The formal Jewish settlement in Poznań probably dates back to the mid thirteenth century. The earliest written record on the construction plan of a synagogue was in 1367. In all likelihood Jews had established a council by then. The Jewish council in Poznan became one of the oldest and most important Jewish councils in Poland. The arrival of Jewish refugees from Germany, France and Bohemia prompted establishment of the council. The Duke Bolesław the Pious encouraged the settlement of Jews who had been persecuted in fourteenth century Europe by granting the Jewish community of Poznań numerous privileges. Stability of the Jewish settlement in Poznań was exemplified by the fact that the Jews arriving in Poznań encountered many eminent Talmudic scholars who had cultivated a particular variation of Jewish liturgy, the so-called Minhag Pozna. Furthermore, the significance of the local Jewish community was exemplified when its members were obliged to pay 200 zlotys for the coronation tax in 1507. In the fifteenth century, Poznań, Cracow, Lviv, and Lublin formed the so-called Tetrapole, which was transformed in 1581 into the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot). The institution was the supreme authority of all Jewish communities in Poland until 1764.
The development of the Council in the sixteenth century was partially caused by the influx of Sepharadi Jews from Hungary. The population of the Jewish Quarter initially located along Tkacka Street, soon renamed Żydowska Street, increased significantly. The quarter was located between the town hall and the Warta River and was gradually growing. It soon included the Old Market Square and the area bounded by Żydowska, Szewska, Wroniecka and Stawna Streets. The quarter endured a number of fires, the most dramatic of which occurred in 1447. Almost all Jewish houses were destroyed at that time.
In 1565, there were “50 Jewish tenement and private houses” in Poznań, including the “house of the doctors and 3 houses adjacent to synagogues, in which teachers and cantors resided”. There were “2 synagogues, and 43 houses rented from Christians – sometimes more, sometimes less”. In the first half of the seventeenth century the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany aggravated the housing problem in the city. According to various sources, in 1590 there were 1500 Jews in Poznań, in 1618-19 between 2000 and 3226. Despite the fact that percentage of Jewish houses in Poznań rose from 21.7 percent in the mid sixteenth century to 36 percent in the mid seventeenth century, it did not solve the overcrowding problem. In 1558 there were 83 Jewish houses, in 1613 – 147, in 1655 – 128 (out of which 116 were inhabited). Population density in some of the Jewish houses remained extremely high, which only escalated numerous problems. After the fire of Poznań in 1590 Jews abandoned their ravaged quarter for two years. When they returned returned, Jews restored all necessary elements of the community infrastructure, namely the synagogue from the fourteenth century – which was rebuilt and redesigned multiple times – religious schools of the primary and secondary level (cheders and yeshivas), three hospitals and a bath. The local regulations, which clarified Jewish situation encouraged development and maintained Jewish settlement. In 1588-1668 23 out of 31 resolutions made by authorities were advantageous for Jews. The attitude of the kings towards Jews guaranteed a relative security. In 1557, the King Sigismund Augustus imposed a penalty of 100 grzywnas on the city for imprisoning Jews. In 1576, King Stefan Batory granted a privilege to Jews of Poznań that gave them equality with Christians before the law: “If a Christian hits a Jew, he will be punished in the same way as if he hit another Christian”.
The royal legislation about the Jews of Poznań was not always propitious. It was based on a pragmatic attitude that balanced the interests of Jews who delivered large profits into the royal treasury against the expectations of Christian petite bourgeoisie and clergy. After the fire of 153,6 an attempt was made to expel the Jews from the city or resettle them to one of the isles on the Warta River. In 1538, after negotiations, an agreement was reached with the municipal authorities. Jews retained the right to own 28 houses in the city centre. In 1553, 113 resided in these houses. In 1556, a law was passed that allowed allowed Jews to own 49 houses. In 1558, the number increased to 83. In 1578, Jews of Poznań paid 1058 zlotys for a head tax. In the Polish Commonwealth only by the Jews of Kazimierz near Cracow (1500 zloties) and Jews of Lviv (1600 zloties) paid higher taxes.
During the Polish-Swedish War (1655-60), the Jewish community was decimated by starvation, epidemics and pogroms; Poznań Jews and Protestants, were accused of collaborating with the Swedish army. Many Jews left the city, fearing for their lives. After Rabbi S. Horowitz left in 1658, his post was vacant for the next 10 years. The Council was consumed by a financial crisis. The economic difficulties were amplified by numerous taxes imposed on the Council and restrictions imposed on trade. The Council was sinking deeper in debt, which it was unable to repay. In face of such difficulties Jonasz, son of Isaiah Termin from Metz, refused to take up the post of a Rabbi. The Elders of the Poznań Council turned to allied German and Czech councils for help.
