Jewish population: 5,000-20,000
On the eve of the Shoah, Poland was home to over three million Jews, the second-largest Jewish community in the world at the time. Warsaw, the capital, had a population of over 300,000 Jews, more than 30% of the population of the city—and a larger Jewish community than in most European countries. For sake of comparison, the Jewish population of Poland was greater than the total population of such countries as Ireland, Norway or each of the Baltic States. Following the German onslaught in 1939, about 85% of Polish Jewry was wiped out. Many Jews from other countries were deported to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland and murdered there. After World War II, most of the survivors refused to return to, or remain in, Poland, which was convulsed by civil war and antisemitic violence. Emigration accelerated after pogroms and other outrages, and the Jewish population continued to shrink through successive waves of emigration. Since the fall of Communism, the small Jewish community in Poland has been able to reassert its identity and today has a very high profile in public life. Most of the country's Jews live in Warsaw, but smaller communities also exist in Kraków, Wrocław, Łódź, Katowice, Szczecin, Gdańsk, and several other cities. The vast number of historical Jewish sites has proved a magnet for foreign visitors to Poland. In 2013, the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews was opened to the public.
An accurate estimate of the number of Jews in Poland has yet to be achieved, though it seems reasonable to put the number at somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000. Most of the country’s Jews live in Warsaw, but there are also communities in Kraków, Łódź, Szczecin, Gdańsk, and in several cities in Upper and Lower Silesia, notably in Katowice and Wrocław. Very few Jews live in the eastern part of the country, including cities and towns that were once great centers of Jewish life, such as Lublin, Białystok, and Przemyśl. Whereas before the war, the majority of Jews spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue, today that language is almost only spoken by a rapidly dwindling elderly population. In the last 25 years, there has been a reawakening of Jewish consciousness, and young people of Jewish origin who had no previous Jewish affiliation are joining the community. There are also several hundred Israelis in Poland, including businessman working for Israeli firms there, students, and Polish-born Israeli retirees. Jewish activists from abroad, including several members of both the Chabad and Reform movements, have also taken up residence there and established communities.
Jewish settlement on Polish lands can be traced back more than 1,000 years. Fleeing persecution in western and central Europe, Jews found sanctuary in Poland. In 1264, Prince Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz, the first writ of privileges for Jews in Poland and the basis for subsequent protective charters. Successive Polish kings, notably Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century, encouraged Jews to settle in Poland and acted as their patron. Jews were outstanding mint masters, and the first coins issued in Poland bore Hebrew, not Polish, inscriptions. By the middle of the 16th century, about 80% of world Jewry lived on Polish lands.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Jews enjoyed a unique form of self-government called the Va’ad Arba Aratzot [Council of Four Lands] in Lublin, which functioned as a Jewish parliament. However, from 1648 to 1649, Cossack hordes led by Bogdan Chmielnicki massacred the Jews of eastern Poland (present-day Ukraine). It is estimated that 100,000–200,000 Jews perished. Much of Polish Jewry was impoverished, and Poland became fertile ground for messianic leaders such as Shabbtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. Polish territories were the birthplace of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement that he spawned.
The successive partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century and the Polish state’s ultimate disappearance meant that the Jews of the three constituent zones developed differently. The bulk of Polish Jewry was concentrated in Russian- and Austrian-ruled areas of the country, but small communities also existed in the territories annexed to Prussia. Russian-ruled Poland belonged to the so-called “pale of settlement.” Jews rallied to the Polish flag in a number of abortive uprisings in which Poles sought to regain their independence. One particularly notable example was Rabbi Dov Ber Meisels who was arrested by the Russians for his patriotic activism in the January Uprising 1863 and expelled from Warsaw.
Toward the end of the 19th century, when much of Poland was still under the repressive and antisemitic Czarist Russia, a great wave of emigration began, and Polish Jews went to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, France, and the Land of Israel. At the same time, Jews from Lithuania (the so-called “Litvaks”) and other parts of the Russian Empire moved to Poland. Jews played a significant role in the economic development of the country, particularly in commerce and industry. They also made many outstanding contributions to Polish arts and sciences. Significantly, Poland was the birthplace of many of Israel’s outstanding political leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres.
In the interwar period, despite the government’s often ambivalent and even hostile policies, Polish Jewry represented one of the most creative communities in the Diaspora. Poland was the heartland of many of the great movements that shaped Jewish life. These include Chassidism, Zionism, and Jewish socialism—and all of these currents found expression in numerous schools, organizations, political parties, and publications. Interwar Poland was the leading center of Yiddish creativity, including the Yiddish film industry. Polish Jewry played an especially important role in the development of Hebrew culture and maintained an impressive network of schools in which Hebrew was the language of instruction.
