The first reference to a Jewish community in Leszno dates back to 1604. A privilege granted to Jews on 10 March 1628 permitted them to own town houses although with a qualification that required Jews to pay a tax to the town owner. At that time, Jewish people living in Leszno were involved mostly in trade and craft and owned 28 homes. Jewish craftsmen were glaziers, tailors, hat makers, furriers, jewellers, locksmiths, tanners, goldsmiths and hairdressers. Porters were considered a separate group and even had their own union. In 1690, Jewish musicians from Leszno were granted a special privilege. As a result of some internal regulations on Jewish merchants, they specialised in trading with other Polish towns (especially Wrocław) and foreign countries (even as remote as Turkey). Jews were mostly involved in trading in cloth, but leather trade was popular among them as well. Such activity led to a substantial increase in the wealth of Jewish entrepreneurs in Leszno.
The battles of the Swedish Deluge and the Northern War resulted in numerous casualties among Jews. During the night of 29 June 1656, the town was set on fire, which took the lives of many, including local Jews. The victorious Polish armies burned down the town to punish its citizens for allying with the Swedes. Only 100 out of the 400 Jewish families in Leszno managed to escape to Silesia. In spite of the great damage, the community of Leszno soon started to recover.
Another disaster struck Leszno on 29 of July 1707, when the Russian army took over the town. The Russians imposed high taxes on the town citizens. However, the tax did not spare local Jews from assaults, with their district eventually burned down by Russians. Many local Jews were murdered that day, and others tried to escape to Silesia. The latter returned to Leszno afterwards.
On 25 July 1709, tragedy struck again. Jews were accused of bringing the plague to Leszno. Most Jews (ca. 8,000 people) were forced to leave the town. They waited out the period of terror in the local forests. When the plague was under control, they returned to Leszno.
In the second half of the 18th century, the Jewish population in Leszno started to grow. In the years 1767–1790, it fluctuated between 4,000 and 5,000 people. In that period, Leszno was known as “the Main Synagogue of Wielkopolska” (Hauptsynagoge von Großpolen). It was also a period of exceptional growth of Jewish education in Leszno. Many Jewish scholars from Leszno worked as rabbis in other towns. To honour the memory of seven Leszno scholars named Loeb, the local Jewish community came to be known as “the Lion Cave” (die Löwenhöhle). In 1780–1790, a great scholar, Rabbi Akiba Eger, lived and taught in Leszno.
On 11 of August 1767 another disaster struck the Jewish community. A fire broke out in the town and the flames consumed the entire Jewish district, killing 20 local Jews. Due to the tragedy, the town owner stopped taxing the community for a period of six years. The Leszno community also received financila aid from Jews from Germany and Italy. On 2 June 1790, another fire broke out, destroying 481 houses, 196 of which belonged to the Jews. Fires afflicting Leszno also destroyed the Jewish archive, which contained a number of interesting documents.
In 1792, the Jewish community held an extraordinary meeting, during which they decided to rebuild the Jewish district. On 15 October 1793 the Jews from Leszno, led by their rabbi, paid homage to King of Prussia Frederick William II when he visited the town[1.1].
In the 18th century, a large number of Jewish schools operated in Leszno. In 1833, 11 male and 2 female teachers, including a music teacher, worked in the local schools. At that time, Jewish students were also attending classes at a local middle school.
In the 19th century, the Jews of Leszno were still involved in trade and crafts (tailors, furriers, jewellers, locksmiths, tanners, and butchers). They bought agricultural produce from the peasants all around Greater Poland and exported them to Królewiec, Berlin, Gdańsk, Frankfurt am Main, and Leipzig. Cloth bought in Lower Silesia was transported to Petersburg. There was also a number of entrepreneurs in Leszno, many of which became the forerunners of the local industry. During this period, the community owned a synagogue, Talmudic school, cemetery, hospital, and poorhouse. In 1868, a Jewish entrepreneur from Leszno, Philipp Hannach, launched a pump and fire-hose plant. It was one of the most modern enterprises in Prussia at the time[1.2].
Thrirteen Jews from Leszno took part in the French-Prussian War in the years 1870-1871. One of them, grenadier Markus Sachs, died during the war[1.3].
The middle of the 19th century saw the beginning of the Jewish emigration from Leszno. In 1842, 150 Jewish families left for Germany and the United States[1.4]. The trend escalated at the turn of the 20th century.
After World War I, there was a wave of Jewish mass migration from the town. After 1924, the Jewish population declined in numbers, with the number of community members stabilising at ca. 160 until 1939. Most Jews made their living by running small companies, enterprises and workshops, mostly family-owned. Hans Kretschmer, who traded in grain, was a leading entrepreneur in the town. The following companies were successful during this period: the Machine and Metal Foundry Plant (owned by Adolf Pachtern, an engineer), the Clothing Plant (owned by A. W. Goldschmidt) and the “Obrót” Tricot Plant[1.5].
The Jewish community still functioned in Leszno; it was later transformed into the Jewish Community Board that convened representatives from localities surrounding Leszno: Bojanowo, Rawicz, Śmigiel, Czempin, Jutrosin, Krobia and Borek Wielkopolski[1.6].
A Jewish school with 39 students operated in Leszno until 1921. The school was closed due to the migration of the head teacher, Jenna Barschar, to Germany. Jewish children then attended an Evangelical school and public schools. Some of them attained secondary education in Leszno middle schools[1.7].
After Germans seized Leszno in September 1939, local Jews were deprived of their property. Some of them voluntarily left for the General Government in the autumn of 1939, including the Diamant, Kretschmer, Kalmus, Pachter, Kibel and Litwak families. Those who remained were deported to Tomaszów Mazowiecki, Sokołów Podlaski, and Sarnaki, Siedlce District, in December 1939[1.8].
- Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004.
- Heppner A., Herzberg I., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin – Bromberg 1909.
- [1.1] Heppner A., Herzberg I., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin – Bromberg 1909, p. 608.
- [1.2] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, p. 71.
- [1.3] Heppner A., Herzberg I., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin – Bromberg 1909, p. 612.
- [1.4] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, p. 47.
- [1.5] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, pp. 124–125.
- [1.6] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, p. 130.
- [1.7] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, pp. 140–145.
- [1.8] Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004, pp. 175.