Various historical sources suggest that Jews were present in Warsaw as early as the beginning of the 15th century. In Księga Czerska (The Book of Czersk) one can find information about Lazar, a Jew from Warsaw (Judeo de Varschovia), while entries in the Warsaw's registry books from 1421 mention only ten Jews living in the city at the time.

The Jews inhabited Żydowska Street (currently Rycerska Street) in the Old Warsaw, where they had their own synagogue, mikveh and cemetery situated outside the city walls, near present-day Krakowskie Przedmieście. This demonstrates that the Jews formed a well-organized, even if small, community. Jewish presence in the area of the New Warsaw is documented to date back to the beginning of the 15th century.

In the mid-15th century, the number of Jews living in the area of Warsaw shrank. The decrease used to be attributed by numerous scholars to persecutions suffered by the Jews. In 1483, the townspeople made the Prince of Mazovia issue a law that would limit Jewish share in trade. According to some early publications, the same year Jews were expelled from Warsaw. Most contemporary scholars, however, emphasize that there is not enough evidence to support this hypothesis.

When Mazovia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland in 1527, Warsaw was granted de non tolerandis Judaeis privilege by King Zygmunt I Stary. The privilege was confirmed for the area of the Old and the New Warsaw as well as the outskirts by the successive monarchs, including Zygmunt II August (1570), Stefan Batory (1580) and Jan III Sobieski (1693).

Only chosen individuals were permitted to live and run their businesses in Warsaw. For instance, King Zygmunt I Stary let his royal customs officer Moysem settle with his family in Warsaw. Zygmunt II August, in turn, issued a law by virtue of which Jews could stay and trade in Warsaw during the sejm sessions. They were supposed to pay so-called sejm charges in return. In 1580, Jews working for the benefit of Poland, including customs officers and tax collectors, received residence permits. The influx of Jews, however, was being limited on a continued basis. The City Council prohibited the citizens to let their apartments to Jews coming to Warsaw.

Nevertheless, Jews gradually started to settle in estates located within the boundaries of Warsaw, owned by the nobility and clergy, e.g. in Aleksandria,Grzybów, Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem), Marywil and Pociejów.  The number of Jews residing in Warsaw increased during the rule of Stanisław August. In 1765, there were as many as ca. 2,500 of them, whereas in 1778 – as many as ca. 3,500. In order to enter the city, Jews had to pay a ticket fare.

Still little is known about the organisation of the Jewish community at that time. The Jews from Warsaw used to elect seniors (Seniores Judaeorum) from their midst, whose task was to represent the whole community before the authorities. Their office was later transformed into that of a receiver.

In 1775, Jews were allowed to trade, produce and sell alcohol as well as settle in the district of Praga. Initially, there were 70 of them according to the poll tax register. In 1780, a permit was granted on the initiative of Szmul Zbytkower to establish a Jewish cemetery in the district. The first synagogue was also erected roughly at the same time in what was then Szeroka Street. At the turn of the 19th century the district became the centre of Jewish life.  

A very significant event in the history of the Jewish community was the 1794 Kosciuszko Insurrection. The Jews of Warsaw took part in the insurrection and a Jewish regiment under the command of Berek Joselewicz was formed. After the failure of the Insurrection, the Jewish population of Praga suffered in the wake of a slaughter perpetrated by the Russian army on the inhabitants of Praga, the so-called "massacre of Praga". Despite a heavy toll caused by the massacre, the Jewish community in Praga still boasted approximately 1,500 members at the end of the century. On the other side of the Wisła River, there were more than 5,000 Jews at the time.

In 1795, following the Third Partition of Poland, Warsaw came under Prussian occupation and the Prussian law came in force. The Prussian authorities legalized the residence of Jews staying in Warsaw and imposed an obligation to give Jews names. Ernest Theodor Hoffmann (1776-1882), a German writer, composer and draughtsman living in Warsaw from 1804 to 1806, was the man responsible for selecting names. In 1799, the Jews were granted the right to establish their own kehilla. At the time, in Warsaw there were as many as 9,200 Jews, who made up about 10% of the city's population. Despite the decision of the Prussian authorities, the City Office still strove to limit the rights of Jews. Initially, the kehilla had its seat in private apartments and its management was composed mainly of Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidim).

