This year’s 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence makes for a timely opportunity to develop synopses and summaries of the history of Poland in the 20th century, with special emphasis on the reborn Second Polish Republic, and in particular – on the years when our state was being formed from scratch. Such endeavours sometimes require the use of statistics – in our case, the use of data concerning the size of the population of Polish Jews and its places of settlement. Some of this information is common knowledge – like the fact that large communities of Jews once inhabited Warsaw, Łódź, Lviv and Vilnius. However, are we able to answer more detailed questions, for example: how many cities boasted Jewish populations of more than 100,000 people? Or: which town had a larger Jewish community, Kielce or Kalisz? Such statistical analyses often allow us to make fascinating discoveries. What was “the most Jewish place in Poland”? Were there any towns or villages in the Second Polish Republic which were inhabited exclusively by Jews? And how many had a Jewish community constituting at least 90% of the population? Why were they so popular among Jews?

Before we look for answers to these and other questions, it is important to pay closer attention to the sources we will use to review statistical data on Polish Jews. The only documents which can be regarded as authoritative, albeit not necessarily fully reliable, are population censuses. In the interwar period, two such censuses were conducted. The more comprehensive one was the First General Census in Poland, carried out on 30 September 1921. It was the only census whose results were published in their entirety; the publication was composed of 29 volumes, the last of which appeared in 1932. A number of objections were raised against the census, such as its failure to take into account the on-going mass migration processes (for instance the data on German Jews in the former Prussian Partition almost immediately became outdated as their population left Poland soon after the census was conducted), including the arrival of over half a million repatriates from the Soviet territories. In addition, the census did not include data from a part of the later Wileńskie Province (including Vilnius) and Śląskie Province (both areas were incorporated into the Second Polish Republic in 1922). Nevertheless, the 15 volumes of indexes of localities, divided into provinces, still constitute the basic source of knowledge about the number of local inhabitants in the interwar period.

The case of the Second Population Census, conducted on 9 December 1931, is much more complicated. While general results of the census were published in the years 1936–1939 as part of the volume Statystyka Polski [“Statistics of Poland”], the outbreak of the war hampered the publication of the full index. Only the section devoted to Wileńskie Province ever saw the light of day. For this reason, the following summaries are mainly based on data from the 1921 census. The information on the number of Jews in Vilnius from the 1931 census has been added for comparison in order to bring the reader’s attention to this large centre of Jewish population.

Another issue arising in our research is the question of who can be defined as a Jew. In the 1921 census, there are questions referring to “Judaism” and “Jewish nationality.” In general, more people answered ‘yes’ to the former question than to the latter. The 1931 census does not feature the question concerning nationality. In view of these disparities, what follows is based entirely on the data on religious affiliation. Thus, these are essentially summaries referring to the “population of the people of Jewish faith”, who nonetheless were undoubtedly equivalent to Jews.

The census of 1921, which constitutes a sui generis “collective snapshot” of the population of Poland at the time when it regained independence, indicated that there were 2,771,949 people of Jewish faith among the total of 27,177,000 inhabitants of the country (10.2%). In turn, in 1931, affiliation with Judaism was declared by 3,113,900 people out of the total of 32,107,000 inhabitants of the country (9.76%).

According to the 1921 census, the largest centres of the Jewish population in Poland were (the first twenty localities):

Town

Total population

Number of Jews

Percentage of Jews in the total population

Warsaw

936,713

310,322

33.1%

Łódź

451,974

156,155

34.5%

Lviv

219,388

76,854

35.0%

Vilnius

195,100

55,000

28.2%

Kraków

183,706

45,229

24.6%

Białystok

76,792

39,602

51.6%

Lublin

94,412

37,337

39.5%

Radom

61,599

24,465

39.7%

Częstochowa

80,473

22,663

28.2%

Rivne

30,428

21,702

71.3%

Grodno

34,694

18,697

53.9%

Przemyśl

47,958

18,360

38.3%

Kolomyia

41,097

18,246

44.4%

Będzin

27,855

17,928

64.4%

Pinsk

23,468

17,513

74.6%

Stanisławów (Ivano-Frankivsk)

28,204

15,860

56.2%

Brest

29,460

15,630

53.1%

Tarnów

35,347

15,608

44.2%

Kalisz

44,613

15,566

34.9%

Kielce

41,346

15,530

37.6%

 

The above data does not require broader commentary. A lot of information about Jewish life in these centres can be found in the Towns tab on our website.

