Jews appeared in Gorlice relatively late. This was connected with the fact that the town had the de non tolerandis judaeis privilege, allegedly granted much earlier by King Władysław II Jagiełło[1.1]. In fact, however, the town obtained such a privilege in the 16th century, with the Jewish ban officially abolished in the 1860s. Any attempts of Jews trying to settle in Gorlice were doomed to failure on account of the town’s strong guild organisations that fiercely fought competitors. Nonetheless, individual Jews with families lived in the Gorlice Land as early as the 17th and the 18th century. First, they inhabited the villages surrounding Gorlice but later moved to the town itself. They were mainly leaseholders of alcohol distilleries, breweries, inns and mills. In 1751, the customs house in Kraków registered six crossings of Jews from Gorlice thrpugh the town[1.2]. In 1769 several Jewish families lived in Gorlice. Their main source of income was trade in tobacco, wine and corn. They also owned sawmills where they processed wood from the forests densely overgrowing the Gorlice Land. By the turn of the 19th century they already formed an independent Jewish community with their own synagogue and cemetery.
A sudden growth in the number of Jews could be noticed only in the second half of the 19th century. Jewish industrialists and bankers, together with their capital, started to flock to Gorlice due to the rapid development of the town and its fast industrialisation. They settled near Dworzysko Square, in the area which in time became a Jewish district. Jews constituted almost a half of Gorlice’s population at that time. Catholics worked mainly in agriculture and crafts, while Jews almost completely dominated trade and the development of the oil industry at that time. As early as 1874, in the first period of the oil boom, Jewish investors contributed to the construction of a refinery in Gorlice County. In 1883, the next refinery was opened in nearby Glinik, with more similar enterprises founded shortly after. The Tradesman’s Oil Society was established to facilitate the sale of the product. Many small trade and craft workshops functioned in Gorlice as well.
The rapid growth of the Jewish population in such a short time inevitably led to conflicts with other inhabitants. In September 1880, riots broke out on the day of Rosh Hashana, mainly for economic reasons. Nonetheless, the conditions for the development of the Jewish community in Gorlice were very favourable compared to other Galician towns. The cooperation between Jews and Catholics during the reconstruction of the town after a great fire in 1874 can serve as one of the examples of the peaceful co-existence of both nationalities in Gorlice.
The rapid development of the Jewish population was halted during World War I. The number of Jews decreased suddenly as a result of the war and the siege to the town, with the main factor contributing to the situation being the activities of the Russian army, or rather Cossacks, who were responsible for many instances of rape, robbery and even murder. Some of the prosecuted Jews tried to escape to Hungary but were turned back at the border by the Hungarian army. In April 1915, Russians displaced a large group of Jews from the town. Consequently, the Jewish population of the town decreased from 3,297 in 1910 to 2,300 in 1921, which accounted for 41% of the total population.
These proportions changed after the war. Jews quite quickly regained their economic position in the town, which manifested itself in the percentage of Jewish shops (about 90%) and craftsman’s workshops (about 30%) in Gorlice. They also evidently dominated trade and services. The importance and activity of Jews in Gorlice was also reflected by their representation in the municipal authorities. In 1924, the Town Council had 22 Jewish memebers, and in 1933 – 20. In 1924, 23 Jews won seats in the municipal elections in Gorlice County, including 7 Orthodox Jews and 16 Zionists[1.3]. The town was a strong centre of Zionism in southern Poland. The Jewish intelligentsia showed a lot of political activity, especially when it came to young people, who belonged to such organisations as Tsukunft or Hashachar. The cultural and religious life of the Gorlice Jews was also thriving. It was mainly centred around the synagogue on Mickiewicza Street and a newly built, impressive synagogue on Piekarska Street.
The Gorlice-based Jewish industrialists: Chiel Morgenstern (“Felnerówka” mine in Męcina Wielka), Izydor Morgenstern (“Sambojda” mine in Kryg), and Maks Garnfunkel (“Elżbieta” mine in Kryg), were part of the delegation of oil industrialists from Gorlice who laid soil collected from several local mine shafts at Piłsudski’s Mound in Kraków in May 1936, on the first anniversary of the death of Józef Piłsudski.
In the years 1938–1939, as a result of the emigration of Jews from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, several hundred new Jewish settlers arrived in Gorlice. Poorer emigrants were usually provided with aid by a number of Jewish charities, for instance the Gorlice branch of Centos, presided over by Cecylia Blech. There were rare instances of anti-Semitic riots, inspired mainly by young National Democrats. They were limited to painting slogans on Jewish-owned shops, for instance “Do not buy at a Jew’s.” However, it was generally believed that Jews were an important part of the town’s life in the interwar period. Moreover, there is no doubt that they significantly contributed to the technological progress of Gorlice.