In 1802, a progressive synagogue was built on Daniłowiczowska Street and in 1806 the kehilla was granted permission to establish its own cemetery behind the Wolska buildings (today Okopowa Street). No remuneration was paid for the function of rabbi. In 1810, Warsaw had 18,000 Jewish inhabitants, who made up 18% of the entire population.

One of the most important events in the life of Warsaw Jews was undoubtedly the establishment of the first Orthodox Hospital in 1799. Soon, it proved that the hospital was too small for the needs of the whole community. Consequently, it was relocated several times (for example to Marszałkowska Street) and eventually established on Pokorna Street, corner of Inflancka Street. First patients were moved there in 1833 but construction works were finished in 1837. The hospital had its own pharmacy, kitchen and prayer house.

At the time of the Duchy of Warsaw, the situation of Warsaw Jews changed. The City Hall appointed administrative receiver for the Jewish population, thereby refusing to recognize the kehilla management . It was not until1808 that the kehilla was recognised by the city authorities. The terms of the Jewish settlement were specified under a decree issued by Prince Fryderyk August on 16 March 1809. Special districts ("rewiry" in Polish) were established in less representative parts of the city ‒ in Wola, Powiśle, Praga or Powązki ‒ where Jews were forced to move. Relocation was not imposed upon all the Jews and the law was eventually abolished in 1862.

Following the establishment of the Kingdom of Poland in 1815, Jewish kehillas were liquidated and Temple Supervision Boards were established in their stead in 1821. They dealt mostly with religious affairs, supervised religious education in public and private schools and engaged in charity. The Temple Supervision Board in Warsaw consisted of a rabbi and three other members. A term of their office was supposed to last three years and all adult male members could cast their votes. The rules of electing members of the board were changed several times. In 1830, impoverished members of the community who did not pay a tax for the kehilla were removed from the voters' list by virtue of a document issued by the Managing Council.

The first chief rabbi of Warsaw, elected in 1821, was Salomon Zalman Lipszyc (alias Salomon Posner, Chemdat Szlomo) who worked from 1819 as a rabbi in the district of Praga. He performed this function until his death in 1839. In 1832, the Jewish kehilla in Praga was incorporated into the Warsaw kehilla. One of the most important events of that period was the establishment of the Rabbinical School in 1826. Its graduates were members of the Jewish intelligentsia related with the assimilation movement. Most of them became teachers in Jewish schools. The school inspired patriotic attitudes and was bitterly criticized by the Orthodox Jews’ circles. It was closed in 1863.

When the November Uprising broke out in 1830, the Jews decided to participate. They came up with an idea of forming a separate Jewish regiment, an initiative to which the commanders of the Uprising, including General Józef Chłopicki, were opposed. Also some Jews were rather reluctant to form a separate military unit. The idea was seen as a possible sign of Jewish separatism. Consequently, it was decided that Jews should join the existing divisions. The insurgent authorities agreed that wealthy Jews who could speak Polish, French or German and had their beards shaven could join the National Guard. It is estimated that that 400 Jews were enrolled into the Guard. The requirement to have one's beard shaven in particular caused a strong protest of the conservative Jewish circles, among others, of Salomon Zalman Lipszyc, the chief rabbi. Eventually the authorities lifted the ban on beards.

On 28 February 1831, the Warsaw Jews formed the City Guard of Orthodox Jews (Gwardia Miejska Starozakonnych), which boasted 1,268 members. Moreover, they established the Security Guard (Straż Bezpieczeństwa) with more than 1,000 members, mainly representatives of the lower social classes. The guardsmen did not wear uniforms and did not carry any weapon save scythes and pikes. Wealthy Jews established a hospital for insurgents.

