According to legend, a group of Jewish envoys from Germany came to Gniezno to visit Leszko, duke of Poland as early as in 893. The members are said to have asked the duke’s permission to settle in his country.
Material remnants of the Jewish population in Gniezno originate from the 13th century. As research on the minting of Polish coins shows, denars with Hebrew inscriptions were minted in Kalisz in the 12th and 13th centuries, probably in Gniezno in the 13th century and in Krakow in the 12th and 13th centuries. However, the first written note about Gniezno Jews comes from 1458. In 1478, some of the inhabitants left Gniezno and settled in Warsaw.
The population in Gniezno must have developed dynamically as in 1507 the local Jews paid 50 zlotys for coronation tax. Only the Jews in Poznań paid more – 200 zlotys, in Kazimierz and Lwów – 300 zlotys each and in Lublin – 75 zlotys. Charters from 1497 and 1519 were advantageous for the development of the town. In 1565, the Jews lived in 22 tenements and their own houses, five were rented from the Christians. Moreover, they had a school house and a synagogue. They paid at that time 98 zlotys of poll-tax. In 1579, 110 Jews who paid of 100 zlotys of poll-tax were registered. In 1582, rabbi Eliezer Aszkenazy consecrated a new synagogue. At the end of the 16th century, there was a meeting in Gniezno of leaders of the largest Jewish communities from Poland and Germany in order to condemn slanders contained in an anti-Jewish satire Nodler[1.1].
In the years 1628 - 1632, the Jews owned 26 houses, in 1653 – 28 (162 belonged to the Christians). After the Swedish Deluge in the years 1655 - 1660, a Jewish street was seriously damaged. The Jewish community was savagely reduced in number as its members were murdered. Only 2 Jewish houses and a partly devastated synagogue were left. The community was re-organized in 1661. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1680. In the 1660s, the sisters of Saint Clare separated the Jewish street from the rest of the town. This provoked a protest from the Gniezno burghers. Royal officials ordered them to destroy the fence [1.2].
In 1660, King Jan II Kazimierz renewed the Jews’ right to live in Gniezno and gave them the permission to rebuild the buildings which had been destroyed and to renovate the old synagogue or build a new one. This was confirmed by edict in 1731[1.3]. Ultimately, the synagogue matter was solved by the Sejm constitution of 1661. There we can read that an account of losses suffered by the cathedral church, the convent of the Poor Clares and the Franciscans’ convent: “when<i> in meditullio </i>(inside) the Jews’ synagogue is constructed in such a way that the shouting muffles the singing from the above mentioned churches. And which is ruined because of the soldiers passing while a proclamation of ours was issued to restore it. However, at the entreaty of the land deputies of Greater Poland, we cancel and annihilate this proclamation and order to mark off a different place for a synagogue and for living <i>proper securitatem majorem </i>(for the sanctity of most those churches)’- (‘kiedy <i>In meditullio</i> bóżnica Żydów jest założona tak, że żydowskie wrzaski zatłumiają śpiewaniu kościołów pomienionych tamecznych. Która iżwy przez żołnierze przechodzące jest zrujnowana, a uniwersały wyszły nasze, aby restaurowana była, za usilną prośbą posłów ziemskich województw wielkopolskich uniwersał ten od nas wydany kasujemy i anihilujemy i <i>proper securitatem majorem </i>kościołów tamecznych onych jako na bóżnicę tak na pomieszkanie innych plac wydzielić rozkazaliśmy’)[1.4].
Despite many difficulties, the Jewish population in Gniezno started to expand again thanks to the monarch’s favour. In 1666, there were already 28 Jewish houses in the town[1.5]. In 1779, a multi-faith Christian-Jewish tailor’s guild appeared in Gniezno[1.6]. In the first half of the 18th century, the town suffered accusations of ritual murders[1.7].
During the occupation of Prussia (Germany) significant changes were brought about in the lives of Gniezno Jews. Pressure from the Prussian administration caused many poor Jews to leave the town at the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th centuries. Jews from towns in Wielkopolska, Prussia and Pomerania flocked to replace them. Apart from traditionalists, supporters of Judaic reform in the haskalah way began to appear. In 1834, ‘naturalized ones’ made up a community of 138 people, including 28 released from the requirement to use the German language. In 1825, a local government reshuffle took place. A new statute was enacted. Despite the pressure of progressive elements, it retained the structure of the government with old institutions and a complicated elections statute dated back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Its introduction indicates that the traditionalists still made up a significant majority.
