Jewish life in Poland dates back over a millennium. The ‘Jewish story’ in Poland is defined by the community’s fluctuating political status over the ages, with epochs of equality and prosperity and eras rife with pogroms, deportations and anti-Semitism.
Fleeing persecutions in Western and Central Europe, Jews found sanctuary in Poland. By the middle of the 16th century, about 80% of world Jewry lived on would-be Polish lands. From the 16th to the 18th century, Jews enjoyed a unique form of self-government called the Council of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba Aratsot), which functioned as a Jewish council. However, from 1648 to 1649, Cossack hordes led by Bogdan Chmielnicki massacred the Jews of Eastern Poland (present-day Ukraine). It is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews perished at that time.
After that dreadful episode, much of Polish Jewry was impoverished, and Poland became a fertile ground for messianic leaders such as Sabbatai (Shabbtai) Tzvi and Jacob Frank. Later it gave birth to the Chassidic movement.
Toward the end of the 19th century, when most of Poland was part of the anti-Semitic Czarist Russia, a great wave of emigration began, and Polish Jews immigrated to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, France, and the Land of Israel.
In the inter-war period of the 20th century, when Poland regained independence, despite the government’s often hostile policies, Polish Jewry represented one of the most creative communities in the Diaspora.
Before the Shoah, some 3,300,000 Jews lived in the country, constituting the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Warsaw alone had over 300,000 Jews. About 85% of Polish Jewry was wiped out in the Holocaust, and many Jews from other countries were deported to Poland and killed in the Nazi extermination camps.
After the WWII, most of the survivors refused to return to (or remain in) Poland, which was rocked by civil war and anti-Semitic outrages. Emigration accelerated after the Polish-led pogrom in Kielce in July 1946, which claimed the lives of over 40 Jews. Although the situation eventually stabilised, the Jewish population continued to shrink through successive waves of emigration.
Nowadays, Warsaw is home to the great majority of Polish Jews, but there are also communities in Krakow, Lodz, Szczecin, Gdansk, and in several cities in Upper and Lower Silesia, notably in Katowice and Wroclaw. In the last few years, there has been a reawakening of Jewish consciousness. Young people of Jewish origin who had no knowledge about their Judaism are joining the community.
The Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland (UJRCP) is the umbrella organisation uniting all Jewish Communities. It represents the voice of Polish Jews towards the state authorities and other organisations at home and abroad. The UJRCP is the heir and continuator of a long tradition of Jewish Communities in Poland.
The UJRCP achieves its primary objectives by helping and supporting the Communities, providing social aid for Holocaust survivors, operating kosher cafeterias, renovating the derelict buildings and maintaining in a good state the Jewish cemeteries.
Besides that, the UJRCP carries out varied educational activities – lectures, discussion sessions and meetings all over Poland. The main subjects are Jewish history and tradition as well as the contemporary life.
Private kosher restaurants can be found in Warsaw and Krakow. Kosher meat and other foodstuffs are available, and in recent years, Poland has become an important centre for the production of kosher spirits.
The Community runs the Senior Club, the Club for Jewish Children and Youth and religious classes as well as projects created with a wider audience in mind, such as the festival ‘Open Twarda Street’, educational programs for Warsaw schools, lectures and workshops dedicated to Jewish tradition, art, music, exhibitions and concerts.
There are synagogues in most of the towns mentioned above. Some of them are historic monuments, such as the Remu Synagogue and the Templum in Krakow, and the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw.
In Warsaw there are a number of sites connected with the ghetto uprising and the life of the city’s once vibrant community. These include the central ghetto monument, designed by Natan Rapoport and the exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute, which also houses a collection of paintings by Polish-Jewish artists.
In Krakow, a number of old synagogues can still be visited, among them the Remu and the 14th-century Stara Synagoga (the oldest in Poland), which today houses a Jewish museum. The Galicia Jewish Museum offers classes in Yiddish Language Instruction and workshops on Yiddish Songs. The museum has taken steps to revive the culture through concerts and events held on site.
Lodz 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. Many of the smaller towns contain remnants of the Jewish presence. Among the most noteworthy is the town of Tykocin (near Bialystok), which has a magnificent 17th-century synagogue recently restored to its former grandeur. The sites of former killing and concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka, are a magnet for Jewish visitors. No trace remains of Treblinka and the grounds are the site of a powerful monument consisting of thousands of shards of broken stone.
As far as the relations with Israel are concerned, Poland resumed full diplomatic relations in 1990 after a hiatus of 23 years. Since 1948, 171,471 Polish Jews have emigrated to Israel, 106,414 of them between 1948 and 1951.