It is not known when exactly first Jews settled in Miedzyrzecz. According to most secondary sources, they were present in the town since at least the 16th century and played a significant part in its development alongside the German community.
The Jewish district was located in the northeastern part of the town, between the line of the city walls and Wysoka Street and Żydowska Street (German: Hohe Straße and Judenstraße). Nowadays, it’s a block delimited by 30 Stycznia Street, ks. Skargi Street, Murarska Street, and Ściegiennego Street. The relations between local Jews and Christians were always tense, with the town chronicles abounding in descriptions of repeated clashes and banishments.[1.1] Apart from traditional hostility based on religious disparities, there were also some economic conflicts. The Jewish community provoked additional ire of Christians when it sought emancipation from the municipal jurisdiction, wishing to come under the state rule of the local governor. Due to these factors and many more, the town inhabitants was constantly looking to get rid of the deeply despised Jewish competition.
The first serious opportunity arose in 1520, after a big fire destroyed Międzyrzecz. The local townsmen threatened to leave the town, which forced King Sigismund I the Old to officially expel Jews, though on the condition that the townsmen would agree to cover the royal levy previously paid by the Jews. Those 10 marks (grzywnas) in silver were apparently too much of a burden for the gentile population, as the Jews promptly returned to the town.
In 1532, Margrave of Brandenburg Joachim I issued a privilege granting Polish Jews the right to conduct trade in his march. The document was also binding for the Jews of Międzyrzecz.[1.2] The community was later mentioned in the report from the survey of royal estates carried out in the years 1564–1565, as Miedzyrzecz was a royal town at the time. According to the document, there were 18 Jewish houses in Miedzyrzecz, each paying 30 groschen and two pounds of pepper to the castle. In addition, the Jewish owner of a shop paid 15 groschen and one pound of pepper for his commercial permit. All local Jews were obliged to provide an annual tribute to the governor, amounting to a vat of olive oil and half a pound of saffron.[1.3] Apart from all these levies, the community also paid the Jewish poll tax in the amount of 30 florins. The money was collected by the Board of Jewish Communities in Gniezno and then handed over to the Royal Treasury.
The heavy financial burdens imposed on the Jewish community soon taught its members resourcefulness and ability to earn money. This in turn led to conflicts with their Christian competition, as in the search for additional income, Jews would often flout the restrictions imposed by the gentiles. As a consequence, a royal decree banishing them from the town was issued in 1607. It is not known whether it was actually enforced, as the year 1611 saw yet another conflict between Międzyrzecz’s ethnic groups – this time it broke out on religious grounds. Contrary to popular opinion about Polish tolerance, the Catholics were forcing dissenters, including Lutherans and Jews, to observe their holidays. On Ascension Day in 1611, a group of Jews was working on house demolition. The parish priest from St John’s Church asked them to stop, but they refused. A case was filed with the court appointed by the Bishop of Poznań. As a result, yet another decree on the banishment of Jews from Międzyrzecz was issued by King Sigismund III Vasa in 1613.
The decision to bring Jews back to Międzyrzecz was motivated exclusively by the needs of the Royal Treasury. On 27 September 1633, King Wladyslaw IV sanctioned their presence in the town and even allowed them to build a synagogue and a yeshiva. However, it proved to be the calm before yet another storm. In 1636, local clothmakers, clearly upset by the Jewish competition, attacked houses occupied by Jews and destroyed their workshops and tools. A year later, still unable to get rid of the Jews, the townsmen conceded to a compromise. Jews would be tolerated provided that they would not make cloth or sell clothing within the city limits, but in exchange they would be allowed to sell and buy ready-made cloth with no limitations. In addition, they would be obliged to pay 4 marks in silver and six ounces of pepper per year to the municipal treasury. They would also have to pay an annual tax for all newly purchased houses: 3 marks for dwellings in Wysoka Street and 1.5 marks in Kozia Street. They would be forbidden to slaughter horned cattle in the streets.
Despite this deal, the local Christians continued to seek banishment of Jews from Międzyrzecz. In 1645, they sent a letter to King Wladyslaw IV, accusing the Jewish community of insulting the Catholic religion. In a 1792 complaint addressed to King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, they pled the monarch to expel the Jews from the town. The year 1656 marked a particularly tragic period in the Jewish history of Miedzyrzecz. Falsely accused of supporting the Swedes, local Jews fell victim to the troops of Hetman Czarniecki stationed in the town. A total of ca. 100 people were killed.[1.4] The community temporarily ceased to exist, but with time it started to be gradually revived.
In the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, Miedzyrzecz came under the Prussian rule. According to the census carried out at the time, the town had a population of 2,510, including 700 Jews. A big ceremony was held in Międzyrzecz on 7 May 1793, with the inhabitants of the town and neighboring villages paying tribute to King of Prussia Fredrick William II. The local Jews gave a truly magnificent showing and invited the Prussian commandant and his officers to the main celebrations taking place in the synagogue.
