Town in Wielkopolska province, Poland. Kalisz (Yid., Kulish) is considered to be the oldest town in Poland. Jews first settled there as early as the twelfth century, where they minted coins for the prince. In 1264, Prince Bolesław the Pious issued a privilege or charter for Great Poland’s Jews—the first document of its kind in the Polish lands—that became the basis for many subsequent royal privileges. In 1287, a well-organized Jewish community existed with a cemetery.
From the 1300s through the 1600s—an age of economic prosperity—Jews played a significant role in crafts and commerce, retaining close contacts with Silesian towns. An important yeshiva was also established in Kalisz. In 1668, a meeting of the Council of Four Lands took place in the town. At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Kalisz lost its economic importance. Having initially been part of the Prussian partition, after the Congress of Vienna (1815) it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland. In this period the town again began to develop both spatially and economically. Among new developments were garment businesses, as well as food and music enterprises (including three piano factories).
In 1789, the 881 Jewish residents of Kalisz constituted 29 percent of the town’s population, and in 1860 a total of 4,423 Jews formed 34.5 percent of the inhabitants. In 1822, a Jewish district was created in Kalisz; it existed until 1862. Other institutions included a Jewish hospital with 25 beds, founded in 1836. In 1875 a Russian-language government school for Jewish children opened. At the end of the nineteenth century, the town had 2 large synagogues and 38 prayer houses.
While Ger Hasidim made up a large group in the community, other Jews tended to acculturate. The first modern Hebrew school was created in 1916. There were a number of political parties active in Kalisz, including Zionist groups (founded in 1898) and the Bund (from 1900).
Kalisz also had a Jewish press, and produced several Yiddish newspapers. In the 1920s, the poet Moyshe Broderzon organized a theater group, and in the 1930s a Jewish symphony orchestra functioned. A branch of YIVO was also established in that decade. Jews participated actively in municipal life and were well represented on the town council. Agudas Yisroel had a major influence.
At the end of the 1930s, economic conflicts in Poland became more acute, and Kalisz imposed a boycott of Jewish merchants and stores. In 1939, approximately 25,000 Jews (50% of the town’s inhabitants) lived in Kalisz, of whom about 20 percent fled eastward at the beginning of the war. After the German invasion, the town was incorporated into the Reich territory of Warthegau. Between November 1939 and February 1940, almost all of its Jews were deported to Góra Kalwaria, Warsaw, and the Lublin region; for two weeks, some 10,000 Jews were kept in a covered market and their dwellings taken by Germans from the Baltics. Some Jews were sent to a nearby labor camp, from which they were deported to Chełmno in May 1942. In 1941, a ghetto was created in Kalisz, and it existed until July 1942. It contained approximately 400 people, mostly from Kielce, who worked in tailors’ and shoemakers’ workshops. In December 1942, about 250 Jews were murdered and the rest deported to the Łódź ghetto.
After World War II, about 290 Jews returned to Kalisz. Most of them left Poland after the Kielce pogrom, though some moved to larger towns. One of the Jewish cemeteries in Kalisz, containing tombstones from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is still preserved.
Israel David Bet-Halevi, Toldot yehude Kalish (Tel Aviv, 1960/61); Danuta Dombrovska (Dąbrowska), “Zagłada Żydów w ‘Kraju Warty,’” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 13–14 (1955): 122–184; Aleksander Pakentreger, Żydzi w Kaliszu, 1918–1939 (Warsaw, 1988); Sefer Kalish, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1964–1968).
Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov