrived here, for example Izrael Icchak Kalisz, also called Wurker Rebe, – a tzadik from Warka[5.5]. But the spiritual leader of the Hasidim in the capital was Icchak Meir Alter – the founder of the dynasty from Góra Kalwaria. His natural charisma was not the only reason why he was supported by so many people and why their number constantly grew. Apart from his temperament, he had a common touch with all Jews coming from different backgrounds. The Misnagdim cooperated with him; he had friends among the Maskils. Jakub Tugendhold, censor of Hebrew books, can serve as an example confirming the tzadik’s influences. He opposed Hasidism but at the same time he did not allow the publication of anything that contained critical information about this religious movement. Such an attitude undoubtedly contributed, not only in Warsaw, to the growing popularity of Hasidism. The tzadik from Góra Kalwaria supported the November Uprising and sympathized with the Polish insurgents. He paid much attention to other Hasidim and his efforts bore fruit in the form of a network of Hasidic shtiebels, religious schools, yeshivas and bet ha-midrashes.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish kehilla in Warsaw flourished within a very short span of time and became the largest kehilla in the whole world. In 1864, Warsaw had 72,800 Jewish inhabitants who constituted 33% of the total city population. When the ticket tax was lifted (1862), the capital was open to newcomers, usually arriving from small provincial towns of the Kingdom of Poland. They were mostly Hasidim who supported various tzadiks. Warsaw created conditions where they could freely develop. In 1860, over 60 shtiebels were officially registered, whereas their number, including minyanim, amounted to 300[5.6]. In 1875, on one street alone, namely on Franciszkańska Street, existed as many as seven shtiebels connected with tzadiks from Góra Kalwaria, Warka, Kock, Radzymin, Biała, Nowe Miasto and Turzysk. Reportedly, two thirds of all the Jews living in Warsaw were Hasidim.

ince 1863, the Jewish kehilla wrestled with serious financial problems. After lifting the kosher tax, whose part was sent to its account, the kehilla lost a crucial source of income. A rapid growth of population, especially of poor Jews, caused the kehilla to spend even more money. Since 1871, only those Jews who paid 15 rubles of the kehilla tax annually had voting rights. The Kehilla Board, in which assimilationists played a major role, was appointed. Ludwik Natanson became the president who managed not only to extricate the kehilla from financial troubles it was facing but also made some profitable investments in Warsaw.

A significant moment for the Jewish community from Warsaw was when the Praga and Warsaw kehillas merged into one in the year 1871[6.1]. Actually, the very unification had taken place as early as 1832, but was not legalized.

The Warsaw rabbinate included a chief rabbi, eleven rabbis and five members of the honorary clergy who were not paid salaries. In 1873, Jakub Gesundheit resigned from his leadership position and from that time each rabbi in turn performed this function for two years.

The Kehilla Board assigned premises for them and appointed a secretary whose job was to take minutes. The first secretary was Izrael Lejba Groslik; in 1875, Samuel Szenhak took over his duties. The Orthodox Jews had the right to check whether meat in the slaughterhouse was kosher and to supervise the religious schools and cemetery.

Natanson reformed the Board and led to create six departments: General Service, Bank, Kehilla Dues (Permanent), Funeral and Cemetery Service, Kehilla Schools and Charity Departments[6.2]. The reports concerning the work of individual departments were published in the press and brochures.

The Board devoted its attention to the Praga district that had been neglected so far. Necessary repairing was carried out, essential buildings, including a bathhouse, synagogue (at Szeroka Street) and pre-burial house, were constructed and the cemetery was surrounded[6.3].

In 1876, the first hospital for Jewish children was founded in Warsaw by the Berson and Bauman families.

In 1878, the Great Synagogue, called progressive, was erected at Tłomackie Street. The first service was held here on 14 September and its first rabbi (until 1908) was Izaak Cylkowwho delivered sermons in Polish.

On 25-27 December 1881 a Jewish pogrom was conducted in Warsaw[6.4]. It spread across the entire city, including Praga, left two people dead and as many as approximately 2,000 Jewish families suffered as a result of the damages. An exclamation “gore”(“fire”) during a mass in St. Cross Church started the riots. As a result of the panic over a dozen worshippers died. A rumor circulated that the person who cried the word was a Jewish thief who was caught red-handed.

In the 1880s, another wave of Jewish immigrants came to Warsaw. Masses of so-called Lithuanian Jews (Litvaks) – the Jews escaping from Russia for fear of pogroms, arrived in the city. Unfortunately, the Lithuanian Jews and Jews populating Warsaw did not find a way to integrate and finally, created separate, closed communities. Many Jews from Russia did not speak Polish; they used only Russian and Lithuanian dialect of the Yiddish language. Their customs also differed. The local people, including Poles, accused them of attempts at Russification. The Jews saw them as competitors in trade and craft.

Around the year 1892, a new building of the Jewish Kehilla was erected at Grzybowska Street.

