Jews began to settle in Koźle before 1373. A document dating back to the mid-14th century describes how Duke Konrad II of Oleśnica stole money from a Jewish woman from Koźle. As a consequence, in 1356, Duke of Cieszyn (Teschen) Przemysław filed a court case against Konrad. The investigation revealed that the stolen money belonged to a Jew from Pyskowice, a subject of the Duke of Cieszyn.
The best known Jew from Koźle was Abraham, who was ran a commercial business in Trzebnica in the early 15th century.
On 14 September 1559, Emperor Ferdinand I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the hereditary lands of the Habsburgs. The decree thwarted the efforts to attract Jewish settlers to Koźle after the plague epidemic of 1559. In 1563, the burghers of Koźle petitioned to Emperor Ferdinand to issue a non-tolerance privilege for the town. The Emperor conceded to the request and thus Jews were banned from settling in the town since 16 September 1563.
In May 1713, Emperor Charles VI issued the Edict of Tolerance (Toleranzpatent), allowing Jews to settle in the territory of Silesia after paying a special tolerance tax. The edict gave Jews the right to work as travelling salesmen in the entire region except for the following cities: Prudnik, Głubczyce, Racibórz, Koźle, Opole, and Nysa. Should a Jewish pedlar be caught selling goods in one of the above cities, he would have all of his items confiscated. However, Jews soon found a way to bypass the ban – they started to settle and base their businesses in the suburbs.[1.1]
Ca. 1750, the first two Jewish merchants settled in Koźle – Salomon and Marcus Baruch. They made great contributions to the development of the town, which was located in the vicinity of an important salt trade route. In 1766, Koźle had 30 Jewish residents. By 1787, their number had grown to 94.[1.2] Prussian statistical data from 1790 mentions 98 Jews living in Koźle.
In 1796, the members of the local Jewish community bought a building from the heirs of Baruch Steinfeidschen and opened a house of prayer there. At the time, the community was headed by Meyer Walentin Friedlander, Izaak Itzinger, and Szymon Jakub Kuaffmann.
During the siege of the Koźle Fortress by Napoleon’s army (1807), only five merchant families (Nathan Nikolaier, Izajasz Kaufmann, Szymon Kaufmann, Mojzesz Frankfurter, and Fabian Steinitz) were allowed to stay within the boundaries of the fortifications. All others had to leave the town. In October 1813, Rabbi Samuel Morgenstern moved from Gliwice to Koźle.[1.3]
In 1814, a Jewish cemetery was founded in Koźle. An independent Jewish community was established in 1820. The mikveh (ritual bath) was arranged in the house of Józef Matulasch in the nearby village of Dębowa (the house was destroyed in a fire and then rebuilt in 1837). Since 1820, the Jewish community owned its own school.
On 21 March 1825, the Jewish community purchased a two-storey building at erstwhile 28 Malzestrasse (Slodowa Street, today’s Sienkiewicza Street) from the pharmacist Schliwa. A prayer hall was organised on the second floor; it remained active for 50 years. The ruler of the synagogue was Hirsch Lobel Silberfeld.
According to data from 1828, there were 210 Jews living in Koźle County, constituting 0.6% of its population.[1.4]. In 1844, the town of Koźle had 150 Jewish inhabitants, while sources from 1845 also mention 17 Jews in Kłodnica and five Jews in Sławięcice. In 1861, there were 181 Jews in Koźle, with a small Jewish population (14 people) noted in Kędzierzyn for the first time in history.[1.5]
The year 1872 saw the establishment of the Upper Silesian Association of Synagogue Communities (Oberschlesische Synagogen-Gemeinden), which also included the Koźle community.
In September 1877, the Jewish community in Koźle bought a plot of land at the former Raciborski Square (Ratiborer Platz, nowadays 24 Kwietnia Street) for the purpose of erecting a synagogue. Construction works began in 1883. The seat of the community with the rabbi’s apartment was located next to the new synagogue, alongside a Jewish old people’s home financed by the Ring Foundation.[1.6] In 1880, the size of the community reached its peak with 236 members.
The beginning of the 20th century was marked by an increase in the rate of Jewish emigration to the West. As a result, the Jewish community in Koźle decreased to 119 people in 1910. After the rebirth of the Polish State in 1918 and subsequent Silesian uprisings, many Silesian Jews decided to move to the West, usually to large urban centres in Germany. This process concerned also Koźle.
In the plebiscite held on 20 March 1921, the majority of the Jewish community voted for Upper Silesia to remain in Germany. In Koźle, 74.9% of the votes were cast in favour of the town staying within the boundaries of Germany and 25.1% in favour of Poland. As a result of the plebiscite, the town remained in Germany.
In 1930, 84 Jews lived in Koźle. The total budget of the Jewish community in Koźle in 1930 was 7,000 marks, while the budget for religious purposes (Kultusetat) was 1,200 marks. In 1932, the Jewish community in the town numbered 80 people. Dr Feinberg was the community rabbi, and the community board consisted of S. Boss, S. Schlesinger, Bruno Wolff, Ernst Pollak, Max Breuer and Bruno Steiner. Four Jews from neighbouring Kędzierzyn also belonged to the Koźle Jewish community.