After the uprising, the life of Jews went back to normal. At that time, the City Office provided the premises for the seat of the Temple Supervision. The Warsaw Rabbinate was composed of a chief rabbi and 5 district rabbis. In 1840 the rabbinate was joined by the first Hassidic Jew Icchak Meir Alter, a Tzadik from Góra Kalwaria. In the same year, a round synagogue was erected on Szeroka Street, in the district of Praga and, on the other side of the Wisła River, Zelig Natanson founded the second progressive synagogue, the so-called Polish synagogue, where Izaak Kramszyk gave sermons in Polish[1.1].

In 1856 Markus Jastrow started to deliver sermons in Polish in the first synagogue located on Daniłowiczowska Street. In the mid-19th century, assimilation tendencies escalated among the Warsaw Jewry. In 1856, Dov Ber Meisels, an advocate of Polish-Jewish assimilation, was appointed Chief rabbi of the Warsaw kehilla. There were 142 synagogues in Warsaw at that time.

In 1859, the so-called Polish-Jewish war took place in the wake of a groundless press attack against the Jews. The assimilationist circles protested strongly, expressing their indignation in the press. The "war" was ultimately put to an end by Leopold Kronenberg, a financier who purchased Gazeta Codzienna and appointed Ignacy Kraczewski its chief editor. The daily became a body of the advocates of assimilation and Polish-Jewish reconciliation. Soon thereafter, a period of "Polish-Jewish idyll" started in Warsaw. The beginning of the 1860s was a time of political manifestations and the rise of independence aspirations. Both Poles and Jews took part in a patriotic demonstration on 27 February 1861. The demonstration resulted in riots in the wake of which Russian soldiers shot five Poles dead. The funeral ceremony of the deceased on 2 March 1861 with chief rabbi Dov Ber Meisel and preachers Dr Markus Jastrow and Izaak Kramszyk evolved into a Polish-Jewish demonstration. The demonstration resulted in the death of Michał Landy, a student of the Rabbinical School, who took a cross from the wounded monk at the front of the crowd.  

In the autumn of 1861, the Russian authorities declared martial law and banned all manifestations. Consequently, when anniversary Mass was celebrated for the soul of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Russian army burst into the Bernardine Church and arrested 3 thousand people congregated there. As a sign of protest, the clergy ordered to close all Catholic churches. The protest was joined also by Protestants and Meisels, the chief rabbi of Warsaw, who was arrested along with Markus Jastrow, Izaak Kramszyk and Mojżesz Feinkind and imprisoned in the Citadel for closing all prayer houses and synagogues. As an Austrian subject, the chief rabbi was expelled from the country. In September 1862, he was allowed to return to Warsaw and take the position of a chief rabbi. His funeral in 1870 was the last demonstration of Polish-Jewish alliance.

In 1862, under the ordinance of Aleksander Wielkopolski, the Jews living in the Kingdom of Poland were granted civic rights. The restrictions connected with settlement and land acquisition as well as the ticket tax for Jews were lifted. In 1864, Warsaw boasted 72,000 Jewish inhabitants, who constituted 33% of the total city population.

The Jews of Warsaw actively engaged in the January Uprising. Committees for the Relief of Jewish families and sanitary units were created. The Temple Supervision Board did not take a stand during the Uprising.

After 1862, Warsaw became a city open to newcomers, who usually came from small provincial towns of the Kingdom of Poland. There were many Hasidic Jews among them. Consequently, the Hassidic community in Warsaw expanded fast. In 1870, there were over 60 shtiebels officially registered. In 1880, their number, including minyanim, amounted to 300. For instance, in Franciszkańska Street only, there were as many as seven shtiebels grouping the followers of tzadiks from Góra Kalwaria, Warka, Kock, Radzymin, Biała, Nowe Miasto and Turzysk. It is estimated that two thirds of all the Jews living in Warsaw were Hasidic Jews. 

Spiritual leadership over the Hasidim in Warsaw was held by Icchak Meir Alte, the founder of a dynasty from Góra Kalwaria. His natural charisma not only secured him supporters among Hasidic Jews but also enabled to establish a good rapport with Jews of different backgrounds. He cooperated also with Misnagdim rabbis and had friends among the Maskils. His activities undoubtedly contributed to the growing popularity of Hasidism not only in Warsaw, but in the whole Kingdom of Poland. He paid much attention to his own Hasidic Jews and his efforts bore fruit in the form of a network of Hasidic shtiebels, religious schools, yeshivas and bet ha-midrashim. Tzadik from Góra Kalwaria supported the November Uprising and sympathized with the Polish insurgents.

Since 1863, the Jewish kehilla wrestled with serious financial problems. After the kosher tax was lifted, the kehilla lost a crucial source of income. A rapid growth of population, especially of poor Jews, caused the kehilla to spend even more money. Since 1871 only those Jews who paid 15 rubles of the kehilla tax annually had voting rights. The Kehilla Board, in which assimilationists played a major role, was appointed. The Orthodox Jews had the right to check whether meat in the slaughterhouse was kosher and to supervise religious schools and the cemetery. Ludwik Natanson was the president of the kehilla from 1871 to 1896. He managed not only to balance the budget of the kehilla but also to make some profitable investments in Warsaw. Natanson reformed the Board and decided to create six departments: General Service, Bank, Kehilla Dues (Permanent), Funeral and Cemetery Service, Kehilla Schools and Charity Departments. The Warsaw rabbinate included a chief rabbi, eleven rabbis and five members of the honorary clergy who were not paid salaries. In the years 1870-1873, Jakub Gesundheit held the office of a chief rabbi. After his resignation from the office, each rabbi in turn performed this function for two years. In 1871, the Praga and Warsaw kehillas finally merged into one. Numerous investments were made in Praga at that time. Necessary repairs were carried out and a pre-burial house and a bathhouse were built. In 1876, the first hospital for Jewish children was founded on the other side of the Wisła River by the Berson and Bauman families. In 1878, the Great Synagogue, called progressive, was erected on Tłomackie Street.

The 1880s saw another wave of Jewish immigrants arrive in Warsaw. Masses of the so-called Litvaks, Jews escaping from the Pale of Settlement in Imperial Russia for fear of pogroms, came to the city. They created separate, closed communities. Many of them did not speak Polish; they used only Russian and the Lithuanian dialect of the Yiddish language, a factor that inhibited integration. Their customs also differed. The local people accused them of attempts at Russification. The Jews were also competitors in trade and craft.

Around 1892, a new building of the Jewish kehilla was erected at 26/28 Grzybowska Street.

Ludwik Natanson, President of the Board, died in 1896 and was replaced by Michał Bergson who completed the construction of the new Jewish hospital in Czyste. The hospital, which could accommodate 1,174 patients, was established at Dworska Street in 1902. It consisted of modern wards, including: surgical, ophthalmic and gynecological, pulmonary, laryngological, internal, skin and venereal diseases wards. Two separate pavilions intended for treatment of infectious and mental illnesses were situated some distance away from the main building.

The kehilla board paid much attention to the improvement of education and childcare. Craft workshops were organized for boys and later also for girls. The latter ones were subsequently transformed into the Bauman Vocational School. Starting from 1886 childcare centers and, from 1902, children’s shelters, which prepared for school education, were set up. In 1914, the Jewish kehilla owned more than 50 educational establishments.

Warsaw was an important cultural centre from the beginning of the 19th century. The first printing house was established by Hersz Nahasanowicz and Joel Lebensohn in 1814 on Żabia Street. In the mid-19th century, 33 Jewish-owned printing houses operated in the city. Thirteen of them published books in Hebrew. Jewish printers, e.g. Jan Glüksberg or Samuel Orgelbrand, became one of the most influential publishers of Polish books. Orgelbrand came down in history as the publisher of the first Polish general encyclopedia.