President of the Board Ludwik Natanson died in 1896 and was replaced by Michał Bergson who completed the construction of the new Jewish hospital in Czystem started by his predecessor. The hospital, which could accommodate 1,174 patients, was established at Dworska Street in 1902[6.5]. It consisted of modern wards, including: surgical, ophthalmic and gynecological, pulmonary, laryngological, internal, skin and venereal diseases. Two separate pavilions – intended for treatment of infectious and mental illnesses – were situated some distance away from the main building.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Warsaw turned into a dynamically developing significant center for the entire Jewish population in Poland. Its influences encompassed not only Masovia but also other regions of the former Republic of Poland. Leading Jewish social, political, cultural and scientific organizations and institutions were set up exactly here.

Warsaw developed as an important publishing and literary center. The first printing house was established by Hersz Nahasanowicz and Joel Lebensohn in 1814 at Żabia Street[7.1]. In the mid-19th century, 33 printing houses, which belonged to Jews, operated in the city. Thirteen of them published books in Hebrew. In 1827, Jan Glücksberg published the first “Warsaw Guidebook”.

One of the most influential publishers in the city was Samuel Orgelbrand who owned both a bookshop and printing house. He published various types of texts, mainly in Polish, e.g. “Kmiotek” magazine[7.2]. Moreover, he dealt with publishing Hebrew prayer books. His greatest accomplishment was publication, in 1856-1868, of the first Polish 28-volume general encyclopedia.

The Jewish press underwent a process of improvement. The first Polish-Jewish newspaper was “Dostrzegacz Nadwiślański” weekly (“Der Beobachter an der Weichsel”) which was founded in 1823 by Antoni Eisenbaum[7.3]. In 1830-1831, the Jews connected with assimilation movement published over a dozen issues of “Tygodnik dla Izraelitów – Jutrzenka”, edited by Daniel Neufeld between the years 1861-1863. Hilary (Hilel) Gladsztern, a contributor to this magazine, published in 1867 the first newspaper in Yiddish titled “Warszojer Jidysze Cajtung” of which fifty issues were printed[7.4]. One of the longest-issued weeklies published in Polish was “Izraelita” established by Samuel Cwi Peltyn. It appeared in print from 1866 to 1912[7.5].

The only established Hebrew magazine was “Ha-Cefira” founded by Chaim Zelig Słomiński in 1862, at first, as a weekly, then as a daily. It was published from 1913.

A very remarkable event in the history of the Warsaw press was the publication of “Der Weg” magazine in Yiddish, edited by Cwi Pryłucki in 1905-1907[7.6]. Later on, Przyłucki and M. Spektor issued “Unzer Leben” (1907-1912). The two most distinguished Yiddish dailies in Poland: “Hajnt” (Dziś), and “Der Moment” (Chwila) were published in Warsaw in 1908-1939 and 1910-1939 respectively. “Nasz Przegląd”, the magazine sympathizing with the Zionist movement (1923-1939), appeared in Polish. “Mały Przegląd” magazine was also established. It was connected with “Nasz Przegląd” and edited by Janusz Korczak. Alongside the development of the press, Jewish journalism, essay writing and reportage made a noteworthy progress.

The above are only a few examples of the Jewish magazines published in the city. Once the political movements and parties became part of daily life, the press appeared and engaged in the process of conveying news. Apart from that, leaflets, appeals, brochures, etc. were published.

The first Jewish performances in Warsaw were put on as early as 1837-1839[7.7] and they concerned biblical issues (e.g. “Moses in Egypt”) presented in Yiddish. Despite the objection of the Temple Supervision Board, the plays were staged in a dancing room called “Pod Trzema Murzynami” at 2 Ogrodowa Street, and later in a building in Muranowski Square.

In 1868, a modern theater building was erected in Muranowski Square. It could accommodate 800 people[7.8]. A regular 30-person male group was formed. The audience could admire biblical plays and listen to opera and operetta arias.

Many traveling theater groups, giving performances in Yiddish, passed through Warsaw. Some of them created a great sensation and contributed to the development of the Jewish theater. In 1886, Goldfaden’s troupe arrived in Warsaw and together with Russian performers they allegedly staged plays in German. The most brilliant success was achieved by a play entitled “Szulamis” that was delivered over 150 times before numerous audiences in an open-air theater[7.9]. A fast development of theater occurred after the year 1905. Ester Rachela Kamińskabecame the star of all stages in the capital. At that time, a number of Jewish theaters were called into being and by 1925 there were nine theaters in the city.

3 responses to “History Of The Jews Of Warsaw Poland , Written By Justyna Laskowska

  1. I was wondering if there is any information on where exactly the 9 Jewish theaters were located an if the buildings still stand?

  2. Is contact information available for Justyna Laskowska? I would like to share with her information about my 18th and 19th century Warsaw ancestors and ask several questions, including:
    Does there exist a list of 19th century Warsaw rabbis? (One of my ancestors is documented to be a “famous” one.)
    Are the tax name list(s) said to date to 1765 available?
    Are lists of the names of those who paid “ticket charges” that began in 1768 available?

    • Just like you , I when on a jounrey to find what I can, What is on this blog is what I have found for my family. Just keep pushing, to your questions Perhaps they do. My family too was one of the families that did pay the tax. However I have never really look for that. I search for there papers of birth and death. and then the streets where they lived.

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