The earliest record of Jews in Olesno comes from the foundation document of the local church, issued in 1226 by Bishop Wawrzyniec. It mentions Jewish merchants passing through Olesno on their way from Moravia to Kuyavia. It also references customs houses located in Olesno and Siewierz, which were obliged to levy a duty (2 groschen) on every Jewish man and woman passing through the city gates.[1.1]

The first Jewish family to settle in Olesno’s vicinity were the Kaums, who arrived in the Małe Przedmieście suburb around the 15th century. The town authorities refused them the right to settle within the city walls. At the beginning of the 16th century, three Jewish families lived in Olesno. They all resided in the suburbs and made a living from petty trade. There likely also existed a money exchange office run by a Jew.

In 1526, when Silesia came under the rule of the German emperors, the Silesian Jews, too, became their subjects. During the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), two Jewish families were expelled from Olesno. The third family, called Milesch, converted to Christianity and gradually assimilated with the local burghers.

Under the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War (concluded on 24 October 1648), allowing Jewish settlement on a given estate was left to the discretion of the landowners. The provisions of the treaty also applied to the lands of Upper Silesia. Thanks to these privileges, Jews were able to once again settle in Olesno. Some of them later left the town and continued to migrate deeper into Poland. The Rosenthal family was among those who remained in the town. The Olesno parish register from 1666–1766 includes information on several local Jews being baptised, including an orphaned 16-year-old girl christened in 1705 (she took the name Katarzyna).

During the plague epidemic in 1708, 18 Jews (three families) died in Olesno. The family of Jewish innkeeper Krymsch was accused of bringing the disease to the town, as they had arrived to Olesno in 1707 to escape the plague in Olszyna, located in the Polish Lubliniec District.

During the First Silesian War of 1742, most of Silesia came under the rule of the Kingdom of Prussia (except for Cieszyn Silesia and the Duchy of Opava). In 1745, during the Prussian wars, the Prussian military authorities ordered all Jews to leave the town. In 1750, the government decided to revive the economy of Olesno, and to this end began to encourage Jews to resettle in the town. By 1782, Olesno had gained 150 Jewish residents (12.7% of the total population). Their rights were protected by the Tolerance Office in Olesno. According to Prussian statistical data from 1787, 112 Jews lived in the town.[1.2] An independent Jewish community was established in Olesno at the end of the 18th century.

The records of the Royal Council in Wrocław from 1812 mention the following names of Jewish inhabitants of Olesno: Bender, Berg, Berliner, Breslauer, Cohn, Feibel, Friedländer, Heimann, Markt, Sachs, Schönwald, Stern, Strasburger, Walzer, Weigert, Wartenberger, Weisler, Wienzkowitz, Rosental, Oppler, Opperheimer, Rosin, Popelauer. In 1814, a wooden synagogue was built outside the town’s boundaries, erected thanks to a loan granted by a priest from Gorzów Śląski. The local Jewish cemetery was established the same year, also outside the town. After 1815, Szymon Breslauer built a modern two-storey Hotel de Berlin in Olesno.

Ewa Cichoń cites a Hebrew document drawn up in Olesno in 1820:

To let future generations know that in our times a beautiful building called the town hall was built. During those days there were 24 Jewish families [residing] in this town. Some of them owned houses and had the same city rights as other burghers. We lived under the protection of King Frederick William III – may God prolong his life for many days and years – and we also had a beautiful new synagogue and a new cemetery. And in those days, the superiors of the holy Jewish community and the managers of the charity society were: the esteemed chairman Esriel Breslauer, illustrious Ascher Weigert, and distinguished Rabbi Jehuda Lew Hakohm as well as the esteemed Fischel Bender. This community was founded by the highly respected Pinkus Schönwald on the 19th day of the month of Sivan 5581, or 19 June 1820 according to our calendar.[1.3]

In 1832, Olesno 213 had Jewish residents (9.5% of the town's population), and in 1840 – 285 (10.5%)[[ref:|Weidel W., “Schalom! Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Juden in Rosenberg,” [in:] Stadt Rosenberg O/S – Stadt Arnsberg, Kreis Rosenberg O/S – Hochsauerlandkreis: 1956–1981, Arnsberg 1981, Arnsberg 1981.]] In 1841, Jewish merchant by the name of Kiwe Rosenthal bequeathed a considerable sum in his will for a capital investment. It brought 150 thalers of annual profit to the community, which was allocated to charity.

In 1850, unknown perpetrators broke into the local synagogue and stole equipment whose value was estimated at 150 thalers.

In the second half of the 19th century, affluent Jews began to play a prominent role in the life of Olesno. Many local Jewish people were wealthy merchants, lawyers, and owners of distilleries and taverns. The richest inhabitant of Olesno was Martin Cohn (died 1917), a forwarder. The second richest inhabitant was Siegfried Schlesinger (1835–1896), the owner of breweries and a chain of stores. He produced, among others. the well-known "SS Vodka" (named after the initials of his first name and surname). The merchant Ludwig Kochmann owned a factory of mineral water and liqueurs and ran a liquor store.

Among the buildings located at the Market Square there were: Wilhelm Neuländer's mixed goods store, Sigmund Baginski's Hotel de Rome, and Grünpeter's department store.[1.4]

Matzdorf, Preihs, and Süßbach worked as physicians. There was a Jewish school in the town. In 1861, 307 Jews lived in Olesno, constituting 12% of its total population.

The year 1872 saw the foundation of the Upper Silesian Association of Synagogue Districts (Oberschlesische Synagogen-Gemeinden), with Olesko incorporated into the newly established body. In 1885, Abraham Karmcinski, a Jewish merchant, donated in his will 3,000 marks for the hospital in Olesno. The local Jews also helped in the construction of the local Evangelical church – they donated 22 thalers for this purpose.

In 1887, the local wooden synagogue was struck by lightning and burnt down. It was replaced with a new brick synagogue, consecrated by Rabbi Blumfeld in 1889. Eryk Lewin was the cantor.

Olesno’s population of the time displayed notable religious tolerance, which was evidenced by the "ecumenical" meetings held every Sunday by the Evangelical pastor Johann Salzwedel, Rabbi Blumfeld, and the Catholic parish priest Walenty Morawiec. They would meet in Cassel's winery and spend some time playing Skat.

In 1900, 236 Jews lived in the town, constituting 4.9% of the total population.

The end of World War I brought great changes to Upper Silesia. The rebirth of the Polish state led to the growth of pro-Polish sentiments among the Silesian population. This, in turn, resulted in a conflict with the German community and the outbreak of three consecutive Silesian uprisings. Most of the local Jewish people were decisively pro-German. Many Silesian Jews decided to migrate to the West, most often to large urban centres in Germany. This process also affected Olesno. During the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, 3,286 votes were cast for Olesno to remain in Germany and 473 votes for it to be incorporated into Poland. As a result of the vote, the town remained within the German territory. Nevertheless, the Jews of Olesno continued to depart to the West. In 1925, only 180 Jewish people remained in the town.[1.5]

In 1932, members of the Nazi party threw a hand grenade into the Jewish hotel in Olesno, which caused great damages. In 1933, the town was inhabited by 112 Jews (1.6% of the total population).[1.1.5] A Jewish training camp operated in the town at the time. Called "Kibbutz Yom-Tov," it was intended for young Zionists preparing to leave for Palestine. In 1934, 30 pioneers left the town.[1.6] On 27 January 1934, the Jewish Zionist Association was established in Olesno.

In 1936, there were still 83 Jews living in Olesno, and in 1938 – only 58 (0.8% of the total population).

During the Kristallnacht (9/10 November 1938), the Nazis set fire to the synagogue and arrested a number of Jews, including Rabbi Erich Lewin. He was detained in the Buchenwald concentration camp for several months, after which he came back to the town. At the turn of 1939, subsequent ordinances prohibited Jews from entering cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, and city parks. They were also not allowed to use sleeping cars and were forbidden to own radio receivers. In Olesno, Jews were only given the most backbreaking jobs, such as street cleaning. As a consequence of these legal changes, a part of the Jewish community left the country (including the last head of the Jewish community, Rabbi Erich Lewin, who decided to leave for Palestine). The census carried out on 17 May 1939 recorded the presence of 34 Jews in the town.[1.7].