The pogrom of 1687 aggravated the difficulties. The fact that Jewish schooling was temporarily suspended indicates the Poznań council’s poor condition. The problems escalated during subsequent decades. In 1704-14 the post of rabbi remained vacant. In 1709 the city population, including the Jewish Quarter, was decimated by the epidemics. In 1736 Rabbi Darshan and eight more leaders of the Jewish Council of Poznań were accused of ritual murder. Although the court eventually acquitted them, Rabbi Jakub Mordechai did not survive the trial. A flood during the same year ravaged the synagogue and numerous houses in the Jewish Quarter. More persecutions, imposed taxes, robberies and casualties from the wars, fires (e.g. the fire of 1764 within six hours ravaged 76 Jewish houses, three synagogues and killed many people) and floods resulted in the post of a rabbi remaining vacant for 40 years (until 1774). The demise of the Jewish community happened alongside the general decline of the city.
On Passover 1803 another fire almost entirely destroyed the Jewish quarter. Six hundred families lost their property and belongings. The old synagogue was not reconstructed. The Prussian authorities decided that rebuilding the Jewish Quarter in its former shape would not increase its safety and therefore members of the Jewish community were granted permission to purchase or build houses in all districts of Poznań on the condition that their total number would not exceed the limits previously set for the ghetto. Despite that the Jewish Quarter was preserved, if in a slightly different form. Most Jews settled at the Old Market Place, where soon they became a majority.
After Poznań fell under the Prussian rule in 1793, the new authorities restricted the autonomy of the Jewish Council. The Haskalah movement became popular, growing alongside gradual Germanization of the more prosperous strata of the Jewish community, which had received secular educations. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, proponents of the Haskalah, the so-called naturalized Jews, constituted c. 15 percent of the total population of Jews in Poznań.
Prussian government’s efforts towards Germanization yielded results also in the subsequent decades. In 1853, naturalized Jews were elected to the city council for the first time; their number exceeded the number of Polish delegates, worsening the far from perfect relationship with the Polish population. For Poles striving to regain their lost independence, Germanized Jews who flaunted their Prussian loyalty and servility became in some cases a more hostile group that the Germans themselves. Jews of Poznań could experience this hostility particularly poignantly after WWI.
Poznań Orthodox rabbis (Akiva Eger, Salomon Eger, Salomon Plessner) provoked growing objection from liberal and reform Jews. Their activity led to disintegration of the Jewish Council of Poznań. The liberals and the reformers established a separate council called "Israelite Council of the Brethren" (Israelitische Brüdergemeinde), which in 1856-57 constructed a synagogue in the Moorish style. In 1862 the new Council appointed its own rabbi – Joseph Perles. The proponents of Orthodoxy continued to stand by Rabbi Plessner, who retained the title of the Chief Rabbi of Poznań and the Greater Poland; their Council was referred to as the "Unity Council" (Einheitsgemeinde).
The legislation exerted a major impact on the changes in the social and occupational structure of the Jewish community. The number of merchants was growing, while the number of artisans was shrinking. In 1832 Jews constituted 55.2 percent of the total number of city residents engaged in trade; 9.4 percent of taxed artisans and 21 percent of untaxed artisans. The most prominent merchant and banker families in the history of Poznań were: Kantorowicz, Asch, Levinsohn, Peiper, Ephreim, Awerbach and Munk. In 1849, over 11 percent of Jews were employed in trade (665 people). In 1838 Michael Kantorowicz opened the second biggest bank in Poznań, with capital worth approximately 60 thousand thalers. Many merchants prospered at wool fairs, opened in 1837. Until the end of the 1870s grain trade was very profitable.
