The most influential family in Kraków’s Jewish community from the 1470s to the mid-sixteenth century. Members of the Fiszel family served as creditors to King Casimir the Jagiellonian and his sons Jan Olbracht, Aleksander, and Sigismund I. The family’s origins are disputed; it is possible that they came from Prague, elsewhere in Bohemia, or Germany.
Efrayim Fiszel and his three sons, Ya‘akov, Mosheh, and Yosef, first appear in sources from Kraków in the 1460s. Around 1477, Mosheh and Ya‘akov quarreled with the elders of the Kraków Jewish community, and though the gubernatorial court sentenced them to exile, the conflict was ultimately averted by the vice-voivod in his capacity as judge of the Jews (iudex iudaeorum). From that time on, their position was secure, and after Ya‘akov’s death, Mosheh became head of the family.
Raḥel, Mosheh’s wife, who had come to Kraków from Prague, began independent financial activities prior to her husband’s death, which occurred before 1489. She was creditor of the Polish kings Casimir IV the Jagiellonian, Jan Olbracht, and Aleksander. In 1504, King Aleksander allowed her to mint coins from his own metal, in a sufficient amount so that the difference between the nominal and actual values would cover the debt of 1,000 florins incurred by his predecessors on the throne. Out of gratitude for her service to the royal family, the king allowed Raḥel to purchase a house in Kraków at a time when Jews were permitted to reside only in Kazimierz, outside the city proper.
Raḥel managed a mortgage bank. In 1495, when 30 Jews, including Raḥel’s son-in-law Ya‘akov Pollak and her brother-in-law, were arrested in Kraków, her name appeared on the list of persons obliged to guarantee that those released from prison would not leave the city. Mosheh and Raḥel Fiszel had six children—three daughters, Ester, Hendel, and Sara; and three sons, Efrayim (Franczek), Stefan (originally Mosheh), and Yitsḥak. Yitsḥak became head of the family after his father’s death.
Mosheh (Stefan) Fiszel served as a creditor to kings Jan Olbracht and Aleksander even before his conversion to Christianity. In 1494, he represented the interests of the Jewish community in their disputes with non-Jewish residents of Kraków, and in that same year he was arrested with other Kraków Jews. He served as collector of Jewish taxes in Great Poland (1499, 1503) and as director of the salt storehouse in Poznań (1504). In 1499, when the Jews of Gniezno accused him of excessive tax collection, he received the support of the archbishop of Gniezno, Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellończyk. After converting to Catholicism (between 1503 and 1504); Stefan was ennobled by Zygmunt the Old, receiving the Koran coat of arms. His sons Jan and Stanisław also converted to Catholicism; their godmother was Elizabeth, the widow of King Casimir the Jagiellonian. Stefan divorced his wife, who chose to remain Jewish. In 1510, with the king’s permission, he purchased the village of Powidz, from which he took his new surname, Powidzki.
Efrayim (Franczek) Fiszel, Stefan’s brother, was appointed in 1512 to the position of general collector of Jewish taxes in Little Poland. He held this post in tandem with Abraham Bohemus, who collected Jewish taxes in Great Poland. After two years, however, he was forced to resign this position, though he continued to enjoy royal protection and remained in service to Queen Bona. In 1524, Sigismund I (the Old), at Bona’s request, named Franczek and his wife Chwałka (Falka) royal servitors, thus removing Franczek from the jurisdiction of any other court but that of the king or, in smaller matters, of the queen. Both were freed from the payment of Jewish taxes.
Mosheh Fiszel (1480–1541), Franczek’s son, was a physician; he married Ester, who served in the court of Queen Bona. In 1532, after the death of the kabbalist and rabbi Asher Lemel, he became rabbi of the so-called “Polish” Jewish community of Kazimierz. In 1541 he was appointed, together with the rabbi of LublinShalom Shakhnah, to be the chief rabbi of Little Poland and Rus’, a post that included the right to excommunicate and judge Jews for religious transgressions. Soon after his appointment, he was accused of converting Christians to Judaism. He was tortured and died soon after his release from prison.
Sara, the daughter of Raḥel and Mosheh, married David Zehner, the rabbi of Buda in Hungary; her sister Ester married Ya‘akov Pollak, then a rabbi in Prague; and the third daughter, Hendel, became the wife of Asher Lemel. The latter two men represented the first generation of prominent Jewish scholars active in Kraków.
Majer Bałaban, “Jakob Polak, der Baal Chillukim im Krakau und seine Zeit,” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 57 (1913): 59–73, 197–210; Majer Bałaban, Historja Żydów w Krakowie i na Kazimierzu, 1304–1868, vol. 1, pp. 68–71 (Kraków, 1931), also available in Hebrew trans. (Jerusalem, 2002); Maurycy Horn, “Jews and Townsmen in the Service of the Polish Kings and Lithuanian Grand Dukes in the Years 1386–1506,” pt. 1, Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 135–136 (1985): 3–19, summary in English; Maurycy Horn, “Jewish Jurisdiction’s Dependence on Royal Power in Poland and Lithuania Up to 1548,” Acta Poloniae historica 76 (1997): 5–17.
Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec