It is difficult to give an exact date when Jews first appeared in Olkusz. The oldest note regarding Jews in Olkusz dates back to 1317, when according to the list in the town’s register there are two Jewish houses mentioned (curie due Judeorum).[1.1] Therefore, the connections of Jews with Olkusz go back to the beginnings of this town.

Towards the end of the 13th century, there were a few Jews living in the town who worked in silver and lead ore trade. Probably, a court banker of King Casimir III the Great and King Jogaila (later Władysław II Jagiełło), Lewko from Kraków (died in 1395) leased a tax paid to the king on ores mined in Olkusz mines as well. However, there is no direct evidence of this. The development of the settlement was to be stopped in 1374, together with granting a privilege De non tolerandis Judaeis by Elżbieta Łokietkówna, sister of King Casimir III the Great and wife of King Louis I of Hungary. According to M. Bałaban, Olkusz Jews ‘presumably moved to nearby Kraków’. However, there is no confirmation of this in the sources [1.2]. The fact is that by the middle of the 16th century there is no information about Jews in Olkusz. Their presence in the town is noted down again in the Kraków register books only in 1546. According to historians, it was connected with a further development of mining in this area and trade in silver gathered mainly in the hands of Jewish merchants. Numerous disputes with the townsmen over the finances, concerning mainly turnover of real estate and trade in lead were noted in the documents at that time. In 1564, there was even a demand that they should be dismissed from the town; it was repeated a few times later. Nonetheless, the development of the settlement was not stopped. On the contrary, together with an increase in the economic role of the Jews, the number of members of the community rose. They settled mainly near a synagogue, built at this time, and the Parczewska gate. The cemetery on the Sławkowski outskirts in the northern part of the town was probably established at that time [1.3].

At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the most important activity of Olkusz Jews was still mining, metallurgy, trade in lead and silver. The most important and the most well-off merchants and gwareks were, among others, Samuel Abrahamowicz called Węgrzynowicz, Mojżesz Abrahamowicz called Abrahamczyk, Salomon Musianowicz, called Michałowicz, Szmul Mojżeszowicz and Marek Aaronowicz [1.4]. Jews also did less profitable jobs such as production and trade in food, retail of liquor and small-scale craft.

In the 17th century, together with a collapse of Olkusz’s significance, the demographic development in the Olkusz municipality stopped. The population of Jews suddenly decreased because of the war activities and numerous epidemics. A great number of Jewish inhabitants left the town and returned only in the second half of the 17th century. A great number of individual and general privileges granted by King John II Casimir (moratorium on debts collecting from 1658) and King John III Sobieski (a right to trade in mining products from 1682)[1.5], confirmed by King Augustus II the Strong, prove this. It was probably connected with a demand of the municipal council for the inflow of new funds and investments in the town. The town then concluded new contracts with the community to participate in the taxes in return for the privileges of settling and trading in Olkusz, while John II Casimir obliged Jewish gwareks to pay a part of the duties collected from Olkusz miners in 1661. Jan III Sobieski confirmed the rights of Jews to trade in the town in 1682. They concentrated mainly on supplies of silver to the royal court at that time. They also gladly became agents of the gentry and aristocratic gwareks leasing Olkusz smelters from them. In 1676, a fire in Olkusz broke out. As a result, 12 Jewish houses burned down and 8 were robbed and devastated. Jews accused a town councilor’s widow and a juror of starting the fire and brought a lawsuit against them. Information about the trail can be found in the Kraków register books[1.6].

At the beginning of the 18th century, Olkusz became considerably depopulated and lost its economic significance. The Jewish community noted the population fall as well. In the years 1747–1749, there were 128 Jews, which was about 10% of the population, in the Olkusz parish including 16 villages and 1 town[1.7]. In the years 1786–1788, the main center of the Jews in the town was near the market square and on the main streets [1.8]. They owned 52 houses (3 brick tenements, the rest were wooden) and leased 11 others. They were active mainly in retail of liquor, small-scale trade and craft (tailors, bakers, glassmakers, butchers). At the close of the 18th century generally, we can observe a growing impoverishment of Jewish people and decreasing of standing of the Olkusz Jewish community that in 1692 became independent of wealthy Kraków community. In addition, there were bad relations with Christian population that resulted in a well-known lawsuit for a ritual murder in 1787.