On 6 May 1932, a group of Jewish sportsmen from Koźle took part in a big rally of Jewish youth from Upper Silesia organised in Taciszów. Among the participants there were young Jews from Gliwice, Strzelce Opolskie, Bytom, Opole, Koźle, Zabrze, and Racibórz – a total of ca. 250 people. The meeting culminated with a speech given by Dr Ochs, a rabbi from Gliwice, who discussed the deteriorating situation of young Jews in Germany. He called on the youths not to give up their struggle and try to overcome any difficulties. The participants chanted “Long live!” three times to celebrate the German homeland. The event finished with the singing of the national anthem: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles…[1.7]
On 1 April 1933, a country-wide anti-Jewish boycott campaign was carried out, including in the town of Koźle.
During the Kristallnacht, a special SA unit (Die Sturmabteilungen der NSDAP) came to Koźle from Strzelce Opolskie. The Nazis threw hand-grenades into the synagogue at erstwhile Reinschdorferstrasse. The building was completely destroyed in the ensuing fire and later pulled down[1.8] (nowadays the site houses a medical clinic at 24 Kwietnia Street). At the time, Koźle had 80 Jewish residents. The community was headed by merchant Lippmann.
According to the census of 17 May 1939, there were 33 Jews in Koźle, as well as 21 “mixed” people (Mischlinge).[1.9] They were ordered to leave their homes and displaced to the building of the mortuary near the Jewish cemetery in Dębowa.
During the war, economic life in the area of today's Kędzierzyn-Koźle changed rapidly. Most of the local industrial plants were subordinated to armaments production. The authorities in Berlin paid close attention to the chemical industry, which was far to the east and therefore safe from Allied air raids.
In June 1942, the Germans deported almost all Jews from Koźle to Gliwice, from where they were sent in a joint “death transport” alongside Gliwice Jews to the gas chambers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
In 1942, the Germans established a slave labour camp in Blachownia Śląska (today located within Kędzierzyn-Koźle). Initially, slave labourers from the General Government were brought there, later they were joined by prisoners from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, France and Italy. Prisoner-of-war camps were also established, housing almost 2,500 British and French prisoners of war. They worked in the POW construction and labour battalions (Bau- und Arbeitsbataillonen). Altogether there were about 45,000 people in the complex of slave labour camps. Among the prisoners were also Jews. They all worked on the construction of the Oberschlesische Hydrierwerke AG synthetic petrol factory.
After the collapse of the Eastern Front in the winter of 1942-1943 and the defeat at Stalingrad, and when the Rhine industrial basin came under massive Allied bombardment, the chemical industry in Kędzierzyn-Koźle began to play an important role in the German war economy. The authorities demanded a non-investment increase in armaments production, whereas the shortage of manpower was getting deeper and deeper. For this reason, attention was drawn to the possibility of setting up slave labour camps near the industrial plants.
As early as in March and April 1942, the General Inspector of the concentration camps, SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl, set out the principles for the exploitation of prison labour. In the summer of 1942, the decision was made to put the concentration camps to work to increase the economic potential of the Third Reich. However, in September 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered that new slave labour camps be set up in the immediate vicinity of industrial sites. From this point on, branches of concentration camps were set up, the inmates of which worked as slaves in factories and plants for the German economy.
On 17 June 1942, a slave labour camp for Jews was established in Blachownia Śląska (Judenlager).
On 4 December 1942, transport No. XVIII/3 with a group of 50 Jews left the Opole region for the Theresienstadt ghetto (the third transport from the region to Terezin). These Jews came from Racibórz, Koźle and Bytom. 7 people from this group survived [1.10].
In August 1943, an outpost of SS Brigadenfucher Schmelt moved from Sosnowiec to the slave labour camp at Góra Św. Anny (Zwangsarbeitslager Annaberg). He managed the network of labour camps in the Opole and Katowice regions.
Around this time, there was a shortage of manpower in the camps. Officials from the Schmelt outpost, without the permission of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA), stopped rail transports in Koźle with Jews being transported from Western countries to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
In late 1943 and early 1944, the Blachownia Śląska synthetic petrol factory applied for the establishment of a branch of the concentration camp at the factory. As a result, on 1 April 1944, the camp was transformed into a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau (in Oświęcim). The sub-camp was renamed Arbeitslager Blechhammer and SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Otto Brossmann became its commandant. The camp consisted of two sub-camps: one for women (200 women) and one for men (4,000 men). The prisoners were employed in the construction of the I.G. Farben chemical plant in Blachownia. It is estimated that at least 248 prisoners died in the camp.
Between 17 and 21 January 1945, prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau were evacuated. Overall, around 56,000 prisoners were evacuated, several thousand of whom passed through Kędzierzyn-Koźle.
On 21 January 1945, the Germans liquidated the Arbeitslager Blechhammer camp and evacuated its prisoners. During the "death march" about 1,000 prisoners were killed. The camp in Sławięcice was liberated by Soviet troops on 26 January 1945.
The Jewish community in Koźle did not manage to rebuild itself after World War II.
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- [1.1] Świtliński K., Wawoczny G., “Żydzi raciborscy,” naszraciborz.pl [online] https://www.naszraciborz.pl/site/art/5/14/83.html [Accessed on: 17 Apr 2020].
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- [1.10] State Archive in Opole, group: Gestapo Oppeln, drawer no. 12, sheets 237, 376, 555, 579.