It is more interesting to analyse the “Top Twenty” localities where Jews constituted the highest percentage against the total population. As it transpires from the collected data, the most homogeneous Jewish centres were located primarily in the area of today’s Eastern Borderlands (mainly Polesie and Volhynia), although there are a few exceptions, such as Trzcianne or Kosów Lacki. Even more interesting is the character of these settlements. The vast majority of them were Jewish agricultural colonies, many of them small and totally forgotten, constituting not so much an element of Zionist activity (seeking to forge the future agricultural force of Israel) but an effect of the efforts taken by the tsarist authorities in the mid-19th century. The second group were traditional shtetls.

Town

Total population

Number of Jews

Percentage of Jews in the total population

Iwaniki (Ivanyky)

235

235

100.0%

Kolonia Synajska

78

78

100.0%

Zofjówka

1,549

1,531

98.8%

Ignatówka

585

577

98.6%

Olizarka

326

321

98.5%

Hołobudy (Golobudy)

111

109

98.2%

Malecz (Malieč)

430

421

97.9%

Ostrożec (Ostrozhets)

638

624

97.8%

Trzcianne

1,434

1,401

97.7%

Targowica (Torgovitsya)

655

640

97.7%

Osowa Wyszka (Osova)

722

700

97.0%

Pawłowo

301

292

97.0%

Demidówka (Demydivka)

611

592

96.9%

Mielnica (Melnitsa)

899

871

96.9%

Targowica (Torgovitsya)

655

640

97.7%

Wyżgródek (Vyshhorodok)

976

944

96.7%

Kosów Lacki

1,362

1,316

96.6%

Michałówka

893

857

96.0%

Jejse (Yeysi)

124

119

96.0%

Konstantynowo

228

217

95.2%

Wołczyn (Volchin)

190

180

94.7%

 

Iwaniki (Ivanyky)

The first place in our list should be granted to Ivanyky, formerly in Poleskie Province, Pińsk District, Stawek Municipality. According to the 1921 census, it was one of the two localities in Poland where people following Judaism constituted 100% of the population, which means that absolutely all of its inhabitants were Jews. The entry on Iwaniki can be found in Volume VIII of the Index, page 149. In 1921, it was a one-street village with 32 houses, established in the wake of the Russian law “On Organising Jews” introduced in 1835. It was located on barren lands, to the west of today’s P6 road, 9 km north of Pinsk. It had an exclusively Jewish character, but was located in close vicinity to the Belarusian village of Posienicze (Pasianičy). It was established during the reign of Nicholas I, in the mid-19th century – this is particularly important as its foundation was directly connected to the policy of the Russian authorities and not to the Jewish preparations for the agricultural colonisation of Palestine in the later years. In 1936, Iwaniki was featured in the collection Listy z Polesie [“Letters from Polesie”] by Ksawery Pruszyński. The text describing the village was entitled Żydowska wieś cara [“The Tsar’s Jewish Village”]. The author emphasised the extraordinary character of the village, pointing out that it was not a Zionist agricultural colony, but “simply a Jewish village.” Its inhabitants earned their livelihood from agriculture and beekeeping; most of them were poor. In terms of material culture, it was identical with most Belarusian villages, the only difference being the presence of a synagogue and a rabbi, shamash, and shochet. During the Holocaust, all inhabitants of Iwaniki who had not managed to escape into more distant areas of the USSR were murdered by Germans. Today, Iwaniki no longer exists; it was administratively integrated into Pasianičy, later ravaged by collectivisation.

Kolonia Synajska

Another village inhabited exclusively by Jews was Kolonia Synajska (formerly Nowogródzkie Province, Słonim District, Dereczyn Municipality), slightly better known than Iwaniki. Established in 1849 as an agricultural settlement of eight Jewish families, it was not a creation of Zionists but the result of the contemporary Russian policy. At the end of the 19th century, Kolonia was made up of 20 houses inhabited by 136 people. A house of prayer operated in the village. In 1921, there were only 13 houses and 78 residents in Kolonia Synajska. In 1934, a dozen families left the village and migrated to Palestine, settling in Rishon LeZion and Petach Tikva. Those who remained were killed by Germans in the Dereczyn (Dziarečyn) Ghetto. Currently, the former site of Kolonia is the hamlet of the village of Krivichi in the area of Zelva District, Grodno Oblast, 15 km north of Zelva.