In the period of the Partitions of Poland, the number of Jews was consistently increasing. Although the numbers given by the historians can raise doubts, the percentage of people of Jewish faith in the whole population of the town kept at a high level nevertheless. The number of active cheders in the second half of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries proves the intensity of religious life of the Olkusz Jews. There were 4 religious schools in the town in 1899, 8 in 1901, and 9 in 1903 [1.9] Hasidim, who exerted a significant influence on the cultural life of Olkusz kehilla, made a great part of the community. There were many disputes between them and the members of the community holding Liberal views. As a result of an activity of orthodox Jews in 1916, cantor Icchak Lajchter accused of excessive secularism was released. Many Hasidic prayer houses were open next to the synagogue. In 1917, Lejb Frajlich established an organization „Postep” (‘Progress’), a library and a reading room. It was a center of intellectual life for Olkusz Jews over the following years [1.10].

Jews were the most populous ethnic minority in the interwar period. However, in comparison with other cities in Kielce district they represented a relatively small proportion. According to a census dated 1921, there were 2703 Jews living in Olkusz that is 40,6% of the town’s population. In the 30s, the percentage of Jews increased. They mattered significantly in the economic, social and cultural life. Elections to the town council in 1927 are an example. Then, Jews submitted two lists and obtained 38,3% of the votes in total, which gave them 9 seats (as many as 4 for the Zionist coalition and Mizrachi party) [1.11]. The number of organizations and associations in the district and the very town proves the quality of socio-cultural life of Olkusz Jews. In spite of the domination of Orthodox Jews, numerous Zionist organizations acted dynamically there. There was even a training center in Olkusz, hachszara, where young people could prepare themselves for a trip to Palestine. Bundists, who continually competed with Zionists in the cultural and educational field, made a thriving environment. In the interwar period, Jewish labor unions were active in Olkusz too and the Social Democratic Youth Organization „Cukunft” had its representatives in Olkusz sports clubs “Jutrzenka” [1.12].

Jews played a significant role in the economic life of the town as well and influenced the economic development in the whole region. Jewish entrepreneurs were present in almost all businesses, in industry, craft and trade, where they generally held a monopoly. Bakers, tailors, underwear manufacturers and confectioners made the largest group. Jews were also the owners of an extremely profitable clay factory in the 20s and 30s. Most shops and works were located on the market square and its vicinity, not in the Jewish estate, which signifies the expectation of a non-Jewish consumer.

The relations with Catholic population were not too good at that time. The environment of the National Party (Stronnictwo Narodowe) enjoyed considerable influence in Olkusz. The members, students of the Jagiellonian University were in the majority, organized different campaigns, such as a boycott of Jewish goods, shops (painting over and destroying shop windows). Jews gave as good as they got and carried out similar revenge campaigns on their Catholic rivals. The number of anti-Jewish riots concerning economic matters increased, especially in the 30s. There were also anti-Semitic declarations. Local priest Jan Wiśniewski represented the most heated stand. In his historic and tourist descriptions of the region, he states that ‘Jewry, this bloodsucker, or rather a vampire of Poland, if we do not defend, will suck life out of our homeland’ [1.13].

After the outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Olkusz by the Germans on 5.09.1939, a part of the Jewish population left the town. According to the census dated 23.12.1939, 3080 Jews inhabited the town. Already by October, Mojżesz Merin made an order to set up Judenrat [1.14]. The Olkusz community together with neighboring communities was incorporated into the Head Office of Jewish Communities in Upper and Western Silesia with a seat in Sosnowiec. There were special restrictions in the town, for instance a ban on travelling by train, because of the location of Olkusz on the border of lands incorporated into the Reich and General Government. At the beginning of 1940, the synagogue was devastated and the gravestones were systematically removed from the cemetery and used to harden the road surface. On 15.06.1940, most Chorzów Jews were resettled in Olkusz.

Jews, likewise the rest of inhabitants of the town, were subjected to constant insults and repressions. The most tragic massacre happened on 31.07.1940. The events are known as ‘Bloody Wednesday’. The Nazis abused a group of Poles and Jews physically and mentally then on Olkusz market square in retaliation for killing a German police officer. Mosze ben Icchak Hagerman, Dayan of Olkusz community, was among the insulted. An American Jew, Majer, was massacred at that time as well [1.15].