The Jewish press developed rapidly. The first Polish-Jewish newspaper was Dostrzegacz Nadwiślański (“Der Beobachter an der Weichsel”), a weekly edited by Antoni Eisenbaum. The Jews involved in the assimilationist movement published Izraelita Polski in 1830 and 1831, and Tygodnik dla Izrealitów - Jutrzenka in Polish during the tumultuous period of patriotic manifestations, Polish-Jewish reconciliation and the January Uprising. Hilary Gladsztern published in 1867 the first newspaper in Yiddish entitled Varshoyer yidishe tsaytung of which fifty issues were printed. One of the most long-standing weeklies published in Polish was Izraelita established by Samuel Zvi Peltyn.

The only Hebrew magazine was Ha-Tsefira founded by Chaim Zelig Słomiński and printed from 1862 to 1931, with intervals.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Der Veg, the first daily in Yiddish, published by Zvi Prilutski, was established. Starting from 1907, Prilutski and M. Spektor published Unzer Lebn, another daily. The two most distinguished Yiddish dailies in Poland ‒ Haynt, and Der Moment ‒ were published in Warsaw in the years 1908-1939 and 1910-1939 respectively. After Poland had regained independence, Nasz Przegląd with Mały Przegląd as a supplement for children edited by Janusz Korczak was established.

In the 1930s the Jewish theatre developed in Warsaw. The first Jewish performances were staged in a dancing room called “Pod trzema Murzynami” at 2 Ogrodowa Street and later in a building in Muranowski Square. The plays followed the tradition of the so-called purimshpils and represented biblical stories. In 1868, a modern theater building was erected in Muranowski Square. The audience could watch biblical plays and listen to opera and operetta arias. Many Jewish itinerant theater groups passed through Warsaw in the 1830s. In 1886 Goldfaden’s troupe, one of the most popular ones at the time, arrived in Warsaw. Its most brilliant success was a play entitled Shulamis, which was delivered over 150 times before numerous audiences in an open-air theater. In the Russian Empire, staging plays in Yiddish was banned, so theatre groups would pretend to speak German. The Jewish theatre started to develop at a fast rate after 1905, when censorship abated and literature flourished. At that time, such artists as Yitzhak Leyb Perets, Jakub Dinezon or Sholem Asch arrived in Warsaw.

In the early 20th century, Warsaw was a vibrant centre of Jewish cultural life. The theatre of Abraham Izaak Kamiński, which gave performances in the Bagatela, Elizeum and Jardin d'Hiver Theatres, had its seat on Oboźna Street after 1913. One of its stars was Ester Rachela Kamińska, dubbed "mother of the Jewish theatre". New Jewish theatres were being established; in 1925, there were as many as nine of them. It was in Warsaw that Dybbuk by Sh. An-ski in the interpretation of the avangarde VilnaTroupe had its world premiere on 9 December 1920. Towards the end of the 1920s, the troupe achieved great acclaim thanks to its performances of Kidush ha-Shem by Shalom Asch and Bay nakht oyfn altn markt (A Night on the Old Market Square in Yiddish) by Icchk Lejb Perec. The other two important theatre troupes active in Warsaw were Varshever Yidisher Kunst Teater (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre in Yiddish) formed by Ida Kamińska in 1924 and the Yung Teater (The Youth Theatre in Yiddish) of Michał Weichert operating from 1933 to 1937. Warsaw hosted also a number of popular theatres, where revues and cabarets were staged, among them the cabaret of Azazel David Herman and Ararat of Mojżesz Broderson from Łódź. Sambation, a variety theatre, and Yidishe Bande also achieved popularity. One should remember about the great contribution of Warsaw Jews into the development of the theatre, cabaret and Polish cinema. Such artists as Julian Tuwim, Marian Hemar and Konrad Tom wrote texts for the best known Warsaw cabarets of the interwar period such as Qui Pro Quo, Cyrulik Warszawski or Banda.    