Although it became less and less profitable, there were still 46 merchants involved in grain trade in 1879; only a few of them were non-Jews. In the second half of the nineteenth century Jews began to invest in the production, processing, and sale of spirits. Several companies specialized in this branch of business: Hartwig Kantorowicz (est. 1889), David Kantorowicz, Isidor Kantorowicz. Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a decline in the extremely prosperous trade of wood, imported mainly from Congress Poland. Mainly Jews engaged in the wood trade; the Jaffé family fortune was earned this way. The financial crisis at the end of the nineteenth century also impacted merchants involved in the profitable sugar trade. High income of Jewish merchants enabled them to invest their money, i.e: in real estate. In 1860 Jews owned majority of tenement houses at the Old Market Square: 4 houses belonged to the Kantorowicz family; 4 to the Königsberg family; 3 to the Goldberg family and 2 to the Ephreim family.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century many prosperous Jewish families involved in trade or industry left Poznań and emigrated to Germany proper. Despite that, Jews still owned a substantial share of the city economy. In 1894, Jews owned 64.5 percent (490) of commerce enterprises, companies and cooperatives in Poznań. In 1897, the percentage fell to 63.3 percent (483). In particular, the Kantorowicz family in particular owned significant shares of Poznan real estate. In 1889 they owned: 5 factories, 6 large stores-warehouses and a hotel. Many Jews continued to deal in wholesale trade of wood, agricultural produce, spirits, textiles and wool. Jews (companies: Michaelis and Kartowicz, M. Zadek, Rudolf Petersorff, Samuel Samter, David Schrek) were amongst the first founders of large department stores in Poznań. The numbers of representatives of free professions – medical doctors, teachers, and lawyers – started growing as well. Before the outbreak of the WWI the City Council of Poznań included: 33 Germans, 7 Poles and 16 Germans of Mosaic Faith.
Eventually in the second half of the nineteenth century Jewish population of Poznań blended with the German community almost entirely. In the early nineteenth century, multilingualism in Jewish schools – where Yiddish, German and Polish were the languages of instruction tolerated by the authorities – was soon abolished in order to promote German culture in Prussia. Therefore the legal Jewish-Christian "simultanna school", opened in Poznań in 1811 by the Duchy of Warsaw administration and attended by Evangelical, Catholic and Jewish children, was closed in 1818. It was the only school of that kind in the area of Greater Poland. With time the equal status of Polish and German in Jewish schools was soon abolished in favour of the latter.
The unequivocally pro-German orientation of Jews from Poznań was further confirmed by their reaction to the annexation of the city along with the whole region of Greater Poland and Gdańsk Pomerania to the newly independent Poland after WWI. In November 1918 Jews formed the Jewish People’s Council (Jüdischer Volksrat Posen). The Central Union of German Citizens of Mosaic Faith (Zentralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens) encouraged people to join the Council. Jewish Petite Bourgeoisie Union (Jüdischer Kleinbürgerverein) cooperated closely with the Jewish People’s Council; from 1920 also Jewish People’s Union (Jüdische Volksvereinigung).
In 1921, the Union of Jews from Greater Poland (Verband der Juden Großpolen) was formed, an offspring of the Jewish People’s Council. Members of these organizations supported local Germans in their efforts to keep Poznań within German borders. Jews treated the newly established Polish state as a temporary thing, with no chances to remain on the political map of the post-WW1 Europe. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that 1047 Poznań Jews opted for the Weimar Republic. Many Jewish families left Poznań and were replaced by Jews from central and eastern Poland; for example, in 1926, 325 Jews settled in Poznań and 144 left. In 1931 local, German Jews constituted mere 15 percent of the total Jewish population. The Jewish Council of Poznań started growing. By 1930 it was 1650 people, in 1933 – c. 2300, in 1937- c. 2700, in 1938 – c. 2800 and in 1939 – c. 3000. In 1932 Jewish communities of Swarzędz, Pobiedziska and Stęszewo, all from the Poznań county, were also incorporated into the Jewish Council of Poznań.
Marcin Cohn, barrister and proponent of the Zionist ideology, was head of the Jewish Council from 1922. The Council estate in the interwar period comprised of: synagogue at 1-4 Stawna Street (its value, excluding the interior fittings was 400 thousand zloties), synagogue at 8 Dominikańska Street and at 4-5 Szewska Street (230 thousand zloties), 4 residential houses and an administrative building at 10 Szewska Street (the building housed: the Council’s offices, Rabbi’s apartment, religious school, conference room and a library), cemetery at 24-26 Focha Street (currently Głogowska Street), the R. Flatau Jewish Orphanage building at 3 Noskowskiego Street, the Rohr Foundation Jewish hospital building (480 thousand zloties) at 4-5 Wały Wazów Street (currently Wieniawskiego Street) and several empty plots. Migration had an impact on the class and occupational structure of the Jewish community.