The pressure of supporters of the reformed rite in liturgy and an explicit pro-German political orientation was becoming greater and greater. Their influences were strengthened by a new statute passed in 1837. In the 1840s, sermons in German were introduced, synagogue regulations (1846), terms of rabbis’ tenure (since 1847) and a choir (1847) were enacted. To weaken the traditionalists’ influences a prohibition on organizing additional church services, outside the synagogue, in prayer houses during the Sabbath and holidays was placed. Rabbi Heiman Hirsch, who did not have a good command of a German language, was turned away by pro-reformatory oriented members of the administration. The opposition of supporters of the old order was strong. In 1846, a twenty-person police unit kept order during the consecration of a new synagogue. Authorities imposed a number of punishments and fines on people who did not obey the new regulations. In 1850, an orthodox chairman of the local government had to spend six weeks in prison as, during a church service, he assaulted the second chairperson who was in favor of a reform. Reforming trends were to be strengthened by a rabbi Dr Julius Gebhardt chosen in 1847. However, he did not stay in Gniezno for long. The supporters of orthodoxy again took control over the board of the local government. They stopped paying a salary to the rabbi in order to discourage him. In 1852, rabbi J. Gebhardt left Gniezno and went to live in Bydgoszcz. His successor, Schaje Pulvermacher, was in favor of traditional Judaism. The subsequent rabbis, after 1864, were people with a thorough, secular and university education which proved an ultimate victory for the supporters of reform.
The events of the years 1847 - 1848 exerted an influence on Gniezno Jews who in the second half of the 19th century were in favor of pro-German orientation. A number of riots of Polish citizens against Jewish traders took place in Gniezno at that time. Shops, warehouses, granaries and houses were plundered. A rapid rise in prices of food and general poverty were the cause. A fire of in the Jewish district in 1819 contributed to a change in the location of Jews in the town[1.8].
In the 19th century, a lot of organizations were established in the Jewish community to provide additional support in many spheres of activity. Education played an important role. Gradually cheder training diminished. Yeshivas collapsed and schools accepted by the state authorities were formed in their place. One of them was a Jewish Religious School. In 1903, 91 students attended it. The rest went to the Popular School. Before an outbreak of World War I, Jewish students comprised a group of 50 people. Some of the organizations were allowed to preserve traditions. Among these we can identify:
- Jewish Funeral Brotherhood (Izraelickie Bractwo Pogrzebowe)
- Jewish Charity Brotherhood (Izraelickie Bractwo Dobroczynne)
- Brother’s Association (Związek Braterski)
- Humanitas Jewish Association (Izraelicki Związek ‘Humanitas’)
- Jewish Association of Nursing the Sick (Izraelicki Związek Pielęgnowania Chorych)
- Jewish Association of Women (Izraelicki Związek Kobiet)
- Jewish Association of Young Women (Izraelicki Związek Młodych Kobiet)
- Association of Cultivating Jewish History and Literature (Związek Pielęgnowania Żydowskiej Historii i Literatury)
- Number 4 Friedenloge Masonic Lodge (Loża masońska Friedenloge nr 4)
- Jacob, Salome and Ella Hirszberg Foundation (Fundacja Jacoba, Salome i Elli Hirszberg)
- Samuel Jaffe and Josef Heilborn Foundation (Fundacja Samuela Jaffe i Josefa Heilborna) [1.9].
The 19th century favored demographical changes. Until the mid-19th century, the Jewish community in Gniezno gradually grew and amounted to about 2,000 people at that time. In the next decades, demographic decline became more pronounced mainly as a result of migration. Jews left for the United States and larger German towns. The changes intensified in the interwar period.
After Gniezno was incorporated into Poland, most of indigenous Jews left the town and went to Germany. In their place Jews from inside Poland started to arrive. An encounter of local Jews who had long ago moved to the town with the new arrivals provoked a lot of friction and conflict which affected the functioning of the community over the next twenty years. In 1936, the newcomers set up the Gemilut Hesed Jewish Association of Loans Free of Interest (Żydowska Kasa Bezprocentowych Pożyczek ‘Gemiłus Chesed’). Most Jewish children attended the evangelical common school but children of religious incoming Jews went to cheder where Icek Warszawski was the teacher. The Jewish government changed its system. Regulations determining the status of the Jewish government, legally binding in the Second Polish Republic since 1919, were introduced in the territories of the former Prussian partitions (German). In 1932, along with a reform of the administration, the boundaries of the Jewish districts in Poznań Province and Pomeranian Province were extended. The Gniezno government assumed also smaller Jewish communities living in the towns of County of Gniezno, in Kłecko and Czerniejewo [1.10].
Occupation of the Wielkopolska in 1939 by the German army brought about the extermination of Gniezno Jews. In October and November 1939, small groups of Jews from the counties of Inowrocław, Gniezno, Szubin, Węgrów were resettled in Gniezno. In December 1939, most of them were deported to Piotrków Trybunalski in the Radom District in the General Government. One group most probably ended up in Łódź [1.11].
- Dąbrowska D., Zagłada skupisk żydowskich w „Kraju Warty” w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej, „Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego” 1955, nos. 13–14.
- Guldon Z., Wijaczka J., Ludność żydowska w Wielkopolsce w drugiej połowie XVII wieku, [in:] Żydzi w Wielkopolsce na przestrzeni dziejów, Poznań 1995.
- Guldon Z., Wijaczka J., Osadnictwo żydowskie w województwach poznańskim i kaliskim w XVI–XVII wieku, „Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego” 1992, nos 2–3.
- Heppner A., Herzberg I., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin – Bromberg 1904–1908.
- Kemlein S., Żydzi w Wielkim Księstwie Poznańskim 1815–1848. Przeobrażenie w łonie żydostwa polskiego pod panowaniem pruskim, Poznań 2001.
- Skupień A., Ludność żydowska w województwie poznańskim w latach 1918–1938, Poznań 2007.
- Warschauer A., Geschichte der Stadt Gnesen, Posen 1918.
- [1.1] Zenon Guldon, Skupiska żydowskie w miastach polskich XV-XVI wieku, [in:] Żydzi i judaizm we współczesnych badaniach polskich, v. 2 edited by Krzysztof Pilarczyk and Stefan Gąsiorowski, Kraków 2000, pp. 15, 19, 22-25; Adolf Warschauer, Geschichte der Stadt Gnesen, Posen 1918, pp. 29-31, 130-132.
- [1.2] Adolf Warschauer, Geschichte..., pp. 131-132; Zenon Guldon, Jacek Wijaczka, Ludność żydowska w Wielkopolsce w drugiej połowie XVII wieku, [in:] Żydzi w Wielkopolsce na przestrzeni dziejów, edited by Jerzy Topolski and Krzysztof Modelski, Wydawncitwo Poznańskie, Poznań 1995, pp. 24, 26, 28.
- [1.3] Aron Heppner, Izaak Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin-Bromberg 1904 - 1908, p. 406.
- [1.4] Zenon Guldon, Jacek Wijaczka, Osadnictwo żydowskie w województwach poznańskim i kaliskim w XVI-XVII wieku, „Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego“, 1992, no. 2-3, p. 75.
- [1.5] Zenon Guldon, Jacek Wijaczka, Ludność żydowska..., p. 28.
- [1.6] Maurycy Horn, Chronologia i zasięg terytorialny żydowskich cechów rzemieślniczych w dawnej Polsce (1613-1795), [in:] Żydzi w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo 1991, p. 208, 211.
- [1.7] Szerzej: Zenon Guldon, Jacek Wijaczka, Procesy o mordy rytualne w Polsce w XVI-XVIII wieku, Kielce 1995, pp. 68-78.
- [1.8] More: Adolf Warschauer, Geschichte..., passim; Aron Heppner, Izaak Herzberg, Aus..., pp. 405-413; Sophia Kemlein, Żydzi w Wielkim Księstwie Poznańskim 1815-1848. Przeobrażenie w łonie żydostwa polskiego pod panowaniem pruskim, Poznań 2001, passim.
- [1.9] Abraham Heppner, Izaak Hezberg, Aus..., pp. 286, 287, 411-412; Anna Skupień, Ludność żydowska w województwie poznańskim w latach 1918 - 1938, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie Poznań 2007, passim.
- [1.10] More: Anna Skupień, Ludność..., passim.
- [1.11] Danuta Dąbrowska, "Zagłada skupisk żydowskich w „Kraju Warty” w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej", Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 1955, no. 13-14, pp. 129-130, table 9, p. 166.