History Crash Course #49: The Jews of Poland
The period of history we are looking at is known as the Renaissance which historians generally date from about 1350 to about 1650. Renaissance means “rebirth.” Rebirth of what? Of knowledge.
We have now left the Dark Ages dominated by the repressive policies of the Church in Rome and are beginning a time period associated with individual expression, self-consciousness, and worldly experience, and accomplishments in scholarship, literature, science, and the arts.
In the Renaissance, we see some powerful kings emerging in England and in France, while the power of the Church begins to wane. The famous personalities of this period of time are Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Petrarch, Rabelais, Descartes, Copernicus, just to name a few.
This is also a time when Jews made their way into Poland. Today we tend to think of Jewish life in Poland as being confined to the shtetl, but that did not happen until the 18th century. We also tend to think of Poland as synonymous with anti-Semitism, pogroms, etc. But during the time of the Renaissance the picture was quite different.
Before we begin the fascinating story of the Jews of Poland, we have to keep in mind the historical pattern that we see constantly in Jewish history. The places where the Jews will do the best are almost always the places where the Jews will suffer the worst in the end. You’d expect there’d be places that would be good for the Jews and other places where Jews would have a rough time. But that’s not what happens.
The best of times and the worst of times tend to happen in the same place. We just saw it in Spain, we’re going to see it now in Poland, we’ll see it later in Germany. It’s one of the great patterns in Jewish history ever since the Jews were invited into Egypt and then enslaved there.
So how did the Jews come to Poland?
A POLISH INVITATION
Poland became Christian very late, only at the turn of the 11th century, and only then did it join the European community of nations (so to speak). After that, it took a couple of hundred years before Poland started to emerge as a nation-state with strong development potential.
If you want to develop your country economically and culturally, who do you need?
You need Jews.
Why were the Jews so necessary? First, they could read and write. Jews were always highly educated as they had to be literate to read and obey the Torah, and general education came along as part of the parcel. Second, Jews were excellent bankers, accountants, and administrators who knew how to keep the economy healthy.
So in 1264, King Boleslav of Poland granted a charter inviting the Jews there. The charter was an amazing document, granting Jews unprecedented rights and privileges. For example, it stated that:
- “The testimony of the Christian alone may not be admitted in a matter which concerns the money or property of a Jew. In every such incidence there must be the testimony of both a Christian and a Jew. If a Christian injures a Jew in any which way, the accused shall pay a fine to the royal treasury.”
- “If a Christian desecrates or defiles a Jewish cemetery in any which way, it is our wish that he be punished severely as demanded by law.”
- “If a Christian should attack a Jew, the Christian shall be punished as required by the laws of this land. We absolutely forbid anyone to accuse the Jews in our domain of using the blood of human beings.”
- “We affirm that if any Jew cry out in the night as a result of violence done to him, and if his Christian neighbors fail to respond to his cries and do not bring the necessary help, they shall be fined.”
- “We also affirm that Jews are free to buy and sell all manner of things just as Christians, and if anyone hampers them, he shall pay a fine.”Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 87-8.
This was an amazing document. We saw previously that Jews (see Part 46) would be brought in as money-lenders (being excluded from other professions), then when a bishop or nobleman wanted his debt annulled, he brought a “blood libel” against the Jews and had them expelled or killed. King Boleslav boldly promised the Jews that this would not happen in Poland.
Jews did not immediately flock into Poland, though some did settle there to test the waters. But when other countries started expelling Jews — England being the first in 13th century, Germany in the 14th and Italy and Portugal being the more recent in the 15th century (as we saw in Parts 46 and 48) — Poland became an attractive destination point.
Then in 1569, Poland unified with Lithuania, and as a result expanded its borders to the east. What we know as the Ukraine today and some of Belorussia became vassal lands of Poland which was still a semi-feudal country. These lands needed to be managed and job openings in administration (at which Jews excelled) sprung up everywhere. Quite often Jews would lease tracts of land from the Polish nobility thus making them the middle men in the feudal economic structure of Eastern Europe.
Another Polish king, Sigismund II Augustus, issued another invitation. Here is an excerpt from his edict, granting the Jews permission to open a yeshiva at Lublin, dated August 23, 1567:
“As a result of the efforts of our advisors and in keeping with the request of the Jews of Lublin we do hereby grant permission to erect a yeshiva and to outfit said yeshiva with all that is required to advance learning. All the learned men and rabbis of Lublin shall come together for among their number they shall choose one to serve as the head of the yeshiva. Let their choice be a man who will magnify Torah and bring it glory.”Alexis P. Rubin ed., Scattered Among the Nations-Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975. (Jason Aronson, 1993), pp 89-90.
GOLDEN AGE OF POLISH JEWRY
In Poland, in the early 16th century, the Jews were allowed to have their own governing body called the Va’ad Arba Artzot-The Council of the Four Lands, which was composed of various rabbis from the four major Polish provinces (Great Poland, Little Poland, Volhynia and Polodia) who oversaw the affairs of the Jews in Eastern Europe. The Poles did not interfere with Jewish life and scholarship flourished.
Some important personalities of this period, which a student of Jewish history should remember, were:
- Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525-1572), from Krakow, also known as the Rema. After the Sephardi rabbi Joseph Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Isserles annotated it to fill in the rabbinic decisions from Eastern Europe. His commentary was, and continues to be, critically important in daily Jewish life.
- Rabbi Ya’akov Pollack (1455-1530), from Krakow. He opened the first yeshivah in Poland and was later named the chief rabbi of Poland. He developed a method of learning Talmud calledpilpul, meaning “fine distinctions.” This was a type of dialectical reasoning that became very popular, whereby contradictory facts or ideas were systematically weighed with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions.
- Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, (1526-1609), not from Poland but important to Eastern European Jewry. He was known as the Maharal of Prague and was one of the great mystical scholars of his time. His name has also been associated with the famous Golem of Prague legend (The Golem was a Frankenstein-like being created by the Maharal to protect the Jews of Prague) although the legend has been shown to be a later fabrication.
Along with the growth in Torah scholarship there was growth in population. In 1500 there were about 50,000 Jews living in Poland. By 1650 there were 500,000 Jews. This means that by the mid 17th at least 30% or more of the Jewish population of the world was living in Poland!
Where did these Jews settle within Poland?
Jews of the Diaspora were generally urban people as they were historically not allowed to own land in most of the places they lived. However, they also created their own farm communities called shtetls (Yiddish for “small town). Although we tend to think of the shtetl today as a poor farming village (like in Fiddler on the Roof), during the Golden Age of Polish Jewry, many of these communities were actually quite prosperous. And there were thousands of them.
The Jews in these independent communities spoke their own language called Yiddish. Original Yiddish was written in Hebrew letters and was a mixture of Hebrew, Slavic, and German. (Note that Yiddish underwent constant development and “modern” Yiddish is not like the “old” Yiddish which first appeared in the 13th century, nor “middle” Yiddish of this period of time.)
Overall, the Jews did well, but working alongside Polish and Ukrainian Christians (who thought Jews killed Jesus) had its downside.
There were several instances of Christian rioting against Jews. For example, in 1399 in Poznan, a rabbi and 13 elders were accused of stealing Church property and they were tortured and burnt at the stake. (The Poles must have forgot the king’s edict.)
Another problem was that Jews worked as administrators and tax collectors for Polish feudal lords. This did not make them popular among the local folk, who needed little encouragement to unleash their anti-Semitic rage.
This was especially true in places like the Ukraine, where the Catholic Poles were viewed as an occupying power in an Eastern Orthodox land, and the Jews — being representatives of the occupation forces — were the easiest to resent.
And while the Polish nobility might have needed the Jews, the common Poles didn’t. There were instances when the Polish soldiers would purposely leave town, abandoning the Jews to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the Ukrainians. This happened, for example, in 1648 in the city of Tulchin. The Polish soldiers made a deal with the Cossacks and left town. The Jews defended the city by themselves until it fell and they were all slaughtered.
When the Ukrainians decided to throw the Poles out of their land, a full-scale massacres of Jews began.
The year 1635 saw the first big explosion of violence in Ukraine against Poles and Jews. But this attempt at the revolution was crushed. It returned with new vigor thirteen years later.
This second rebellion, in 1648, which succeeded in freeing a large part of the Ukraine from Polish rule, was led by a Ukrainian Cossack named Bogdan Chmielnicki. In large measure it was directed at the Jews.
Chmielnicki was one of the biggest anti-Semites in human history, on par with Hitler. His aim was genocide and his forces murdered an estimated 100,000 Jews in the most horrendous ways:
Here is one description (from Yeven Mezulah, pp. 31-32):
“Some of them [the Jews] had their skins flayed off them and their flesh was flung to the dogs. The hands and feet of others were cut off and they [their bodies] were flung onto the roadway where carts ran over them and they were trodden underfoot by horse … And many were buried alive. Children were slaughtered at their mother’s bosoms and many children were torn apart like fish. They ripped up the bellies of pregnant women, took out the unborn children, and flung them in their faces. They tore open the bellies of some of them and placed a living cat within the belly and they left them alive thus, first cutting off their hands so that they should not be able to take the living cat out of the belly … and there was never an unnatural death in the world that they did not inflict upon them.”
Here is another account from a Luthuanian Rabbi Shabbetai ben Meir HaCohen (1621-1662) also known as the Shach, who survived this time:
“On the same day 1,500 people were killed in the city of Human in Russia on the Sabbath. The nobles [Cossacks] with whom the wicked mob had again made an alliance chased all the Jews from the city into the fields and vineyards where the villains surrounded them in a circle, stripped them to their skin and ordered them to lie on the ground. The villains spoke to the Jews with friendly and consoling words: ‘Why do you want to be killed, strangled and slaughtered like an offering to your God Who poured out His anger upon you without mercy? Would it not be safer for you to worship our gods, our images and crosses and we would form one people which would unite together.’ “But the holy and faithful people who so often allowed themselves to be murdered for the sake of the Lord, raised their voices together in almighty in Heaven and cried: ‘Hear of Israel the Lord our God, the Holy One and the King of the Universe, we have been murdered for Thy sake so often already. O Lord God of Israel let us remain faithful to Thee.’ Afterward they recited the confession of sins and said: ‘We are guilty and thus recognize the Divine judgment.’ Now the villains turned upon them and there was not one of them who did not fall victim.”
It’s no wonder when Jews hear the word Cossack they break out in a sweat. These people killed 100,000 Jews and destroyed 300 Jewish communities in the most brutal way one could imagine.
Yet to this day Chmielnicki is considered a nationalist hero in the Ukraine, where they regard him as a kind of “George Washington.” In Kiev there is a big statue in the square erected in his honor.
So this is how, in 1648-1649, the Golden Age of Polish Jewry came crashing down.
These pogroms took place in Eastern Poland, and the Jews in other parts remained there. Poland continued for many years to be the center of the Ashkenazi Jewish world as we shall see in future installments.
However, before we cover that period of time, we will backtrack a bit to talk about the Protestant Reformation which also took place during the Renaissance.