During World War II, several deportation campaigns were organised in Olesko in 1942 and 1943. The local Jewish population was transported to Terezin (Theresienstadt) and then transferred to various Nazi concentration camps. On 21 April 1943, the fifth transport from Riegierungsbezirk Oppeln (transport no. XVIII/5) reached Terezin. According to files from the C.V. Oberschlesien register, the transport included 46 Jews from Olesno, Opole, Racibórz, and Głubczyce. Out of this group, 11 people survived.

Bibliography

  • Cichoń E., “By czas nie zaćmił i niepamięć,” Oleski Telegraf 2006, no. 404.
  • Cichoń E., Referat wygłoszony z okazji Dnia Judaizmu w Oleśnie – 18 stycznia 2008 r. (Speech delivered on the occasion of Judaism Day in Olesno - 18 January 2008), [online] https://absta.pl/referat-wygoszony-z-okazji-dnia-judaizmu-w-olenie-18-stycznia.html [Accessed: 9 Sep 2020].
  • Gwóźdź K., “Żydzi w okresie Habsburgów,” in: Historia Tarnowskich Gór, J. Drabina (ed.), Tarnowskie Góry 2000, p. 110.
  • Jonca K., “Zagłada niemieckich Żydów na Górnym Śląsku (1933–1945),” Śląski Kwartalnik Historyczny Sobótka 1991, no. 2.
  • Konieczny A., “Ludność żydowska na Śląsku w świetle spisu z 17 maja 1939 r.,” Studia nad Faszyzmem i Zbrodniami Hitlerowskimi 1992, vol. 15.
  • “Rosenberg (I),” in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before & During Holocaust, Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder (eds.), New York 2001, p. 1092.
  • Weidel W., “Schalom! Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Juden in Rosenberg,” [in:] Stadt Rosenberg O/S – Stadt Arnsberg, Kreis Rosenberg O/S – Hochsauerlandkreis: 1956–1981, Arnsberg 1981.
  • Witkowski S., Żydzi na ziemiach polskich w średniowieczu. Z uwzględnieniem Śląska i Pomorza Gdańskiego, Olkusz 2007.
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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Jaworski W., Z dziejów Żydów bieruńskich [online] https://www.bierun.pl/turystyka/zeszyty-bierunskie [Accessed: 24 Jul 2021]; Witkowski S., Żydzi na ziemiach polskich w średniowieczu. Z uwzględnieniem Śląska i Pomorza Gdańskiego, Olkusz 2007, pp. 26–27.
  • [1.2] Ładogórski T., Generalne tabele statystyczne Śląska 1787 roku, Wrocław 1954, p. 103.
  • [1.3] Weidel W., “Schalom! Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Juden in Rosenberg,” [in:] Stadt Rosenberg O/S – Stadt Arnsberg, Kreis Rosenberg O/S – Hochsauerlandkreis: 1956–1981, Arnsberg 1981; cited from: Cichoń E., Referat wygłoszony z okazji Dnia Judaizmu w Oleśnie – 18 stycznia 2008 r., [online] https://absta.pl/referat-wygoszony-z-okazji-dnia-judaizmu-w-olenie-18-stycznia.html [Accessed: 9 Sep 2020].
  • [1.4] Cichoń E., Referat wygłoszony z okazji Dnia Judaizmu w Oleśnie – 18 stycznia 2008 r., [online] https://absta.pl/referat-wygoszony-z-okazji-dnia-judaizmu-w-olenie-18-stycznia.html [Accessed: 9 Sep 2020].
  • [1.5] “Rosenberg (I),” in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before & During Holocaust, Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder (eds.), New York 2001, p. 1092.
  • [1.1.5] “Rosenberg (I),” in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before & During Holocaust, Sh. Spector, G. Wigoder (eds.), New York 2001, p. 1092.
  • [1.6] State Archives in Wrocław, RO I 20011, fol.745, Der Regierungsprasident, Oppeln 27 VII 1937.
  • [1.7] Konieczny A., “Ludność żydowska na Śląsku w świetle spisu z 17 maja 1939 r.,” Studia nad Faszyzmem i Zbrodniami Hitlerowskimi 1992, vol. 15.