Our knowledge about Skwierzyna’s Jewish Community is limited. One can suppose that Jews arrived in Skwierzyna at the beginning of the 14th century. The town’s location, located on an important trade route, attracted their attention. After the banishment of Jews from Brandenburg in 1510 their number (like in neighboring Międzyrzecz) still increased[1.1]. From thepoint of view of Jewish settlers it was important that Skwierzyna or Miedzyrzecz were royal properties. By definition they were subordinated to the king who was their protector, guarding both people and property, putting them under jurisdiction of a town official. It did not however prevent numerous tensions between them and town dwellers. Similarily in nearby Międzyrzecze, Jews could live only in specially marked out, less attractive parts of town. On a map from 1780, Skwierzyna’s ghetto was located on both sides of the town’s gate, on the southwest side. The bridge before the gate on Katzbach was called The Jewish One, ”Judenbrucke,” most probably located nearby the Jewish District. Maybe Jews were responsible for managing the bridge and that was why it received the name. The isolation of the Jews was not caused only by Christians’ reluctance. The synagogue was the center of life. To the end of the 18th century it was located on Rowowa St. (today the corner of Powstancow Wielkopolskich and Piłsudskiego Streets). There were other community buildings nearby: a cheder (school) and mikvah (bathhouse). [see plan of Skwierzyna nr 3] The community also had a slaughterhouse and kosher slaughterer, matzoh making factory and a cemetery. The cemetery is the only material evidence which is left after Skwierzyna’s Jews. It is located on a so-called Jewish Peak (Judenberg) near the road to Miedzyrzecz about 2 kilometres from the town’s center. [see plans of Skwierzyna nr 1 i 2]
In 1456 every Jew had to transfer four groshes of capital tax. In 1519, Szymona from Skwierzyna was named as one out of eleven appointed as tax collector by King Zygmunt Stary. One year later the residents demanded Jews to be banished from the town and King Zygmunt Stary gave an order to banish all the Jews from Skwierzyna, because “according to their customs, there is a rule to take away food and disturb in various and deliberate ways, harming the residents of Real Belief”. The King hedged it however with the sentence that the residents will have to take over – after 12 years of freedom – the payments the Jews had to make. One should really question if the banishment was accomplished and if so how long could it have lasted[1.2]. The town dwellers were not eager to take over the burdens which were the consequence of paying Jewish taxes. Anyway, in 1594 we have another confirmation of Jews in Skwierzyna in the years 1564-1565. They were obliged to pay 20 florens annually to the Royal Treasury.
Jewish presence in the city meant the conflicts which were occurring now and then. It’s really hard to say if they were as harsh in natureas in Międzyrzecz where local weavers attacked Jews in their district and destroyed their workshops. Then a compromise was made – as in Miedzyrzecz. The agreement from January 6th 1641, confirmed by Wladyslaw IV, signed, by representatives of the bourgeoisie- and Jewish side, assumed well defined demarcation of activities and determined Jews’ obligations from the beginning. As in this agreement, the other guild privileges range of work of Jews was very limited[1.3].
According to the oldest preserved inhabitant list, made by the Prussians in 1793 in Skwierzyna there were 720 Jews, which was around 30% of the total population. The Jewish community was the most numerous and most important in western Wielkopolska. Despite this, it did not have a yeshiva and the education stopped at the cheder level, the interest in learning and care to employ only the best known rabbis was significant. Professor Simon ben Israel, Amsterdam’s rabbi (died there in 1712), author of „Sefer hachajim”, was born in Skwierzyna. Of course there were more rabbis active in the area in the 18th century: Mordechaj ben Meier-ha Kohen (around 1710), Ibi Hirsch from Prague (1763), Joshua Spira from Frankfurt upon Oder (1771) and Hirsch Aron London (1777-90). All those rabbis were highly esteemed but undoubtedly the most distinguished one was born in 1760 as Eliakim ha-Kohen Schwerin Goetz who later was known as the greatest Hungarian rabbi of XIX century. [see biographies]
In Skwierzyna’s community, always attaching great weight to education, the ideas of Moses Mendelsson (1729-86), Haskala leader, were commonly known. Berlin’s proximity, which was the center of the Haskala, and earlier connections with local Jews were responsible for the widespread knowledge of Enlightement ideas in the community. In the first half of 19th century, Skwierzyna’s area was counted (as Wolsztyn) among the most pro-reform Jewish communities in Wielkopolska district. The reform movement made people consider what it would be like to aquire the same rights as the Christians. Until 1842 in Skwierzyna, out of 1,569 Jewish inhabitants there were 138 naturalization patents. Finally Prussian Jews were granted rights in 1869. The wealthiest Jews settled in the main street of the town – some even on the main square. The poor stayed in horribly narrow shanties of old Jewish district. [see picture nr 3]
From 1833, Jewish communities gained legal status and were equal with Christian ones. Numerous communities of Skwierzyna needed a New House of God. The old synagogue, built after a fire in 1784 was too little to hold all the believers. On April 15th 1839 on Pfarrstrasse St. a cornerstone was built. In a special container a scroll of parchment with the most important information concerning the old synagogue and the Jewish community was built into the walls. On January 1st 1841, the synagogue was ready. It was a cubic, very massive building with high windows with semi-circular crowns and a flat, two-sided roof. The ceremonial opening of the synagogue was accompanied with the bestowal of „The Synagogue Statute.” The 48 paragraphed documen regulated the functioning of the shrine in accordance with principles of reform Judaism. The sermons were held in German – one may suppose all of the Jews spoke that language fluently. Evidently not always were they on time, because paragraph nr nine said: “During reading from the Torah and during the sermon the door must stay closed”. The beginning of changes in liturgy can be dated from term of office of Rabbi Heymann Joel (1832-1845) whose successor was the first Skwierzyna’s rabbi with a Ph.D – Simeon Schwabacher – earlier a rabbi in Prague, Hamburg and Gorzow. After Skwierzyna (to 1856) Schwabacher moved to Odessa where under his supervising the first reformsynagogue in Russia was established. His students were also followers of reform Judaism, patterned upon some of Lutheran doctrine. Among sparse symbols on Skwierzyna’s tombstones prevails the „Eye of Providence”. It is a symbol specific for sepulchral art of German Jews, descendants from the Lutheran religion.[see cemetery]
In addition to the school nearby Skwierzyna’s synagogue there was a Jewish hospital and an orphanage for boys which was built in 1865 and funded by Jean Benda, a newcomer form Berlin. After 1833 naturalized Jews could qualify for a place in the town’s council. In 1844 Jews had 1/3 in the council though they made only 22% of the town’s population. That is the reason why the mayor decreed that during supplementary election only Christians might be chosen. According to this decision Skwierzyna’s community lodged a complaint against it to the king. He however upheld the ruling. It was ascertained the Jewish aldermen can make only 1/3 of the whole. At the time in Skwierzyna there were eight Christian aldermen, four of whom were Jewish[1.4].
Bestowing Jews with civic rights was connected with an opportunity to chose the place of settlement. After 1933 emigration to big cities started to be visible. Mainly Berlin was chosen, where work and anonymity were easier to have. Only in 1836 thirty-four Jewish families left Skwierzyna. From this time, their number in the town systematically decreased. According to ex-residents of Skwierzyna the mother of Henry Kissinger, a famous American politician, lived on Reuter Street[1.5].
Liquidation of guild privileges gave Jews the possibility of free business. Earlier due to limitations they could employ themselves only in merchandise and this kind of labor dominated in the first half of the 19th century. In 1830 in Skwierzyna there were only two Christian merchants and 15 Christian traders – and 12 Jewish merchants together with 112 Jewish traders. A large number of traders resulted from the fact that only a few shops were located in the town, and traders supplied surrounding villages by peddlery. Together with the cancellation of medieval limitations the economic structure and Jews’ participation in it also changed. The first big Jewish company was established by Simon Boas in 1914. It was a wholesale, selling iron articles, coal and spirits. Its importance reached far beyond Skwierzyna and neighboring districts. The Boas family ran the company until 1936 when by virtue of the Nuremberg laws, Adolf Hitler’s followers took over their shop. Wheat, potatoes and seed trade was Jacob Levy’s business. His company had large granaries. Arthur Joel was a large meat wholesaler 95% of cattle were exported to Berlin and other big cities. Two Jewish merchants, Hermann Schlesinger and Gustav Kramm, were busy with horse trade. Their business fell into decline after 1918 when the areas annexed to Poland were to be counted no more. In 1933 Schramm emigrated to Israel and together with his son worked as a veterinarian in Haifa. Until1918 the biggest enterpreneur in Skwierzyna was Jacob Cohn. He was an owner of the biggest wholesale of hides in eastern Germany. He bought untanned hides in Wielkopolska and on terrains annexed by Russia – after tanning he was selling them further. Cohn was the biggest taxpayer in town. After his death in 1920 the business was taken over by Julius Hiller, who owned it until the mid-thirties. The second merchandise potentate was Salomon Stargardt’s company, established in 1959. He had a wholesale shop with colonial products and a shop on Pocztowa Street. In 1935, the NSGWP forced the Stargardt family to sell it all and leave Skwierzyna.
