In the first two centuries of Elbląg’s existence, Jews would only sporadically appear in the town. This was due to the restrictive policy of the Teutonic Order. After the town was incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the king would select the local governor-margrave from four candidates presented by the Municipal Council. The official had very limited power, restricted solely to the issues of law enforcement and the judiciary, including the issue of court cases concerning Jews[1.1]. This suggests that Jews were already residing in the area of Elbląg at the time. Not much changed at the turn of the 17th century, when only individual Jews were mentioned in historical sources. They mostly made their living from trade, but some also dealt with crafts[1.2]. However, similarly to Scots, they were not allowed to become fully fledged Elbląg citizens[1.3]. The Christian population feared that Jews would constitute a strong economic competition, and they had very little knowledge of the religion and culture of the “aliens.” Jewish people would often be accused of spreading epidemics[1.4].
Over the subsequent centuries, and even after the partition of Poland in 1772, the townsfolk of Elbląg would successfully fend off Jewish competition. In 1731, two Jews from Szyrwinta (today’s Kutosovo, Russia) and Biskupiec Pomorski were granted the right to conduct trade in artisan products in towns of the Polish-Prussian border zone – all except Gdańsk and Elbląg[1.5]. On 6 September 1742, however, the Königsberg Treasure Chamber issued a decree allowing all local Jews to freely trade in precious metals; they would sell their products in many towns, including Gdańsk, Elbląg, and Braniewo[1.6].
The first Jew to officially become a citizen of Elbląg was Moses Levin from Berlin, later known as Moses Simon. He settled in the town in 1783. However, he was prohibited from engaging in trade. Instead, he was allowed to run a kosher kitchen and work as a translator during meetings with Jewish merchants arriving to the town[1.7]. In 1800, despite protest from the Christian townsmen, he gained permission to become involved in commercial activities and to purchase a square in Łasztownia for the purposes of storing timber. In 1809, he was granted municipal rights together with three other Jews[1.8]. They were probably the wealthiest representatives of the Jewish community, which since the 1790s comprised around a dozen families (in 1791 – 12, in 1804 – 23). At the time, Jews constituted 0.5–1% of the entire population of Elbląg.
The local Jewish cemetery was founded just outside the town in 1811, while a house of prayer started to operate in the Old Town no later than 1816[1.9]. An official religious community was formed after 1812; it comprised 42 families. The kehilla long withheld the list of its members and the election report, only presenting them to the authorities under a threat of financial penalty. The community opened a ritual slaughterhouse, a cheder, and eventually, in 1824, a synagogue[1.10]. However, a rabbi was only employed in in the years 1875–1879[1.11].
After the issuance of the Emancipation Edict in 1812, 33 Jewish families, including three widows, were granted the status of citizens of Elbląg[1.12]. In 1816, the number of Jewish families living in the town increased to 42[1.13]. The local Jews were mostly engaged in trade, but they were unable to enjoy all of the rights pertaining to burghers due to the ever-changing Prussian legislation. In the years 1813–1821, a group of merchants arrived to Elbląg and received municipal rights, among them four Jews from Gdańsk (out of a total of nine merchants hailing from the town) and five from Złotów and Sępólno (out of all six merchants from West Prussia, excluding Gdańsk)[1.14]. Until as late as 1825, the magistrate would file an official complaint every time a Jew was granted municipal citizenship[1.1.10].
It is estimated that in the years 1816–1850, there was an average of three weddings and births of 11–12 children among the Jewish community, which did not deviate much from the statistical data pertaining to the rest of Elbląg’s population[1.15]. Towards the end of the first half of the 19th century, there were over 430 Jews living in the town. They constituted 2% of the total population – the highest percentage in its history. In 1845, a petition calling for granting full equality to the Jewish population was drawn up in Elbląg. Its echoes could be perceived in the act issued by the Prussian Parliament in 1847, which allowed Jews to freely settle in towns but made no reference to other restrictions imposed on the Jewish population[1.16].
In 1861, Elbląg had 144 professionally active Jewish inhabitants, among whom 81 worked in trade (56%), and 17 in crafts (12%). Over a half of the Jewish population comprised people from the upper social classes: merchants, bankers, the intelligentsia, brokers, master craftsmen, pensioners, and rentiers. The rest made a living from petty trade (21 people – 15%) and working for others (35 people – ca. 25%). In 1882, out of a total of 205 working Jews, 114 dealt with trade (56%) and 33 were craftsmen (16%)[1.17]. In 1844, a Jew became one of the members of Elbląg’s Municipal Council[1.18].
Some Jews of Elblag became local industrialists. The year 1874 saw the foundation of the Loesser & Wolff Cigar Factory, located north of the New Town. It commenced its operations under the name Kohlwerk & Co. and initially employed 40 people. However, in 1880 it had as many as 305 employees, in 1895 – 1509, and in 1909 – 3,536! The plant was renamed to Kohlwerk & Loesser in 1875 and then to Loesser & Wolff in 1878. Its products were sold in entire Germany and exported to Russia, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, Australia, and South Africa. In 1890, the factory produced 65 million cigars, and in 1905 – 120 million. In 1877, it became the second largest industrial plant in Elbląg[1.19]. The company owner, Bernhard Loesser, had one of the town’s streets named after him as a token of gratitude for his contribution to Elbląg’s development[1.20].
In 1880, Elbląg had 549 Jewish inhabitants, with their number falling to 445 in 1905 and remaining at that level until the Nazi rise to power in Germany. Many local Jews migrated to larger towns, but in turn the city experienced an influx of newcomers from areas incorporated into Poland after 1918[1.21].
The Jews of Elbląg took an active part in the social life of the town. A prominent local figure was Dr. Hirsch, who wrote a report on the cholera epidemic in West Prussia and Poznańskie Province[1.22]. In 1895, one of the municipal councillors was merchant S. Levy[1.23]. In 1912, commercial advisor Löwenstein became the deputy president of the Elbląg Chamber of Commerce[1.24]. The early 20th century also saw the establishment of an office providing aid to Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe[1.1.13].
Most Jews from Elbląg identified as Germans following Judaism. Twelve Jewish people associated with Elbląg – either residing or born in the town – died on the fronts of World War I[1.25]. Even though the Jewish population was almost fully assimilated into the German majority, it did not escape anti-Semitic discrimination, which started to intensify in the first weeks after the Nazi seized power in the country. In Elbląg, anti-Jewish persecutions was epitomised by the act of seizing the D. Loewenthal Department Store, one of the finest establishments of that sort, from its Jewish owners – Alfred, Heinrich, and Kurt Loewenthal, and by the “Aryanisation” of the Loesser & Wolff Cigar Factory, which was renamed to Walter E. Beyer. The year 1934 saw the disappearance of Loessera Street (Loessrstraße). The authorities called for a boycott of Jewish companies, stores run by Jews were vandalised. All Jewish attorneys were laid off in April 1933[1.26].
During the so-called Kristallnacht, on the night of 9/10 November 1938, the fire department set “controlled” (!) fire to the synagogue. Jewish shops were plundered and all Jewish men were arrested[1.1.20].
Persecutions on the part of the Nazis resulted in mass migration of Elbląg Jews. In 1933, the town had only 367 Jewish inhabitants, and in 1936 – only 207. Some would seek shelter in other towns, while others migrated abroad, for example to the USA, Palestine, Belgium (Elsa Brill née Elias), France (Kurt Lewinsohn) or Austria (Walter Levy). In 1939, there were only 53 Jews living in Elbląg. They were all moved to the area of Wyspa Spichrzów, to an unofficial ghetto. It is said that as late as October 1942, seven Jewish people still resided in Elbląg – they were most likely married to non-Jews[1.1.21]. In the second half of 1944, Jewish women from Baukommando Ostland – comprising prisoners of the Nazi German concentration camp in Stutthof (Sztutowo) – worked on the construction of one of Elbląg’s bridges[1.27].
Lists of Holocaust victims murdered in WWII include the names of 129 Jews born or living in Elbląg. They were deported to ghettos in Theresienstadt, Litzmannstadt (Łódź), Riga (including Riga-Jungfernhof), Piaski, and Kaunas. They died in Berlin, ghettos in Theresienstadt, Riga, Litzmannstadt, Kaunas, and in Nazi camps in Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Treblinka, Kulmhof (Chełmno), Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, Tormersdorf, Groß-Rosen, Cholm (Chełmie) and at the mass murder site in Raasik near Tallin[1.28].
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