As early as during World War I, Jewish writers and journalists (writing in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish) founded the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists. Its seat at 13 Tłomackie Street (from 1911 to 1916 at 11 Tłomackie Street) was a venue for exhibitions, lectures, and meetings of artists (men of letters, painters and actors) from all over the world.

Thanks to a Judaica collection handed over by Mathias Bergsohn to the Jewish kehilla in 1904, the Jewish Antiquity Museum was established in 1910 and located in the building of the Jewish kehilla at 26/28 Grzybowska Street.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish kehilla became a field of tensions between various political and ideological parties. During elections to the Jewish kehilla in 1912, a coalition of assimilationists and misnagdim narrowly defeated the allied Zionists and Hasidim under the leadership of Nachum Sokołow. There were no elections during World War I and this tenure was extended without a time limit. The war was a time when the kehilla had to expand its social activity. The Section for the Relief to Poor Families, and later Section for the Care of Poor Mothers and Their Children were formed in the Charity Department. Moreover, the Jewish Sanitary Committee and the Society of Support to the Jewish Victims of War were also established.

The following election to the Jewish kehilla was supposed to take place in 1918 but it was cancelled. The representatives of the political parties were offered seats in the kehilla Board. The Zionists and Mizrachim did not accept the offer, whereas supporters of the Aguda agreed to the solution provided that the election would be conducted promptly. Majer Rundstein was elected the kehilla president.

Various conflicts arose inside the Jewish community on a continued basis. One of the greatest religious disputes in the interwar period was a conflict over Rabbi Samuel Poznański from 1921. Since 1908, he served as a rabbi in the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street. In 1921, the community of progressive Jews put forward his candidature for the Warsaw rabbi. The Hasidic Jews, supporters of the tzadik from Góra Kalwaria, protested against their claims. Although the certificate of appointment clearly stated that he would perform his function solely towards the supporters of Reform Judaism, clashes broke out before the kehilla building.

Riots broke out also when the kehilla handed over a plot of land in Praga intended for the construction of
a Jewish dormitory. Finally, the dormitory for 300 students was constructed in 1926 in a different location thanks to the financial support of numerous social organizations. The dormitory headmaster since 1928 was Ignacy Schiper, an eminent historian.

In 1923, Moses Schorr was appointed extra-district rabbi for the supporters of Reform Judaism. Sebastian Bregman became president of the board the same year. The authorities of the Warsaw Jewish kehilla comprised of the Council and the Board with 50 and 15 members respectively. The Warsaw Rabbinate was composed of 21 people.

The Aguda won the 1926 election and the Zionist lost by a narrow margin of votes. Eliasz Kirszenbaum of Aguda was elected Council President and Joszua Farbstein from the Mizrachi party was appointed Board President. In 1929, the Bundists resigned from work for the kehilla. The reason for their decision was a refusal to grant financial aid to TSISHO (Jewish Central School Organization). When the Aguda party was in power, money was granted only to religious organisations and the Bund criticised disregard for non-believers’ needs.  The Folkists, in turn, took issue with high salaries of the rabbis and expenditure on Palestinian funds.

The 1931 election, boycotted by the Bund, was won once again by the Orthodox parties. The Council was made up of 19 members of Agudat Israel, 5 members of other Orthodox parties, 12 Zionists and 6 from their allied parties. Jakub Trokenheim was elected Council President and Eliasz Mazur became the Board President. Orthodox Jews administered all departments. There was a constant disagreement among the parties. Consequently, that tenure was characterized by a neglectful approach to many essential aspects of the kehilla activities. In 1934, it even happened that the Council session, during which the budget was to be passed, was cancelled. The situation of Warsaw Jews deteriorated due to the aggravating economic crisis and progressing pauperization of the Jewish population. Nevertheless, the Jewish kehilla dealt with serious matters; for instance, it tried to oppose the limitation of ritual slaughtering, intervened repeatedly with the Polish authorities about the anti-Jewish excesses or supported financially the Jewish people from the cities where pogroms took place.