On the eve of the Shoah, 20 years after Poland regained independence, some 3,300,000 Jews lived in the country, constituting the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Warsaw alone was home to over 300,000 Jews. About 85% of Polish Jewry was wiped out in the Holocaust, and many Jews from other countries were deported to German-occupied Poland and killed in the Nazi death camps situated there.
After the war, most of the survivors refused to return to, or remain in, Poland, which was rocked by civil war and antisemitic outrages. Emigration accelerated after the pogrom in Kielce in July 1946, in which over 40 Jews were murdered, and after other acts of violence. Although the situation eventually stabilized, and the Jewish cultural community was revitalized, the Jewish population continued to shrink through successive waves of emigration. The most recent exodus took place in 1968, in the wake of a Communist party witch-hunt directed against persons of Jewish origin.
At that time, most of the remaining Jewish communal infrastructure, including the Jewish school system, was closed down and it was widely believed that the story of Polish Jewry had come to an end. However, in the years leading up to the collapse of Communism, Poland’s small Jewish community, including many “closet Jews,” was gradually able to reassert its identity and today has a very high profile. Polish society has also faced revelations about the sinister episodes of its contemporary past—in particular, the terrible wartime massacre of the Jewish population at Jedwabne and several neighboring communities by local citizens—with considerable introspection. For the most part, Polish scholars of the younger generation were at the forefront of this movement to reevaluate Polish history.
The former Yeshivat Chamei building in Lublin.Today, in addition to the “official” community, there are a plethora of Jewish organizations and institutions catering to virtually every type of Jewish expression. Catering to the needs of Jews, young and old, who are rediscovering their Jewish identity is also a top priority. One Jewish group is composed of persons orphaned in the Holocaust and raised by non-Jews. Many of those orphans only discovered their Jewish origins late in life.
High on the community’s agenda is the preservation of the large number of Jewish historical sites (including cemeteries and synagogues) that cover the length and breadth of the country. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage administers restituted Jewish property. Among the properties restored to the Jewish communities is the monumental building of the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, which, before the war, was one of the world’s greatest institutions of Jewish learning. That building is now being restored and in addition to a vast sanctuary will house a hotel for Jewish travelers. Poland has yet to enact a comprehensive law restoring property to pre-war owners or their heirs or compensating them for its loss.
Antisemitism remains a problem, but no political party that openly espouses an anti-Jewish agenda is in parliament. Still, there are occasional manifestations of antisemitism in the form of vandalism of Jewish sites, graffiti, the publication and distribution of antisemitic literature, and anti-Jewish utterances by public figures, including certain extreme members of the clergy. The antisemitic Catholic radio station Radio Maryja and the newspaper connected with it are influential in the provinces and among the elderly. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church sponsors an annual day devoted to the study of Judaism, which is held each year in a different city. In July 2013, the Sejm, Poland’s legislature, upheld an earlier ban on ritual slaughter. Until that time, kosher meat was readily available and Poland had developed a significant export market in Jewish foodstuffs, including meat.
Israel and Poland resumed full diplomatic relations in 1990 after a hiatus of 23 years. Since 1948, some 175, 000 Polish Jews have emigrated to Israel, 106,414 of them between 1948 and 1951. Since the resumption of relations with Israel in 1989/1990, ties between Warsaw and Jerusalem have been especially cordial.
Embassy of the State of Israel:
ul. Krzywickiego 24
Tel: +48 22 597 0500
Fax:+ 48 22 8251 607
Kosher dining facilities can be found in Warsaw and Kraków. Kosher meat and other foodstuffs are available, and Poland has become an important center for the production of kosher spirits and meat, though the latter has been endangered by Poland’s recent legislation banning shechita.
ul. 4 Grzybowska 6C-6D
Phone number+48 22 243 26 93
ul. Hoża 40
Phone number+48 22 621 18 56
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database
The annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków, the largest Jewish festival in Europe, features concerts, lectures, workshops, and other events and draw tens of thousands of participants from Poland and abroad. Similar, though smaller, festivals are held in a number of other Polish cities. The Jewish Community Centre of Kraków (JCC), in the city’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, offers a myriad of Jewish activities, both religious and cultural. It was officially opened in April 2008 by The Prince of Wales, acting on a request made to him by the Jewish community during his visit to Kraków in 2002. Nearby, the Center for Jewish Culture is also the venue of much of the city’s Jewish activity, including exhibitions, lectures, films, meetings, and various courses.