Jewish Merchants had also numerous shops and craftsmen workshops. One of the most famous was the one belonging to Adolf Jonas, selling furs and hats, taken over by the Nazis in 1939. Felix Mendel had a good-prospering shoe shop located in the main square. The shop existed from the first half of the 19th century. The owner had to give up in 1936. Also Stern, Pinkus and Gerson families had shops with a long tradition. Antisemitic politics after 1933 had also to do with the closing of the branch of the Eastern Bank. All Max Hanff’s businesses were closed down too: a publishing house located on the main square and editing branch of the “Skwierzyna’s District Gazette”. Hanff was half-Jewish and a Christian but according to the racist politics of the Third Reich, he was Jewish.[1.6] Firstly, Prussia, then, after 1871, Germany, were lawful countries and after the bestowal of civic rights to Jews there were no considered threats. Private contacts depended on the intellectual level of individual people. Many Jews merited for the town and were highly esteemed. The history of Hermann Gerson and his wife, to whom the mayor together with town council had personally wished happiness at the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, was not anything special. The Great Depression (1929-1933) and Hitler’s nomination to the Chancellor (1933) , which spread an ideology based on the belief that Jews were the source of all evil, changed the situation completely. As B. Thome has written, „ provincial Skwierzyna took the lead of the capital” and Skwierzyna’s unemployed believed Jews had taken their jobs away. The same Hermann Gerson, four years earlier feted by the town council and the major, had seen his son Arthur carried through the town on a cart filled with manure with a tablet hanging on his neck, saying: “I’m a filthy Jew”. Anger and repressions became commonplace. The few Jews who still lived in Skwierzyna, had to sell all their properties for a small price and emigrate. The biggest shop in Skwierzyna, located on the corner of the main square and Pocztowa St. (today’s TAFF), belonging to a Jewish owner, had a big signboard „Schweriner Kaufhaus” („Skwierzyna’s Shop“). The Nazis changed the name to "Schwein muss raus" ( “Pigs go out”). After the passing of the Nuremberg laws (1935) the repressions and administrative pressures worsened. After 1936 there were almost no Jews left in Skwierzyna. That most probably saved the building of the synagogue which, during Kristallnacht (Nov. 9th/10th 1938) was devastated, and later changed into a wheat warehouse. Above the plaque commemorating Jews fallen in Prussian and Emperor Germany Wars. It did not fit to Nazi’s conception of alleged enemy who was a constant threat to the German race and culture. The fate of the synagogue was fulfilled in January 1945 when somebody set fire on wheat stored there. The remains were taken to pieces in the 1960s and at the place two buildings were built (Jagielly Street, near Jubilatka coffee house). Some part of Skwierzyna’s Jews avoided annihilation and managed to escape the Nazi’s Third Reich. Those who stayed, were killed like Hermann Gerson’s sons: Arthur was shot to death in 1941 in Berlin, Leo perished in a gas chamber in 1943 in Auschwitz. A few descendants of Skwierzyna’s Jews live mainly in the USA and Israel. After 1945a few people of Jewish origin (Polish Jews) lived in Skwierzyna. They had nothing in common with the old community. Today the only remains of a 600 year old Jewish part of Skwierzyna’s history is a cemetery located on Jewish Hill nearby a road to Miedzyrzecz.
- [1.1] After the exile of the Jews from Brandenburgia in 1510, the majority of them settled down in Skwierzyn, Międzyrzecze and Poznan.
- [1.2] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg,Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Bromberg 1909, p. 966.
- [1.3] Agreement with Jews from 1642 [look attachment]
- [1.4] Ibidem, p. 327.
- [1.5] Interview with Ulrich Dörfert and Rudolf Nordstedt.
- [1.6] A. Kirmiel, Skwierzyna – miasto pogranicza.., p. 103-106.