Zofijówka

The only town among the top three on the list is Zofijówka (another spelling: Zofjówka, formerly in Wołyńskie Province, Łuck District, Silno Municipality, also known as Trochimbrod or Trochenbrod, from Ukrainian: Trochim-Brod). In 1921, it had 1,531 Jewish inhabitants and a total population of 1,549 (98.8%). Although it had the status of an urban centre, Zofijówka too had its roots in the settlement campaign implemented by the tsarist authorities, perhaps constituting its most successful example in the historical Polish territory. It was established in 1835, and its first inhabitants were Jews from Volhynia and Belarus. Even though it was granted town rights in 1889 (at the time, there were 2,317 inhabitants and 186 houses), the basic occupation of its population was agriculture and, to a much lesser extent, tanning, petty crafts, and trade. The economy of the town received a boost after a glassworks was opened there in the first years of the 20th century. World War I and the Austrian occupation wreaked havoc in the town; combined with an epidemic of typhus, it led to deep stagnation. The town experienced a complete decline; Zionists were the only people able to instil some hope in its weary population. Before 1939, 45 families from Zofijówka migrated to Palestine. In August 1942, those who remained in the town, as well as a large group of refugees – a total of over 5,000 people – were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists and SS-men. Their houses were looted and demolished. Currently, the former site of the town is a deserted area in the Kivertsi Raion, Volyn Oblast, ca. 50 km north-east of Lutsk.

Ignatówka

The fate of Ignatówka (formerly Wołyńskie Province, Łuck District, Silno Municipality) was closely related to that of Zofijówka. Located north-west to the town, it was established in 1838, on the area of 280 ha previously owned by the state. At the beginning of the 20th century, 1,204 people lived there; in 1921 – 585, including 577 Jews (98.6%). The Jewish community started to shrink as a result of migration, mainly to Argentina. In June 1941, after the beginning of the German occupation, the Jews of Ignatówka fell victim to a pogrom perpetrated by Ukrainians. The local Jewish community ceased to exist on 24 August 1942, when all Jews were driven to Zofijówka, where they were murdered several days later. Nowadays, the locality does not exist.

Olizarka

Olizarka (formerly Poleskie Province, Sarny District, Rafałówka Municipality) was also an agricultural colony. It was established in 1849. In 1921, it was inhabited by 326 people, including 321 Jews (98.5%). They owned 151 ha of land, but the main source of income was the production of building materials. There were two houses of prayer in Olizarka. In June 1941, Jews from the village fell victim to a pogrom perpetrated by Ukrainians. On 1 May 1942, they were transported to Rafałówka. They were all shot on 29 August 1942. Nowadays, the village does not exist.

Hołobudy (Golobudy)

Hołobudy (formerly Białostockie Province, Wołkowysk District, Świsłocz Municipality) was also a Jewish agricultural settlement, but it was founded later, at the end of the 1860s. In 1921, it was inhabited by 111 people, including 109 Jews (98.2%). In 1930, there were 21 houses in the village. All of its inhabitants perished in November 1942, shot by Germans in the Wisznice forest. The area of Hołobudy has been absorbed by the neighbouring village of Ogrodniki.

Malecz (Malieč)

Malecz (formerly Poleskie Province, Prużana District, Malecz Municipality) is the first site on our list which has survived to this day (Malieč – located in Belarus, 95 km northeast of Brest). Its presence on the list is somewhat surprising, because it existed at least since 1528, and was chartered under the Magdeburg law in 1645. It would seem, therefore, that it did not have any particular features conducive to exclusive Jewish settlement. According to its description in The Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland, the town had exclusively wooden houses, an Orthodox Church, a synagogue, and a dozen or so market stalls. Nevertheless, the 1921 census lists 430 inhabitants of Malecz, including as many as 421 Jews (97.9%). The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the administrative division of the area – as it turns out, a village bearing the same name existed in the same period; it was similar in size to Malecz the town and was inhabited by 462 people, including 58 Jews. As a matter of fact, Jews constituted half of the population in the area; nevertheless, their concentration within the town limits draws particular attention. After the German invasion in 1941, a short-lived ghetto was established in Malecz. On 2 November 1941, all of its prisoners, ca. 800 people, were transported to the ghetto in Bereza Kartuska (Byaroza), and then to Pruzhany. They were all killed. Nowadays, Malecz has 1,700 residents. There is no trace left of the three synagogues once active in the town. Two of them, the Great Synagogue (also known as the Main Synagogue) and the Small (New) Synagogue, burned down in 1915. The third one, the so-called Caucasian Synagogue – a small building well-known for its richly decorated interior – was dismantled in 1978.