“The entire community gathered inside the brightly lit synagogue, and the cantor, accompanied by trumpets and drums, sang a prayer for the well-being of the royal house, which was loudly applauded by all the people present.”[1.5]
The Jews of Miedzyrzecz had great hopes for the Prussian rule. In a short period of time, their situation improved significantly, which had a clear influence on their attitude towards the state. The process of making Jews full-fledged Prussian citizens did not have the same pace all over the controlled territory. Although Miedzyrzecz was a relatively western town, the Jews living there represented a much more eastern type of Jewishness. An interesting portrait of the local community was painted by Heinrich Heine in his 1823 work titled Über Polen (About Poland):
“The appearance of the Polish Jews is awful. I cringe at the memory of the first time I saw a Polish village in the neighborhood of Miedzyrzecz, which was inhabited mostly by Jews. […] However, repulsion soon gave way to sympathy when I took a closer look at the situation of those people and when I saw the burrows, or rather the pigsties in which they dwelled, jabbered, prayed, plotted, and generally lived in poverty. Their language is like German sifted through Polish sensibility, interwoven with some Hebrew words.”[1.6] Naturally, with time this model of life underwent significant changes, although Orthodox Judaism still held sway in Miedzyrzecz even in the late 19th century.[1.7]
Full citizenship gave the Jewish community an opportunity to become more active in the public life, free of previous legal restrictions. An article published in Heimatgruss (a German magazine of former inhabitants of Miedzyrzecz) perfectly described the stereotypical perception of Jews: “They had an unusual knack for business and they took advantage of all economic opportunities promising profit, even if it was hardly lucrative.”[1.1.7] The reputation of Międzyrzecz Jews and their business ties reached far beyond the Poznań Province. In Westphalia in the 1970s, some elderly people still remembered the once popular saying: Wo kommen die Juden her? Aus Meseritz, aus Meseritz, da kommen die Juden angeflitzt! – “Where do the Jews come from? from Miedzyrzecz, from Miedzyrzecz, they quickly come from there!”[1.8] Nonetheless, Międzyrzecz was still merely a provincial centre and did not give Jews many entrepreneurial opportunities, which is why their population was steadily decreasing, as was the case in all eastern provinces of Germany. While there still were 1,190 Jews in the town in 1842, their number had decreased tenfold by the eve of World War I.
In 1918, there were only 28 people eligible to vote in the Jewish community of Międzyrzecz: Bab Salomon – pensioner, Bab Karl – tradesman, Baum Hermann – trader, Baß Isidor – tradesman, Blumenfeld Alfred – clerk dealing with the religious community, Kadisch Adolf – pensioner, Kadisch Georg – forwarder, Korn Naphtali – merchant, Labositin Max – tradesman, Lewin Adolf – tradesman, Lewin Heinrich – merchant, Levy Arthur – merchant, Michaelis Abraham – pensioner, Michaelis Bernhard – merchant, Michaelsohn Max – physician, Rathe Max – merchant, Rothe Salomon –butcher, Rothe Martin – merchant, Riesenburg Isidor – apprentice, Segall Hermann – glazier, Schneider Moses – merchant, Schneider Max – merchant, Striemer Max – merchant, Weltmann Karl – merchant, Wollstein Lesser – merchant, Wolff Max – merchant, Kron Moritz – tradesman (Miedzyrzecz Winnica), Kron Heymann – tradesman (Miedzyrzecz Winnica).[1.9]
After World War I, the kehilla did not even have its own rabbi. Rabbi Artur Rosenzweig commuted to Miedzyrzecz from Piła. Despite the difficult economic situation, the community decided to renovate the synagogue. The building was officially consecrated on 30 September 1929, once all works had finished. An article describing this event has been preserved:
“On Sunday afternoon, the board of the local kehilla invited everybody to a service celebrating the consecration of the renovated House of God. The neighbouring community of Skwierzyna sent all the important representatives and the religion teacher, who also teaches children from the Miedzyrzecz kehilla. The impressive crowd gathered in the big prayer hall, richly decorated with flowers and illuminated with hundreds of candles. The new design of the hall is a conscious reference to a classic altar. The modestly painted interior creates […] a solemn, sublime atmosphere. At an established time, Rabbi Dr. Elsaß from Gorzów, the first manager, and another member of the board brought the festively dressed Torah into the synagogue, welcomed by the cantor with a triple ‘blessed be.’ Then the holy prayer sounded: ‘Hear, o Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ The Torah scroll […] was put away into the Aron Hakodesh. After a psalm and a resounding ‘amen’ from the crowd, Dr. Elsaß made his speech. He reminded the gathered people that the 100th anniversary of the synagogue’s foundation had been celebrated two years earlier (the synagogue in its present shape was built in 1827 after the big fire) and that a renovation had been due. He also pointed out that the works could only be carried out thanks to the generous donations of former and present members of the community, as well as, first and foremost, financial assistance of the Prussian Association of Jewish Communities ‘The gates of holiness open, we enter them to praise God. These are the gates which lead us to God.’ Those very words of the psalmist, written with golden letters over the entrance to the synagogue, were taken by the rabbi as the starting point for his spiritual considerations. We do not build houses of God for the Eternal, as His magnificence and power embraces the sky, the Earth, the whole universe. We build them for people. The prayer of a single person said even in the smallest shed also reaches God. ‘I will come to you to any place where you remember me and I will bless you.’ But the ‘community house,’ as Jews call their prayer rooms, should unite the community. Here, they are going to learn – it is no coincidence that in colloquial language we speak of Jewish schools of prayer – the holy teachings from the Torah for their whole life. The community fulfils the mission of Judaism: ‘You shall be my chosen nation.’ The preacher’s speech, full of spiritual fervour, ended with a prayer for the welfare of the fatherland, the town, and the community. It made a great impression not only on the Jewish community members, but also on followers of other religions present at the ceremony. The afternoon prayer and the final song concluded the modest celebration. In the evening, the community members gathered in the meeting room of Spielhagen Hotel to enjoy their time together. Some well-spirited speeches praised the merits of the board and representatives of the community.”[1.10]
Although the National Socialists initially did not enjoy much popularity in Miedzyrzecz. In the 1928 election to the Reichstag, only seven out of all 4,451 votes from the town were cast for NSDAP. The most popular political parties in Miedzyrzecz were SPD (Social Democratic Party) – 1,049 votes, German National People's Party – 1,239 votes, Centre Party – 941 votes, KPD (Communist Party of Germany) – 245 votes.[1.11]
The situation changed after Hitler came to power in Germany. Jews started to be blamed for the difficult economic situation in Miedzyrzecz (after the Treaty of Versailles, the town lost access to its natural market – Greater Poland, which was incorporated into reborn Poland). They were also accused of maintaining suspicious contacts with the Poles and of intending to poison wells. The tensions eventually erupted in violence on 15 July 1933, with the rioting crowd chanting: Die Juden müssen nach Hammerstein, sonst schmeißen wir sie in die Obra rein! – “Jews to Hammerstein [now Czarne], or to the Obra with them!”[1.12] Several Jewish people were arrested, but they were released shortly.
The synagogue in Międzyrzecz was not set on fire during Kristallnacht, as is erroneously stated in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (vol. 2, p. 813). However, members of the SA attacked Jewish houses and shops. Jewish people were arrested, and a group of men was temporarily detained in KZ Sachsenhausen. According to the source cited above, the Jews of Miedzyrzecz were deported from the town in March 1940 to a transit camp in Bürgergarten [currently near Piła]. The history of Miedzyrzecz Jews during Holocaust still requires further studies.
- Becker, P., Geschichte der Stadt Meseritz, Meseritz 1930, p. 117.
- Heppner A., Herzberg J., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Bromberg 1909, p. 622.
- Lewin L., Judenverfolgungen 1655–59, Posen 1901, p. 9
- Lustracja województw wielkopolskich i kujawskich 1564–1565, pt. 1, Bydgoszcz 1961, p. 273.
- [1.1] Zacherts Chronik der Stadt Meseritz, Posen 1983.
- [1.2] Riedels Codex diplomaticus Brandenburgensis, vol. 2, 6, Berlin 1858, p. 385.
- [1.3] Lustracja województw wielkopolskich i kujawskich 1564-1565, pt. 1, Bydgoszcz 1961, p. 162.
- [1.4] Lewin L., Judenverfolgungen 1655–59, Posen 1901, p. 9.
- [1.5] Heppner, Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Bromberg 1909, p. 623.
- [1.6] Heine H., Dzieła wybrane, vol. 2, Warszawa 1956.
- [1.7] Heimatgruss, no. 60, September 1976, p. 3.
- [1.1.7] Heimatgruss, no. 60, September 1976, p. 3.
- [1.8] Heimatgruss, no. 60, p. 3.
- [1.9] Secret Prussian State Archive in Berlin (=GStA PK), XVI HA, Abt. I Polizeisachen, Volkskultur, Juden. Meseritz, Rep. 32 (D), no. 138.
- [1.10] Archive of Centrum Judaicum in Berlin (=CJA), 1,75 A, Me 4, no. 17 #5026, ark. 131. Translated from German to Polish by Ewa Ochwiejewicz. The original text has missing fragments, which have been partially reconstructed.
- [1.11] Bericht über die Verwaltung und den Stand der Gemeindeangelegenheiten der Stadtgemeinde Meseritz für die Zeit vom 1. April 1928 bis 31. März 1929, Meseritz 1929, pp. 46–47.
- [1.12] Stadt und Kreis Meseritz. Ein Heimatbuch, vol. 2, Herne 1989, p. 265.