In 1939, Gorlice was inhabited by 4,500-5,000 Jews. Upon the outbreak of World War II, a part of Gorlice Jews escaped to the East, to the lands occupied by the Soviet Union[1.4]. Several hundred Jews were detained by the Soviets after 17 September and sent to Soviet labour camps in distant USSR, among them the last rabbi of Gorlice, Elisza Halberstam, who died in exile. It is estimated that ca. 100 Jews of Gorlice survived the war in Siberia.
Germans entered the town on 7 September 1939 and soon took hostages from among the Polish and Jewish populations. All people of Jewish descent between 18 and 35 years old were sent to forced labour. Starting from 9 September, all Jewish craftsmen workshops and stores had to be appropriately marked. A limit was imposed on the amount of cash which Jews could legally have and, at the same time, their bank accounts were blocked. Germans also introduced bans on ritual slaughter and baking of white bread. As early as October 1939, food stamps were introduced in Gorlice, with Jews receiving half the amount of rations granted to the Poles.
In addition, the Council of the Elders of the Jewish Community, the so-called Judenrat, was established, with Dr Henryk Arnold as the chairman and Dr Jakub Blech as his deputy.
Jews were forced to work on municipal investments, for example on the construction of a new street under the town’s escarpment (today’s Legionów Street) and the rebuilding of Mickiewicza, 3 Maja and Bielecka Streets. They also took away soil from the escarpment at 3 Maja Street, where blocks of flats are currently situated. They cleaned the town and worked for companies taken over by the Reich – in the tar paper factory, the Forest company, and the brickyard. They worked for free and received only a ladle of soup and the right to obtain food stamps. The situation of Jews was extremely difficult but as long as they were dispersed all over the town, they had unrestricted contact with the Polish population and therefore could purchase additional food and ask Polish authorities and underground organisations for help.
From 1 December 1939, Jewish inhabitants of Gorlice who were at least 10 years old were forced to wear ten-centimetre-wide bands with the Star of David on them. A month later, they were forbidden to change their place of residence and leave the municipality which they had previously inhabited. In mid-January 1940, Kreishauptmann Losacker introduced a regulation according to which a group of 10 hostages (including 6 Poles and 4 Jews) was selected every fortnight from among more prominent inhabitants of the town. Their freedom and lives served as a guarantee of “peace and order in the town” for the occupant’s authorities.
In 1940, the Nazis established a forced labour camp on the premises of the “Hobag” sawmill at Korczaka Street. Jews were imprisoned in the camp as well.
In mid-October 1941, a ghetto was established in Gorlice. Apart from 3,500 local Jews, it also housed Jewish inhabitants of nearby towns.
The gradual but systematic extermination of the Jewish population started in the spring of 1942 and was carried out by the Nazis and the Ukrainian police in the ghetto. The final liquidation of the ghetto took place in August 1942. Between 14 and 19 August, the Nazis executed around 900 Jews in the town, in Grabice and Buciarnia. Jews of Gorlice were probably killed in Bełżec on 20 August 1942. Only the Jewish workers from the labour camp stayed in the town; they were later deported to labour camps in Muszyna and Rzeszów.
Around a dozen of Jews who escaped from the railway ramp were taken in by their Polish acquaintances, but not many managed to survive since from the autumn of 1943 to the beginning of 1944, the Nazis searched the neighbourhood to find the hiding Jews and punish those who helped them. There is a list of Poles from the Gorlice Land who lost their lives for helping Jews.
It is presumed that about 200 Jews of Gorlice survived the war and around 30 families returned to the town after the war. However, some of them emigrated soon afterwards, mainly to Israel.
On Sunday, 19 August 2012, a plaque commemorating the extermination of the Jews from Gorlice was unveiled on the square in front of the former synagogue, situated at the junction of Krzywa and Strażacka Streets.
- Boczoń W., Żydzi gorliccy, Gorlice 1998.
- Dąbrowska D., Gorlice, [in] Encyclopaedia Judaica, eds. M. Berenbaum, F. Skolnik, vol. 7, Detroit 2007, p. 780.
- Gorlice, [in] Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon, eds. J. Tomaszewski, A. Żbikowski, Warsaw 2001, pp. 117–118.
- Żydzi w Karpatach, ed. T. A. Olszański, Warsaw 1991.
- [1.1] W. Boczoń, Żydzi gorliccy, Gorlice 1998, p. 41.
- [1.2] Gorlice, [in] Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon, eds. J. Tomaszewski, A. Żbikowski, Warsaw 2001, pp. 117-118.
- [1.3] W. Boczoń, Żydzi gorliccy, Gorlice 1998, pp. 60–61.
- [1.4] Żydzi w Karpatach, ed. T. A. Olszański, Warsaw 1991, p. 14.