Little is known about the local Jews in the Middle Ages. Heppner and Herzberg suggested that the Zbąski family, the town owners, were tolerant towards Jews and religious dissenters. Even so, there is only one mention of Jews in the medieval records: in 1437, a Jew from Zbąszyń sued a local nobleman for the repayment of a loan.[1.1] This benevolent attitude may have been the result of the Zbąski family’s origin. According to Heppner and Herzberg, they may have been the descendants of King Casimir III the Great and his Jewish mistress Esterka.[1.2] The first names of the Zbąskis are thought to be one of the traits – they often chose old biblical names, e.g. Abraham. The authors, however, were honest enough to admit that this was just a hypothesis for which there is absolutely no proof in the historical sources.[1.3]

In modern times, the Jews are only mentioned in 1711. This is when three Jewish families, composed of 30 people, settled in the town.[1.4] The appearance of Jews in Zbąszyń can be linked to the activities of the contemporary town owners – the Garczyński family. By attracting settlers and expanding the town, they attempted to revive Zbąszyń that had greatly suffered from wars and the plague outbreak. In 1765, there was a Jewish kehilla in Zbąszyń, with 89 members, mostly craftsmen.[1.5] Already by 1779, a synagogue and a school were completed. Once the town became part of Prussia in 1793, there were 146 Jews in Zbąszyń with the total number of inhabitants being 953. At the time, the Jewish community was forced to pay a protection tax to the town owners. This obligation was cancelled only in the 1830s.[1.6]

Becoming subject to the Prussian authority resulted in more rights being granted to Jews, and thus – more opportunities. This in turn ran into opposition from the Christians who struggled to preserve their former privileged status. To this end they sent numerous petitions to the Prussian authorities. The situation in Zbąszyń was similar: the townspeople issued a collection of guild documents and privileges that would substantiate their dominant position over Jews.[1.7]

The Jews, on the other hand, undertook initiatives aiming at the termination of their feudal liabilities as well as limitation or cancellation of horrendous debts that the majority of Jewish kehillas in Wielkopolska were burdened with. Secret State Archives of the Prussian Cultural Heritage in Berlin holds correspondence from 1797, sent from a Jewish kehilla to the Prussian king. The letter was a request for settling the issue of a debt which Jews owed to the local Catholic parson, Zdrojewski, as well as the charges they had to pay to church. The kehilla also highlighted the fact that the church books were the only place where Jewish debts and customary liabilities (some going back to the Polish times) were recorded.[1.8]

Another issue tackled in the royal correspondence was the charges that the Wielkopolska kehillas, including the one in Zbąszyń, had to pay to participate in fairs held in Frankfurt (Oder). Those charges had been levied on Polish Jews back in the 16th century. Once the Wielkopolska became part of Prussia, such charges were deemed groundless by the Jews of Zbąszyń. They would point to the case of the West Prussian Jewish kehillas which did not pay this tax, though they had been part of the Polish state until 1772. Another noteworthy fact is that the Jews from Wielkopolska had to pay for their participation in Frankfurt fairs also to the Jews from Międzyrzecze and Skwierzyna. A single visit cost 3 thalers 4 groszes; most likely it resulted from the fact that in the former Commonwealth, only the kehillas from Międzyrzecze and Skwierzyna were entitled to trade in the March of Brandenburg, as stipulated in the privilege issued by Margrave Joachim I in 1532. The Zbąszyń kehilla requested for exemption from the charges and the same treatment as was appreciated by the kehillas from Western Prussia.[1.9] This very interesting issue calls for a thorough examination; what is more, it sheds light on the relations between Jewish kehillas in the Commonwealth.

The Jewish population in Zbąszyń was most numerous in 1833, when among 1,300 inhabitants there were 336 Jews.[1.10] In subsequent years, this number was consistently dwindling until it reached about 50 people after World War I.[1.11]

During the massive fire of 1845, also the wooden synagogue was destroyed. It was rebuilt after a few years with the help from other Jewish kehillas from Wielkopolska. At the onset of the 20th century (1903), the kehilla supported a religious school which was attended by 16 children. Other active organizations included Chevra Kadisha, the Israeli Women Association and the Youth Association.[1.1.10]

After World War I, Zbąszyń was incorporated into Poland and became a border town. The conditions of kehilla kept deteriorating: at that time there were only 54 Jews in the total of 5,137 inhabitants. Until 1933, the kehilla was headed by Ksyl Grünberg. Later, after Jewish kehillas in Poznań Province were subject to state reorganization as of 28 September 1932, Zbąszyń became part of a newly established kehilla in Nowy Tomyśl, with Jakub Grzybowski, a Zbąszyń inhabitant, as its head. [see figure no. 1]. The new kehilla had 176 members and was composed of the following towns: Nowy Tomyśl, Lwówek, Zbąszyń, Grodzisk Wlkp., Buk, Wolsztyn, Rakoniewice, Międzychód, and Sieraków. The previous kehillas transferred its assets to the new religious community. In the case of Zbąszyń, these assets amounted to 42,948.64 zlotys. The inventory included 67 items, e.g. the synagogue building, cemetery, cleansing house (bet tahara) and the former mikvah.[1.12]

In 1936, the fees in the amount of 3.5% of income were paid by the following people from Zbąszyń:

  1. Domagała Emma – house owner                              20.35 zł
  2. Ehrlich Ottilie – house owner                                   65.55 zł
  3. Cohn Leopold – house owner                                               10.00 zł
  4. Grünberg Ksyl – merchant                                       17.50 zł
  5. Grzybowski Jakob – merchant                                  94.50 zł
  6. Jelin Dawid – trader                                                 10.00 zł
  7. Rosenberg Wolf – trader                                           31.50 zł
  8. Wajmann Szmul – merchant                                     30.00 zł[1.13]

Just like in the other towns of Wielkopolska, Jews were victims of attacks from the National Party which accused them of causing virtually every possible disaster afflicting the Second Commonwealth of Poland. During a meeting of the National Party in Zbąszyń in 1938, the leader of the local activists, Tadeusz Górczak, claimed e.g. that: The social division into layers and into classes, giving rise to struggles among political parties and their mutual hostility were all caused by Judeo-communism. Blinded by this conflict, Poles failed to notice the increasing influence on the state matters exerted by the Jews. Judeo-communists have become ministers, prominent officials in courts, persecutors, officials in the Supreme Chamber of Control, army officers, teachers educating Polish children. They have been granted all sorts of monopolies and licenses etc. Also, changing the constitution and electoral regulations happened due to Jews and to their benefit...[1.1.12] Also Polish authorities showed a degree of hostility towards the Jews. Not only was the community kept under surveillance of special services, but also they would hinder Jewish commercial activities. An example of such attitude was a rejection to provide Natan Hamburger with multiple travel permission to Germany. In the justification addressed to the eldership office in Nowy Tomyśl, the vice mayor of Zbąszyń, Niedbała, wrote: The visa application has been rejected because the applicant is a Jew and as such he can act to the detriment of Poland.[1.1.12]

Until the end of the 1930s, the provincial Zbąszyń was in no way exceptional and neither were the local Jews. The moment that placed Zbąszyń in the annals of history and made its name recognizable was the events that took place at the end of 1938. Many years later, a prominent specialist in this field, Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski, described them as a prelude to the Holocaust.[1.14]

The events were brought about by the policies of the contemporary Polish authorities which aimed at decreasing the number of Jews in the Commonwealth, and which attempted to annul the Polish citizenship of the Jews who had been born in Poland but at the time lived beyond its borders, mainly in Germany. In September 1938, the Polish government issued a decree stipulating that each Polish citizen living permanently abroad was to confirm their citizenship. If they failed to do so, they would lose it. Many of the Polish Jews residing in Germany ignored this obligation. As a result, as of 1 November 1938, they would lose their Polish citizenship. Reluctant to have several thousands of stateless people on their territory, the German authorities made a secret decision to deport them to Poland by force. In fact, saving those people from becoming stateless was the German rationale conveyed by their propaganda.

On 28 and 29 October, the Germans deported 17,000 Polish Jews via different points at the Polish border. More than 6,000 of them reached the border town of Zbąszyń; yet, some sources provide the number of 10,000 Jews who got there.[1.15] This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that the Germans were deporting Jews also near Trzciel (German: Tirschtiegel), in the vicinity of Zbąszyń; in fact, some historians add up these numbers. On 28-29 October, 6,074 exiles were recorded in Zbąszyń itself. The ones who came by train were kept in coaches; those who crossed the border on foot were placed in the old barracks of cavalry units or station buildings. [see figures 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. During the first few days, once they had been registered, the Jews were allowed to leave freely to their Polish relatives – about 2,336 people did so.[1.16]

On 31 October, at 3.30 p.m., exit roads to Zbąszyń and the station were surrounded by police posts, and the government declared Zbąszyń a closed city. All the Jews were banned from leaving. Many managed to escape from the town illegally, using the inhabitants’ help. One of the smugglers helping people get around the blockades was the late Aleksander Dura, a town resident. Some witnesses claimed that he smuggled a few dozen people.[1.17] However, getting outside the blockade did not guarantee a successful escape – Polish flying police squads apprehended the runaways even in Poznań, e.g. at the airport or the train station

(…) Consequently, Zbąszyń became a sort of internment camp where Polish citizens were held. They broke no law apart from one – they were Jews. At the time, the aim of the Polish authorities was to get rid from Poland of as many of the “local Jews” as possible; for this reason admitting Jews deported from Germany was initially unacceptable. The government hoped for their return to the Nazi Germany, so the Zbąszyń camp was a sort of bargaining chip during their negotiations with the Germans.

In the meantime, the situation in the town became disastrous. The deported Jews were kept in the station buildings and army barracks (c. 1,500 people) [see figures no. 4, 5, 6, 2, 3], in the Grzybowski’s mill (1,500 people), in the building of the former middle school in Wolności square (400 people) [see figure no. 7], the town gym (120 people) [see figure no. 8], the shooting range (250), and the synagogue (100) [see figure no. 9]. Roughly 700 people found accommodation at private houses. Significant help was offered to the deportees by the Jewish Committee for Aiding the Deportees (Żydowski Komitet Pomocy Wysiedlonym) that was established prior to 30 October. It was headed by Emanuel Ringelblum and Yitzak Gitterman who came from Warsaw. The Committee was supported by the Joint Distribution Committee with its seat in a mansion house in 37 17 Stycznia 1920 Street, which offered tremendous help to the deportees. During the initial days also the local inhabitants, often on their own initiative, aided the abandoned Jews. This help was provided by individuals rather than the state. A few hundred charity committees were set across the country to raise funds. The state aid was symbolic, which resulted in the tragic situations of the deportees [see figure no. 10].

On 7 November 1938, the Jews sent identical letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President Ignacy Mościcki in which they wrote, amongst others: […] For 10 days we have been kept in horrible, unbearable conditions, in old wooden stables with leaking roofs. Together with the elderly and children we are exposed to harsh cold and we have been deprived of even the basic necessities (water, light etc.) […] There is a constant threat of an outbreak of an epidemic which in these conditions could lead to a catastrophe. Locked in barracks, deprived of our personal dignity, we are unable to communicate with the outside world. […] In the name of our rights […] we beg you, Mr. President, to have mercy upon us.[1.18]

(…)These tragic events were later described in a letter by Sendel Grynszpan to his son, Herszel in Paris. On 7 November, Herszel – in order to vent his helpless anger – shot and killed Ernst von Rath, a diplomat working in the German embassy. This even was used by the Nazi as a pretext to initiate anti-Semitic riots all over Nazi Germany, which later became known as “the Night of Broken Glass and took place on 9/10 November 1938 (German: Kristallnacht). Their outcome included a few hundred destroyed synagogues as well as many Jewish houses and shops. It was by far the most well-known prewar act of violence against Jews. It was also a prologue to the tragedy of the forthcoming years.

 From the beginning of 1939, a degree of stabilization was restored. On 24 January 1939, German-Polish negotiations were concluded. Germans allowed some of the deported to return to Germany to conclude their administrative and personal issues whereas Poles agreed to gradually admit the deported and their families.[1.19] The most frequent requirement for leaving Zbąszyń was having relatives in other parts of Poland. First, the relatives had to declare whether they wished to help a given person. Many of the deported had no intention of staying in Poland and they dreamt of migrating to other countries, preferably outside Europe.

In the course of time, the existence of the deportees held in Zbąszyń improved to the point where they resumed their religious practices. Since the town synagogue was occupied by 100 deportees, a restaurant in 2 Wolności Square was rented [see figure no. 11]. What made it even more bizarre was the fact that the restaurant’s owner was German. And so, this really came as a shock to the townspeople, the restaurant owned by a German person was used for a synagogue for a few months. Another event that created the impression of normality was a friendly football match played on 4 December 1938 between the local club “Obra” and the “Maccabi” club set up by the deported Jews. The Jewish players won with a 3:2 score, which was yet another shocker that entailed some anti-Semitic comments in the local papers. Perhaps for this reason no subsequent matches were played.

From February 1939, the number of Jews kept in Zbąszyń started to gradually decrease. In April 1939, there were still 2,800 deportees in Zbąszyń. Officially the internment camp was closed down a few days before World War II. It was when permission was granted to all deportees to leave the town. Not all of them managed to do that, and they were captured by the Germans. They were later transported to ghettoes and camps in the Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1941, a labor camp was established in Zbąszyń where the Jews from the General Government were held. Most of them died due to exhaustion or they were killed.

In modern Zbąszyń there are no Jews left. What has left of them is the converted synagogue and the Jewish cemetery that is now a square. In October 2008, the 70th anniversary of Zbąszyń events was celebrated. In the hall of the train station in Zbąszyń, where 70 years ago the deported Jews got off the trains, a film-photo project “See you next year in Jerusalem” was presented. The organizers plan to create a permanent memento of these happenings. To this end they wish to erect a bronze statue of a suitcase that is not always a symbol of an anticipated journey. [see figure no. 12]

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] J. Krasoń, Zbąszyń do przełomu wieku XVI-go i XVII-go, Zbąszyń 1935, p. 159.
  • [1.2] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Bromberg 1909, p. 49 and 299.
  • [1.3] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden..., p. 299.
  • [1.4] W. Czuchwicki, Gmina wyznaniowa żydowska [w:] Ziemia Zbąska i jej okolice, Zbąszyń 2006, p. 326.
  • [1.5] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During Holocaust, ed. Elie Wiesel, Shmuel Spector, Geoffrey Wigider, Jerusalem 2001, p. 1495.
  • [1.6] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden…, p. 299.
  • [1.7] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden ..., p. 299.
  • [1.8] Tajne Pruskie Archiwum Państwowe w Berlinie (=GStA PK), II HA, VI Bentschen, no. 43, sheets: 2-4.
  • [1.9] GStA PK, II HA, VI Bentschen, no. 43, sheets: 2-4.
  • [1.10] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden…., p. 300.
  • [1.11] E. Bergman, J. Jagielski, Zachowane synagogi i domy modlitwy w Polsce, Warszawa 1996, p. 151.
  • [1.1.10] A. Heppner, J. Herzberg, Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden…., p. 300.
  • [1.12] W. Czuchwicki, Gmina wyznaniowa żydowska..., p. 328.
  • [1.13] W. Czuchwicki, Gmina wyznaniowa żydowska..., p. 327.
  • [1.1.12] [a] [b] W. Czuchwicki, Gmina wyznaniowa żydowska..., p. 328.
  • [1.14] J. Tomaszewski, Preludium Zagłady, Warszawa 1998.
  • [1.15] For instance: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life…, p. 1495.
  • [1.16] This group included, e.g., a prominent literary critic Marcel Reich Ranicki, born in 1920 in Włocławek. Today he is called “the pope of literature” in Germany. During WWII he was, amongst others, in the Warsaw ghetto, where he worked in “Jewish Gazette”. He describes his deportation in his autobiography Mein Leben (My life).
  • [1.17] S. Płóciennik, Deportation of the Polish Jews to Zbąszyń in October 1938. How the town inhabitants remember these events 70 years later, a research paper awarded the 1st place in the national competition “History and culture of the Polish Jews” in Warsaw in April 2008. Part of author’s own materials.
  • [1.18] J. Tomaszewski, Preludium…, p. 204.
  • [1.19] The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, ed. Robert Rozett, Shmuel Spector, Jerusalem 2000, p. 492.