The last pre-war election to the kehilla was held in September 1936. The Bund won and took 15 seats, Aguda – 13, Mizrachi – 4 and Zionists – 11. Jakub Trokenheim was again elected president but the Council was not able to set up a Board. When the Council was not able to cooperate and discharge its duties, the capital city of Warsaw Government Commissioner stepped onto the scene.

In 1937, he appointed receivership, called Provisional Board with Maurycy Mayzel as its president. The new authorities immediately started their work and carried out many crucial reforms. A number of kehilla-owned institutions, including schools and the cemetery in Praga, were renovated.

In the 1930s, the majority of Warsaw Jews were impoverished, the majority dealt with small-scale trade and craft. The kehilla Board tried to provide help for the poorest. Many Jews sought help in charitable institutions, such as “Joint” (“American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee”). The refugees from the Reich also could count on assistance starting from the second half of the 1930s.

Towards the end of August 1939, the representatives of the Rabbinate, members of the Board and ordinary citizens of Warsaw engaged in the construction of air-raid ditches.

After the outbreak of World War II, many Jewish activists, including Maurycy Mayzl, left Warsaw. Adam Czerniaków took over the duties of the Board President and on 23 September 1939 he was appointed President of the Jewish Religious Kehilla by the President of Warsaw. In mid-September, the Coordination Commission of Jewish Social Institutions (KK) was instituted and later transformed into the Jewish Social Self-Help.

On 7 October, the Germans formed the Jewish Council (Judenrat) consisting of 24 people with Adam Czerniaków as its president. First repressions befell the Jews as early as October. Initially, all bank accounts and deposits were blocked. Then, the work obligation was imposed upon the Jewish population aged 14-60 and ration cards were introduced. There were 359,827 Jewish residents in Warsaw at the time. Additionally, by the autumn of 1940, about 90,000 refugees came to Warsaw from the Polish lands incorporated into the Third Reich and other parts of the country.

The Germans were gradually limiting the rights and freedoms of the Jewish population. All the Jews were obliged to wear the Stars of David on their right arms. All Jewish shops and factories were supposed to be marked, too. In early 1940 all synagogues were closed and collective prayers in residents’ apartments were prohibited.

In early spring, the area of the former Jewish district was separated from the rest of the city by barbed-wire fences and marked as “an area threatened by epidemic”. In late March, the Judenrat was compelled to start erecting walls surrounding the area.

In autumn, a ban was imposed on Jews not to enter some parts of the city. They could commute only on specially marked trams. On 12 October 1940, Ludwig Fischer, the Governor of the Warsaw District, issue a decree that a ghetto be erected in Warsaw. All Jews living in other parts of the city were supposed to move there. 14 November 1940 was the last day of removal to the ghetto, which was closed two days later.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe.  Its original area was 307 ha and in April 1941 there were as many as about 450 thousand residents, the biggest number in its history. That number was gradually decreasing due to famine, diseases and persecutions from the German authorities. In July 1942, the Germans started relocations of the Jewish population to the German-Nazi death camp in Treblinka, where they were killed in gas chambers. From 22 July to 21 September 1942, more than 275 thousand Jews were deported from the Warsaw ghetto and killed.

About 35 thousand Jews stayed in Warsaw, mostly young and lonely people, who were indifferent to reality after having lost their dearest and nearest. It was in that atmosphere of resignation that an idea arose to put up armed resistance against the Germans. In March 1942, the Anti-Fascist Bloc was established on the initiative of several leftist activists: Józef Lewartowski, Mordechaj Anielewicz, Josef Kapłan, Szachno Sagan, Józef Sak, Icchak Cukierman and Cywii Lubetkin. That organisation was the foundation of the Jewish Combat Organisation, which was established a few months later.  In autumn 1942, the Jewish Military Union was formed by the Zionists-Revisionists from the Zionist Organisation, New Zionist Organisation and Betar. Leon Rodal and Paweł Frenkl took its command. The headquarters were located at 7 Muranowska Street. The Union started to cooperate with the Polish Underground.