The number of affluent petite bourgeoisie and intelligentsia decreased rapidly. Towards the end of 1933 Jews of Poznań owned: 32 stores with women clothing; 30 stores with men clothing; 24 stores with hat and caps; 18 stores with the so-called short goods; 17 shoe shops; 15 stores with textiles; 10 shops with undergarments; 10 stores with dairy products; 8 stores with colonial goods; 7 stores with leather goods; 4 ironmonger’s shops; 4 carpet stores; 4 fur stores; 3 stores with watches; 3 stores with plywood; 2 stores with automobile parts; 2 cork shops. Jews also owned: 2 department stores, 4 restaurants, 3 confectionery shops; 4 wine stores; 14 grain warehouses; 9 down stores; 2 construction material warehouses; 3 companies trading untreated leather. There were over 100 Jewish coachmen, 30 tailors, 20 shoemakers, 15 bankers, 12 vendors, 12 bakers, 12 boot makers, 7 waiters, 7 photographers, 7 cattle merchants, 5 horse merchants, 5 butchers, 5 barbers, 5 porters, 5 doormen, 4 distributors, 3 painters, 3 carpenters, 4 dentists and doctors, 2 barristers, 3 journalists and 2 branch office managers. Many Jewish companies were financed by "Jewish" banks such as the Shareholders’ Bank (Szewska Street) and the Commercial Bank (27 Grudnia Street). In March 1939 there were 285 Jewish commerce and industrial enterprises registered and 103 artisan workshops.
Jewish press was published in Poznań. In 1918-21 Jewish People’s Council published "Jewish People’s Council in Poznań Information Bulletin" ("Mitteilungs-Blatt des Jüdischen Volksrates Posen"). In 1935 "Poyzner Shtime" (Poznań Voice) was published; it was printed in Kalisz. There were local divisions of the most important political parties. The Zionist movement was most active: the General Zionists, the Revisionist Zionists, Poale Zion (1933 onwards). The socialists from the Bund and Orthodox circle could also boast a small following. Until 1938 there were two Masonic Lodges in Poznań: Amicitia and Kosmos Loge.
Jewish school system was revived in the interwar Poland. In 1919-20 a Jewish school was opened at a private house. Initially 71 students attended the school; in 1921 -106 and in 1924 -58. Over time the largest group attended German schools or regular state schools. In 1936, 27,997 students attended 46 state schools; 278 of which were of Jewish origin. Majority attended the 14th Primary School at 3 Noskowskiego Street, opened in 1934. In 1937, 252 Jewish children attended the school. Meanwhile, 13 children attended private primary schools. There was also a cheder by the name of Jewish Religious School. In 1937, 6 teachers were employed there. Until 1936 there was also a private Jewish nursery in operation. Jewish youth often continued their education at Polish secondary schools.
In 1937, there were 52 Jewish students at Polish state secondary schools. Some students attended the "German", private Schiller Gymnasium. There were 13 of them in 1937. 49 students opted for occupational education. Relatively small number of Jews, in comparison to other university cities of southern or central Poland, attended university in Poznań. In 1937 there were 7 Jews out of 295 students at the Higher School of Machine Construction and Electro Engineering. Also 7 students attended the State Music Conservatory (out of 345 total number of students). A slightly higher number attended the University of Poznań, mainly at the faculty of medicine and mathematics. In 1933, there were 73 Jewish students out of 5353 total number of students. In 1939 there were only 39 Jewish students[1.1].
Before the outbreak of WWII in 1939 many Jews ran away from Poznań. The fate of those who remained was sealed by Gauleiter Wilhelm Koppe on November 1939. He mandated that Poznań be free of Jews within three months. The majority of the local Jews were deported by Germans on December 11 and 12, 1939 to Ostrów Lubelski. Some individuals ultimately were in Włoszczowa, others in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Żyrardów and Błonie[1.2]. Soon Poznań became a large labour camp for Jews from parts of Poland incorporated into the Third Reich (Greater Poland, Mazovia, Western Mazovia). In 1940-43 several dozens of labour camps for Jews were opened in Poznań and its environs. Inmates were forced to perform various types of work, usually communal, road works, railway works and motorway construction.
After WWII, few Jews settled in Poznań; most of them were members of the Central Committee of Polish Jews local division. Most Jews left the city and Poland within the next years and decades. The revival of the local Jewish community began in the 1990s.
- [1.1] See more at: Z. Dworecki, Ludność żydowska w Poznaniu w latach 1918–1939 [in:] Żydzi w Wielkopolsce na przestrzeni dziejów, Poznań 1995, pp. 189–211; I. Kowalski, Poznańska Gmina Żydowska w latach Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej, "Kronika Miasta Poznania" no. 1–2 (1992); A. Skupień, Ludność żydowska w województwie poznańskim w latach 1918–1938, Poznań 2007.
- [1.2] D. Dąbrowska, Zagłada Żydów w „Kraju Warty” w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej, "Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego", no. 13–14 (1995), table 16, p. 174.