Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Jews of Poland by Bernard D. Weinryb

Overall, I'd say this is an excellent start if you're interested in the history of Jews in Poland. Personally, I wasn't very interested in the few chapters that deal almost solely with religious matters, (the last three chapters, mainly) but otherwise, this book was an excellent introduction for me on the subject. To begin, the exact date of the first Jewish settlement or when the first Jews came to Polish territory cannot be ascertained for sure. But the 13th and 14th centuries are rife with sources that point to Jews already established in Polish territory and the first ritual murder accusation occurs at this point as well, specifically 1347. The real growth of the Jews occurred later on in the 16th through the 18th centuries, even though there were constant wars, famines, and other disasters/illnesses.

Jews, as well as other minorities, were regularly invited by Polish kings and nobles to settle their territories and become merchants, craftsman, and renters/leasers of their properties. It is hard to know how to classify Jewish existence in Poland because they flourished there like nowhere else, but at the same time there were plenty of pogroms being committed against Jews as well as blood libel accusations, etc. Laws being passed by the "royal power" could not be fully enforced to protect the Jews but on the other hand this also meant that enforcing anti-Jewish regulations was also a problem. Overall, Polish attitudes toward Jews were usually relative. Merchants had something to gain by denouncing Jews and trying to pass laws that would enable them to get ahead of their Jewish counterparts. In the end this was done by all merchants against foreigners coming into their territory, be they Jewish, Armenians, or Ruthenians. Jews had it worse at times because of their religious practice, thus they were `double' the foreign elements, unlike that of others.

Many laws that were enacted toward Jews were always `special' in some sense of the word, that is, they differed from the same laws which existed for the Christian population. For example, in 1392 "the city council of Cracow demanded that a Jew who purchased a house from a Christian sign a promise to resell it only to a Christian" (62). Many times these types of rules applied to certain Jews, mainly those who had money and something to contribute in an economic sense. As is evident from a tax roll from the middle of the 14th century from Breslau, only some 7 percent were `very rich' and only 15 percent "of the Jewish population were earners of wages, salaries, and fees" (70).

Within the Polish nobility it is evident that every good King who gave Jews special privileges and rights would simultaneously take other rights away from them. Jews were defended in some parts of the empire, mainly by those with an economic interest in what Jews could do for them. But due to the chaotic nature of the times and the difficulty in instituting any laws/regulations wholesale throughout the country it was really up to the masses and individual nobility to decide what they wanted out of and to do with their Jews.

Lastly, the Cossack uprising in the mid 17th century was a deadly episode in Jewish history when around a quarter of the Jews, that is 40-50,000, were killed in various episodes of mass murders and pillaging on the part of Cossack, Swedish, Russian, and Polish troops. The Jews were at times attacked because they were viewed as representative of the absentee Polish landlords for whom they worked and collected money/taxes (this was mainly the reasoning behind the Cossack uprising). This uprising would lead to further wars and the eventual 3 partitions of Poland between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. That's pretty much where the story ends for Polish Jews in this book. If you're interested in details about any of the above, this book is a good start.

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