In the beginning of April 1943, news spread about the liquidation of the factories in the area of the ghetto and deportation of all workers. When, on 19 April 1943, the Germans entered the ghetto to liquidate it, Jewish fighters attacked them. An uprising broke up. Fights lasted from mid-April 1943 to 8 May 1943. The Germans surrounded the bunker where the Jewish Combat Organisation had its headquarters. Anielewicz and other Jewish fighters committed suicide. From then on, each uprising contingent fought alone, left to its own devices. Only a small group of participants managed to get through canals to the Aryan side. On 16 May 1943 the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street to symbolically confirm the suppression of the uprising and liquidation of the ghetto. In the following months, the Germans raised the former Jewish district to the ground.

Only a few Jews from Warsaw survived the Holocaust. In 1946, the city was populated by approximately 18,000 Jewish people. Most of them did not return to the city but settled in the so-called Recovered Territories. The life of Warsaw Jews concentrated mainly in the district of Praga, around Jagiellońska and Targowa Streets, where Jewish organisations had their seats. On the other side of the Wisła River, most of them lived around Poznańska Street and Aleje Jerozolimskie, where the Ha-Shomer ha-tsair kibbutz was located.

In 1945, the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, set up in Lublin, was relocated to Warsaw, Praga, 44 Targowa Street. The committee comprised of all the existing Jewish parties. The first president was Emil Sommerstein, and later Adolf Berman. The committee received the greatest financial support from the Joint. Its chief aim was to provide the surviving Jews with material and psychological assistance. Survivors were registered and given help while establishing contact with their families abroad. All Jewish institutions, societies and schools came under the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. It published a magazine in Yiddish entitled Dos Naye Lebn (initially it came out in Łódź) and the Bulletin of the Jewish Press Agency (it was typewritten and published in Lublin from autumn 1944 and in Warsaw from 1950). Warsaw hosted also the Warsaw Jewish Committee, which was under the authority of the Committee. In 1950, it was transformed into the Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland with Folks Shtime as its magazine.

In autumn 1945, the Nożyk synagogue was opened in Warsaw. In 1947, the central authorities of Jewish organizations moved from Łódź to Warsaw. The Central Jewish Historical Commission, transformed in autumn 1947 into the Jewish Historical Institute, was relocated to the renovated building of the Judaism Library. A year later, the Jewish Religious Association, situated at 6 Twarda Street, was established in Warsaw. In 1955, the Jewish Theater also moved to the capital city and from 1969 has had its seat at 12/16 Grzybowski Square. In the 1960s, the local Jewish community was not numerous. In 1966, the Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland had 6,200 registered members.

The anti-Semitic campaign which started in 1967 and reached its peak in March 1968 made several dozen thousands of Jews left Poland. Many of them travelled by trains that departed from the Gdańsk Railway Station in Warsaw.

Facing unfavorable political circumstances, the Jewish life in the capital of Poland came to a standstill and its revival took place only in the 1980s. The Warsaw’s Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of Cemeteries and Monuments of Jewish Culture was established in the Society for the Protection of Monuments. The Committee paid most attention to the Jewish cemetery at 49/51 Okopowa Street. In 1982, thanks to the support of the Nissenbaums Foundation, the Jewish cemetery in Bródno was fenced. The following year, the Nożyk Synagogue was opened.

In the subsequent years, other Jewish institutions were formed thanks to which Jewish culture was commemorated (Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, Shalom Foundation).

In 1997, the Jewish Religious Community was recreated. The orthodox Nożyk synagogue on Twarda Street is its main synagogue. Believers connected with progressive Judaism go to the Etz Chaim synagogue on Aleje Jerozolimskie. The Chabad community and the reformed community of Beit Warszawa also have their own synagogues.

Bibliography (Polish)

  • Berg M., Dziennik z Getta Warszawskiego, Warszawa 1983.
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Footnotes

  • [1.1] Some historians (including M. Fuks) maintain that the synagogue was established in 1850, Żydzi w Warszawie…., p. 208