The state-supported E.R. Kaminska Jewish Theater in Warsaw is the only regularly functioning Yiddish theater in the world. Audiences can listen to its productions in Polish (and occasionally in other languages) with the use of headphones. Today most of its actors are non-Jews.
Several Jewish publications regularly appear in Poland, including two monthlies, Midrasz and Slowo Zydowskie. The Jewish Historical Institute publishes its own scholarly journal, Jewish History Quarterly, and the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences publishes one called Zagładą Żydów. Every year, an impressive number of books and publications on Jewish themes is published, including much original scholarship on the history of Polish Jews by Polish non-Jewish scholars and translations of Jewish literature. (not sure if this paragraph is under right heading)
Poland, particularly the central and eastern parts of the country, contains a vast number of places of interest for Jewish visitors.
A new Museum of Polish Jewry opened in April 2013 in what was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw and promises to become one of the country’s preeminent cultural institutions. The Jewish Historical Institute is an important repository of documentation on the history of Polish Jewry, especially the Shoah. It also maintains a permanent exhibition of Jewish art and artifacts from the Holocaust. In Warsaw, there are also a number of sites connected with the ghetto uprising and the life of the city’s once-vibrant Jewish community. These include the Central Ghetto Monument, designed by the sculptor Natan Rapoport, and the permanent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute, which also houses a collection of paintings and sculptures by Polish-Jewish artists. In Kraków, which was spared the destruction to which the capital was subjected, there are a number of old synagogues that can still be visited, among them the Remu and the 14th-century Stara Synagogue (the oldest in Poland), which today houses a Jewish museum. In the 1990s the Galicia Jewish Museum was established, devoted to telling the story of the Jewish experience in Galicia.
Stara Synagogue in KrakowŁódź is the site of one of the largest Jewish burial grounds in Europe. Of particular interest are the mausoleums of the city’s great textile magnates. The Radegast railway station in Łódź, from which Jews were deported to Chełmno, has been converted into a somber monument designed by the Polish–Jewish architect Czesław Bielecki. Many of the smaller towns contain remnants of the Jewish presence.
In recent years a “Chassidc Trail” has been demarcated, which includesBaligród, Biłgoraj, Chełm, Cieszanów, Dębica, Dukla, Dynów, Jarosław, Kolbuszowa, Kraśnik, Lesko, Leżajsk, Lublin, Łańcut, Łęczna, Przemyśl, Radomyśl, Wielki, Ropczyce, Rymanów, Sanok, Tarnobrzeg, Ulanów, Ustrzyki Dolne, Wielkie Oczy, Włodawa and Zamość.Zamość contains one of the most important monuments of Jewish sacral architecture: a restored 17th century renaissance-style synagogue, which has been included on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. There are also many historic cemeteries, some containing the graves of famous Chassidic rabbis, such as those in Góra Kalwaria(Ger) and Leżajsk(Lezensk).
The Central Ghetto Monument in WarsawAmong the most noteworthy sites in northeastern Poland is the town of Tykocin (near Białystok), which has a magnificent 17th-century synagogue restored to its former grandeur.
The sites of former Nazi death and concentration camps are a magnet for Jewish visitors. These include Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Bełzec, Stutthof and Treblinka. Of the last, no trace remains, and the grounds are the site of an evocative monument consisting of thousands of shards of broken stone.
Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland (WJC Affiliate)
ul. Twarda 6
Tel: +48 22 620 43 24
Fax: +48 22 652 28 05
Website: click here
Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland
pl. Grzybowski 12/16 00-104
Website: click here
There are functioning synagogues (and mikvehs) in a number of cities. Some of these are historical edifices, such as Kraków’s Remu Synagogue, which is associated with the great sage Rabbi Moshe Isserles, and the Templum in Kraków. In Warsaw, the Nożyk Synagogue is the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of worship. Poland has an orthodox chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, whose seat is in Warsaw and several other rabbis tend to the spiritual needs of Jews in other cities. There is also a Chabad House in Warsaw, as well as Progressive Jewish congregation, Ec Chaim, presided over by Rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz. The Beit Warszawa Jewish Cultural Association, operates its own educational programs in the spirit of Reform Judaism.
The Lauder Morasha schools in Warsaw, sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, operate educational facilities catering to children from kindergarten through high school. Various Jewish courses (including Hebrew) are offered at Warsaw University, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and other institutions. In 2009, the Higher School of Hebrew Philology was established in Torun.