In October 1940 Dionizy Sobol, who was under the authority of Central Board of the East Upper Silesia Elders (Central Judenrat for the East Upper Silesia) in Sosnowiec, became a head of the Olkusz Judenrat. As at October 1, 1940 there were 3 021 Jews in Olkusz[[refr:"nazwa"|red. Bolesław Ciepiela, Małgorzata Sromek, Śladami Żydów z Zagłębia Dąbrowskiego. Wspomnienia (Following trails of Jews from Zagłębie Dąbrowskie), Polish Authors' Society, Będzin Division, Będzin 2009, p. 23.]].

In February 1941, Jews were resettled from the center of Olkusz to the ghetto opened on the outskirts, near Parcz, Sikorki and Słowików. About 4000 people in total were placed there. It was probably not fenced, though German and Jewish police officers guarded the entrance. About 500 young men were taken to the Reich then. Admittedly, transports to forced labor had already taken place since the middle of 1940, however the number of deported suddenly increased. Repressions and executions intensified. In March 1942, 3 Jews accused of illegal trade were publicly executed. The liquidation action started in June 1942. About 3400 people were gathered on the gymnasium square, there and under the management of SS man Kuchciński the selection was made. A part of the Jews were sent to forced labor and put temporarily in the ghetto in Sosnowiec or taken to German labor camps. Most were sent to a death camp in Oświęcim. After closing down the ghetto, there were still about 20 craftsmen who were taken to Oświęcim in 1943 as well. On 1.08.1942, there were 78 Jews in Olkusz, and on 10.10, there was not a single Jewish inhabitant in the whole Olkusz county [1.16].

Although some inhabitants of the town who survived returned to Olkusz after the war, its community was not reconstructed. Most of them left Olkusz towards the end of the 40s. The families of Rejla and Tobiasz and Chaja and Josek Zilberszac, who ran a factory of dust-absorbing masks ‘TEZET’, stayed in the town the longest, until April 1966. There was Provisional Jewish Committee here just after the war.

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] K. Kocjan, Olkuscy Żydzi. Szkic historyczny (Olkusz Jews. Historic sketch), Olkusz 1997, p. 5.
  • [1.2] M. Bałaban, Żydzi w Olkuszu i gminach parafialnych (Jews in Olkusz and parish municipalities) [in:] Studia historyczne(Historical studies), Warszawa 1927, p. 152.
  • [1.3] D. Molenda, Ludność żydowska w Olkuszu okresie przedrozbiorowym (XIV-XVIII wiek) (Jewish population in Olkusz in the period before partitions – XIV-XVIII centuries), „Biuletyn ŻIH” (Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute), no. 14/116 (1980), pp. 12–13.
  • [1.4] K. Kocjan, Olkuscy Żydzi…(Olkusz Jews), p. 13.
  • [1.5] Ibidem, p. 15.
  • [1.6] See Materiały źródłowe do dziejów Żydów w księgach grodzkich dawnego woj. krakowskiego z lat 1674–1683 (Source materials for the history of Jews in the registry books of former Kraków Province from the years 1647-1683) , worked out by A. Kaźmierczyk, v. I, Kraków 1995, no. 539, 636, 881.
  • [1.7] K. Kocjan, Olkuscy Żydzi…, p. 19.
  • [1.8] Ibidem, p. 20.
  • [1.9] Ibidem, p. 27.
  • [1.10] S. Fridman, מוסדות תרבות ואחרים באלקוש, [in:] Olkusz. A Memory Book Dedicatet to a Community Annihilated in the Holocaust, ed. Z. Yasheev, Tel Aviv 1972. p. 57
  • [1.11] K. Kocjan, Olkuscy Żydzi…, p. 27.
  • [1.12] Ibidem, p. 28.
  • [1.13] Priest J. Wiśniewski, Dzieje miasta Olkusza i jego kościołów i pamiątek (History of Olkusz and its churches and mementoes), Marjówka 1933, p. 27.
  • [1.14] K. Kocjan, Zagłda olkuskich Żydów(Mass murder of Olkusz Jews), Olkusz 2002, p. 7.
  • [1.15] M. Kiciarski, Olkusz pod okupacją hitlerowską. Wspomnienia lekarza (Olkusz under Nazi occupation. Memoirs of the doctor),„Przegląd lekarski”, no. 1 (1968), pp. 228–235.
  • [1.16] K. Kocjan, Zagłada…( Extermination…), p. 17–24.