Great Synagogue, Poznań, Poland, early 20th century. (Tomasz Wisniewski,

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City in Wielkopolska province, Poland; known in Hebrew and Yiddish as Pozna and in German as Posen. Poznań’s Jewish community was one of the earliest to be established on Polish soil; the first reference to Jews living in the town comes from 1379. While tradition dates the town’s synagogue to 1367, there is no documented evidence of its existence until 1449 (the cemetery, however, was first mentioned in 1438). In the second half of the fifteenth century, a legend declared that in 1399 some Jews in Poznań had committed a Host profanation. The same period also saw the establishment of Poznań’s famed yeshiva, known as Lomde Pozna.

Poznań’s Jewish community began to flourish in the mid-sixteenth century. At that time it numbered approximately 1,500 and was situated in the northeastern part of the city. The Jewish quarter’s densely packed, largely wooden buildings made it vulnerable to fires (as in 1590 and 1613) that spread to other parts of the city. These fires resulted in long and costly lawsuits brought by municipal authorities, who used them as a rationale to demand the expulsion of Jews from the city.

Jewish authorities, for their part, pressed for the expansion of the overpopulated Jewish quarter. A 1619 report, compiled in the course of one such lawsuit, notes that 3,130 Jews were living in Poznań—twice as many as in the mid-sixteenth century. In 1621, the resettlement of some of Poznań’s Jews to the nearby private town of Swarzędz—the owner of which offered favorable privileges—partially alleviated the overpopulation problem. Jews of Swarzędz remained affiliated with Poznań; as a newly founded “daughter” community, Swarzędz’s Jews were obliged to follow all rulings made by the authorities of its parent community—and also to pay taxes to it.

Etching depicting Jews stabbing the host, from Trzy Święte Hostye, w Poznaniu 1399. Roku Nożami od Zydow Ukłote (Three Holy Hosts, Which the Jews Stabbed with Knives in Poznań in 1399), by W. Xiądz Tomasz Treterus (Poznań, 1772). (The Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

During the Polish–Swedish wars of the mid-seventeenth century, Poznań’s Jewish community was accused of collaborating with the enemy, and fell victim to pogroms carried out by both Christian residents and Polish military divisions. In 1659, a mob led by students of the local Jesuit college plundered the Jewish district, and shortly thereafter the epidemic of 1661–1662 added to the hardships of Poznań’s Jews. After the devastations of the mid-seventeenth century, the community’s debt burden began to grow rapidly.

According to records from 1674–1676, Jews made up slightly more than 30 percent of the town’s inhabitants. Most of Poznań’s Jews earned a living from commerce, particularly in textiles, skins, and furs; they traded not only locally but also over distances, linking the republic with markets to the west such as those in Leipzig and Frankfurt an der Oder. Other Jews worked as tailors, butchers, furriers, shoemakers, and goldsmiths.

In the period before Poland was partitioned, Poznań was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the commonwealth. It possessed highly developed institutions of self-rule, to which they elected as many as 100 officials each year. Unique to Poznań’s community was the activity of the electors (kesherim), who were not limited by executive duties but continued working year round, constituting a kind of communal senate. Poznań’s Jewish clergy not only led the local yeshiva but also acted as chief rabbis of Great Poland; among them were outstanding scholars including Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal of Prague) and Mordekhai ben Avraham Yafeh (Jaffe).

In the early eighteenth century, the community suffered serious losses as a result of the Great Northern War and particularly during the Swedish occupation of the town (1703–1709). Other damages were caused by a plague epidemic (1709), contributions levied from Jews by the rebels of Tarnogród (1716), and a fire in 1717 that destroyed much of the Jewish quarter. In 1736, an accusation of ritual murder led to the execution of the communal preacher Arye Leib Kalahora and the shtadlan (advocate) Ya‘akov ben Pinḥas, though others who were arrested were released in 1740. A flood in the already disastrous year of 1736 destroyed a synagogue and many Jewish houses.