Ostrożec (Ostrozhets)

Another locality with a majority Jewish population was Ostrożec, formerly located in Wołyńskie Province, Dubno District. In 1921, it was inhabited by 638 people, including 624 Jews (97.8%) – 84 houses. As in the case of Malecz, the shtetl was part of a larger socio-economic unit, encompassing a much larger village with the same name (214 houses, 1,068 residents) and a farmstead (15 houses). Interestingly, according to the Geographical Dictionary, at the end of the 19th century Jews constituted only 18% of the local population. In August 1941, the locality was seized by Germans, who immediately started to exterminate the Jewish population – 140 people lost their lives. In April 1942, a ghetto was established in Ostrożec. It had 1,700 prisoners – such a high number resulted from the influx of refugees. On 9 October 1942, all inhabitants of the ghetto were led out of the town and executed next to the previously dug pits. Nowadays, Ostrozhets is a large Ukrainian village (3,200 inhabitants), 22 km south-east of Lutsk.

Targowica (Torgovitsya)

The town of Targowica was also located in Wołyńskie Province, Dubno District (Jarosławicze Municipality). It had 640 Jewish inhabitants and a total population of 655 (97.7%) The administrative division in the area was similar to that in Malecz and Ostrożec, only the proportions were different. Four other adjoining localities under the name of Targowica, (village, mill settlement, and two farmsteads) had a total of 391 inhabitants – less than the number of Jews living in the town. The first written record of the local community dates back to 1569. There was a beautiful wooden synagogue in Targowica, immortalised in photographs. On 1 August 1941, 130 local Jews were shot in the vicinity of the town. In the spring of 1942, the remaining Jewish inhabitants of Targowica were driven out to Ostrowiec, where they were murdered on 9 October. Targowica itself still exists, but has only 383 inhabitants; it is located 30 km south of Lutsk.

Trzcianne

Trzcianne is the first centre on the list which is located within the present Polish borders; it is situated 20 km northeast of Tykocin. In the Second Republic of Poland, it formed part of Białystok District. It was a village which undoubtedly deserved the title of “the most Jewish” locality in the region of Podlasie. According to the 1897 census, it had 2,266 Jewish inhabitants (98%); in 1921, it had 1,401 Jewish residents and a total population of 1,434 (97.7%). Jews had lived there since the 18th century. The local Jewish kehilla was established in 1778, after the village was devastated by a fire and the governor of Knyszyn allowed Jews to settle there. The locality was somewhat obscure, even the omniscient Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland briefly mentions it only in supplements. Before the Holocaust, almost all of the buildings in Trzcianne were wooden (only six brick houses) and the village was inhabited by 2,500 Jews. The end of Trzcianne was as cruel and dramatic as the entire Holocaust. After entering the locality in June 1941, Germans burned many buildings, and drove the residents to the barns in the village of Zubole, where they kept them for a week without food or water. Then a series of executions began, resulting in the murder of 500–800 people. From the autumn of 1941 to November 1942, a ghetto operated in Trzcianne. Its prisoners were then moved to the transit camp in Bogusze, and from there to the Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps. Ca. 25 people from Trzcianne survived the Holocaust.

Positions ten to twenty

The positions ten to twenty on the list of the “most Jewish” localities in the early period of the Second Polish Republic once again feature several Jewish agricultural settlements established at the initiative of the tsarist authorities: Osowa Wyszka (Osova; Wołyńskie Province, Równe District, est. 1836); Konstantynowo (Poleskie Province, Kosów District, est. 1848); Pawłowo (Poleskie Province, Kosów District, est. 1850); Jejse (Yeysi; Wileńskie Province, Brasław District). Another group are small, poor Jewish towns – proper shtetls – in Volhynia and Polesie: Demidówka (Demydivka; Wołyńskie Province, Dubno District); Mielnica (Melnitsa; Wołyńskie Province, Kowel District); Wyżgródek (Vyshhorodok; Wołyńskie Province, Krzemieniec District); Wołczyn (Volchin; Poleskie Province, Brześć District); probably Michałówka (Wołyńskie Province, Dubno District). Against this background, Kosów Lacki (at the time in Lubelskie Province, Sokołów District) stands out as a particularly interesting case. The Jewish community, involved primarily in trade and crafts, existed there from the end of the 17th century, and unusual demographic phenomena were recorded over a long period of time – from 315 Jews living in the town in 1827 (100%), to 786 in 1857 (97.2%), 1,258 in 1897 (97%), all the way to 1,316 in 1921 (96.6%). It should be noted, however, that the Jewish Kosów was surrounded with an entire network of sites bearing the same name, located outside its boundaries. At the time of the 1921 census, these were the villages of Kosów Lacki, Kosów Ruski, Kosów-Hulidów; the farmsteads of Kosów Lacki (Grabniak) and Kosów-Hulidów; and, to top it all, the Kosów Lacki colony.

What conclusions can be drawn from this search for the “most Jewish” town in reborn Poland? The “Top Twenty” localities with the highest share of the Jewish population can actually be divided into two categories: Jewish farming colonies with a multigenerational, non-Zionist lineage, and small borderland towns called shtetls. The former have now largely been forgotten, although there are exceptions, such as the text by Alina Molisak entitled “Żydzi-chłopi” [“The Jews-Peasants”] published in the Teksty Drugie journal, largely devoted to our No. 1 – the village of Iwaniki. The latter have evolved into a symbol – even our portal owes its name to these localities. Shtetls were inhabited by the Orthodox community, highly conservative and traditional. For example, Wyżgródek was a bastion of the Hasidim from Turzysko. Most buildings in the locality were wooden, and the locals earned their living from trade and crafts (including shoemaking, tailoring, and blacksmithing), sometimes small manufacturing workshops (mills, tanneries). However, as indicated by the above list, shtetls would not have been able to exist without their rural “background,” which was their source of supply and an outlet for their goods. Unfortunately, for both types of localities – Jewish agricultural colonies and small Jewish settlements – the upcoming twenty years of the Second Polish Republic were to become the last period of their existence.

The article is illustrated with fragments of pre-war WIG (Military Geographical Institute) maps in the scale 1:100,000. Full maps are available after clicking on the picture. It is interesting to compare them with modern satellite images. Such a juxtaposition clearly shows that the Holocaust and the post-war collectivisation have erased or changed not only the fate of the local populations, but also of the maps of entire regions, the distribution of buildings, the course of roads. We would like to express our thanks to the portal mapywig.org for sharing the maps.

Bibliography:

Indexes to the census of 1921
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 1: m.st. Warszawa: Województwo warszawskie, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie pierwszego powszechnego spisu ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 2: Województwo Łódzkie, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 3: Województwo kieleckie, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 4: Województwo Lubelskie, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 5: Województwo białostockie, Warsaw 1924.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 7, cz. 1: Województwo nowogródzkie, Warsaw 1923.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 7, cz. 2: Ziemia wileńska (powiaty: Brasław, Duniłowicze, Dzisna i Wilejka), Warsaw 1923.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 8: Województwo poleskie, Warsaw 1924.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 9: Województwo Wołyńskie, Warsaw 1923.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 10: Województwo Poznańskie, Warsaw 1926.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 11: Województwo pomorskie, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 12: Województwo Krakowskie, Śląsk Cieszyński, Warsaw 1925.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 13: Województwo Lwowskie, Warsaw 1924.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T 14: Województwo Stanisławowskie, Warsaw 1923.
  • Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej opracowany na podstawie wyników Pierwszego Powszechnego Spisu Ludności z dn. 30 września 1921 r. i innych źródeł urzędowych. T. 15: Województwo Tarnopolskie, Warsaw 1923.

Volume 6 (Wileńskie Province) and 16 (Silesia) have not been published.

Digital versions can be found at: http://mbc.cyfrowemazowsze.pl/dlibra/publication?id=17126 [Accessed on: 10 November 2018].

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