The town’s general decline led increasing numbers of Jews to leave Poznań, many heading for Leszno, which began to assume the leading position among the Jewish communities of Great Poland. The census of 1764–1765 records 1,951 Jews in Poznań; taking into account evasion and children under the age of one, the community probably numbered closer to 2,700.

After the second partition of Poland (1793), Poznań fell under Prussian rule. A census taken by the new authorities recorded 2,355 Jews—about 20 percent of the town’s population. The Prussian legislature allowed Jews to be admitted into general elementary and secondary schools and limited the community’s authority, thus enabling the processes of acculturation and Germanization to begin. After a fire in 1803 severely damaged the Jewish quarter, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in the town.

The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, made inroads in Poznań, where its leading proponent was David Karo, who had been part of the Berlin circle of maskilim. In 1815, however, Orthodox Jews chose Akiva Eger, a firm opponent of reform, to be the rabbi of Poznań. In 1833 Eger, who served until 1837, successfully blocked an attempt by Prussian authorities to disband the town’s heders.

Strained by tensions between reformers and the Orthodox, the Poznań community split in the mid-nineteenth century. Proponents of reform organized a separate community—the Israelitische Brüdergemeinde—and built a new synagogue in the Moorish style (1856–1857). In 1862 they elected their own rabbi, Joseph Perles, a graduate of both Breslau’s Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar and its university. Perles, who later wrote a history of Poznań’s Jewish community, was succeeded in 1872 by Philipp Bloch, who served until 1921. Proponents of Orthodoxy, on the other hand, created the Einheitsgemeinde, condemning the splintering of the community by the reformers. The Orthodox community flourished under the rabbinate of Wolf Feilchenfeld (1872–1913), on whose initiative a new and spacious synagogue was erected near Stawna Street.

When Poznań found itself within the borders of the new Polish state after 1918, most of its Jews left for Germany. This large-scale move can be attributed to the weakening of ties between Poznań’s Jews and Polish Jewish communities, in favor of ties to German Jewish ones, a relationship that had begun in the mid-nineteenth century. Meanwhile, other Jews moved to Poznań from different parts of Poland. According to its own membership list, the community numbered 1,650 in 1930; 2,300 in 1933; and 3,000 in 1939. About 65 percent of these residents were employed in commerce, while another 20 percent made their livings as artisans. From 1922, the Zionist lawyer Marcin Cohn led the community.

Following the outbreak of World War II, part of the community fled Poznań. On 11–12 December 1939, the German campaign to make the city Judenrein, or empty of Jews, led to the deportation of most of those remaining to Ostrów Lubelski and other towns in the Generalgouvernement. The remaining few ended up in labor camps operating near Poznań from September 1939 to August 1943. Efforts to rid Poznań of its Jews ended on 15 April 1940 with the symbolic removal of the Star of David from the synagogue near Stawna Street. The building was turned into a swimming pool in 1942–1943, and continues to function as such to this day.

Suggested Reading

Dov Avron, ed., Pinkas ha-kesherim shel kehilat Pozna (Jerusalem, 1966); Zbigniew Dworecki, “Ludność żydowska w Poznaniu w latach 1918–1939,” in Żydzi w Wielkopolsce na przestrzeni dziejów, ed. Jerzy Topolski and Krzysztof Modelski, pp. 189–211, 2nd ed. (Poznań, 1999); Sophia Kemlein, Die Posener Juden, 1815–1848: Entwicklungsprozesse einer polnischen Judenheit unter preußischer Herrschaft (Hamburg, 1997); Anna Michałowska, Między demokracją a oligarchią: Władze gmin żydowskich w Poznaniu i Swarzędzu: Od połowy XVII do końca XVIII wieku (Warsaw, 2000); Adam Teller, Ḥayim be-tsavta: Ha-Rova‘ ha-yehudi shel Poznan ba-maḥatsit ha-ri’shonah shel ha-me’ah ha-sheva‘ ‘esreh (Jerusalem, 2003).



Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec