Warsaw. Sites of Jewish institutions, ca. 1938. (Prepared by Eleonora Bergman, Ursula Fuks, and Olga Zienkiewicz, Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)

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Capital of Poland from 1596 to 1794 and again since 1918. Warsaw’s importance in Polish and Jewish history is a relatively late phenomenon. For much of the Middle Ages, the Duchy of Mazovia, in which Warsaw was located, was a sparsely populated region, only loosely subject to the Polish crown. Warsaw itself was established in the second half of the thirteenth century on the west bank of the Vistula River.

Jewish settlers were probably present in Warsaw’s earliest years, which coincided with the first significant wave of Jewish immigration into Poland. The first documentary evidence of Jews in the city dates from 1414. At that time, Jews probably lived on Żydowska Street in the Old Town; they built a synagogue and a cemetery on Wąski Dunaj Street. In 1469, a draft charter for the community was prepared but not promulgated. Christian burghers bitterly resented the competition of Jewish merchants, and Jews were expelled in 1455, 1483, and 1498. The burghers also appealed to the Mazovian princes for support against the Jews, and hostility was further fanned by the preaching of the anti-Hussite John of Capistrano. It seems probable that between 1498 and 1524 Jews were either entirely or almost entirely driven out of Warsaw, but had returned by 1527, when the Polish King Sigismund granted Warsaw the privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis (nontoleration of Jews).

The Y. L. Peretz Orphanage and Elementary School at 7 Gęsia Street during a visit by writer Yankev Dinezon (standing, right), Warsaw, ca. 1917. (YIVO)

By then, Mazovia had been incorporated into the Polish Kingdom and began to grow in importance. From the 1550s, the Sejm (parliament) began to meet in Warsaw, and from the late sixteenth century the king established his main residence there. The town also began to grow in population, reaching 18,000 by 1655, although, as a result of the devastation of the Swedish wars, this number soon fell to 6,000.

Sigismund’s decree of 1527 expelling Jews was probably ineffective, and in 1570 King Sigismund II August reiterated the decree and extended its provisions. Jews were allowed to remain in Warsaw only for two weeks before and two weeks after the meeting of the Sejm. Permission was also granted to representatives of the Council of Four Lands to visit Warsaw to negotiate with the king and szlachta (nobility). There were also other ways that Jews could remain in Warsaw. Many of the great magnates possessed large properties classified as jurydyki (jurisdictional enclaves), which were excluded from the jurisdiction of the municipality and were subject only to their aristocratic (or more rarely ecclesiastical) owners. In these enclaves, groups that were particularly disliked by the city’s burghers—Jews, Protestants, craftsmen, and merchants not belonging to a guild—often found shelter. Jews could also obtain permission to enter Warsaw at times when the Sejm was not in session through a “ticket” system that gave the purchaser the right to remain in Warsaw for a fortnight.

During the eighteenth century, the population of the Polish capital grew to more than 100,000. Despite a series of political reforms, particularly after the first partition of Poland in 1772, the anti-Jewish sentiments of Warsaw’s Christian burghers did not abate, and restrictions on Jewish settlement remained in force. Consequently, many Jews in the Polish capital lived in the jurydyki. By 1788, there were about 15 of these, of which the most important was that of Prince August Sułkowski, where the Jewish settlement of Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem) was established at the gates of Warsaw. On this occasion, the municipality was able to persuade the king that the settlement was illegal, and it was liquidated despite the opposition of the Permanent Council and of the powerful Russian ambassador in Warsaw, Otto Magnus Stackelberg.

The situation of the Jews in Warsaw did not improve before the partitions of the country in 1793 and 1795. The Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792) was the scene of bitter arguments over the status of Jews, and petitions were delivered to it by both Jews and Christian burghers, each stating their points of view. The burghers had strongly opposed any improvement in the status of the Jews, and in March 1790 furriers and tailors assembled at the city hall to demand the expulsion of those Jews who had succeeded in settling in Warsaw. Their petition was taken to the Sejm by the mayor of Warsaw, Jan Dekert, and led to a new decree expelling all Jews to the suburbs, with the exception of merchants who had been granted specific rights of residence. This expulsion led on a number of occasions to outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence.

Each Passerby Raises Hope, Warsaw, ca. 1935–1938. Photograph by Roman Vishniac. (© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center of Photography / print courtesy YIVO)

The most serious of these occurred on 16 May 1790 when a tailor named Fux began to attack Jewish workshops on Senatorska Street. When the main exit from the Gołubskie Palace courtyard (where many workshops were located) was barred to him, he escaped through a side door. His brief disappearance sparked a rumor that “the Jews killed a tailor” and although an official of the Jewish community found Fux and paraded him through the streets, the riot took on a life of its own and provoked widespread destruction, not only in the Gołubskie Palace, but also in the adjacent Pociejowski Palace. Violence was directed against Jews but was also aimed at the szlachta whose use of jurydyki to evade regulations on Jewish settlement was bitterly resented. Strong action was taken against those responsible, but it was clear how much resistance there was to a change in the Jews’ position. Given this situation, it is not surprising that although the status of towns was improved in the constitution adopted on 3 May 1791, nothing was done to ease the Jews’ position, which actually worsened as a consequence of the abolition of the jurydyki and the creation of a single magistracy in Warsaw. This new and more powerful body renewed the call for the expulsion of the Jews in May 1792.

It was only with the establishment of Prussian rule as a consequence of the third partition of Poland that the situation for Jews began to improve. Prussian authorities recognized the Jewish communal autonomy, the kehilah, which was given legal status in 1796 and was authorized to issue bans to ensure that taxes were paid. However, the Prussian also imposed occupational restrictions on Jews and expelled some of their poor and unemployed to the Russian and Austrian partitions. In February 1802, the Prussian government abolished the feudal privileges of the towns in its most recently annexed parts of Poland, which meant that Jews now enjoyed unrestricted access to all towns, including Warsaw.

These policies aroused the resentment of Christian burghers, who attacked Jews as the tool of the Prussian authorities. In what was perhaps an attempt to mollify the Christian burghers, on 17 July 1806 the Prussian-controlled magistracy in Warsaw ordered the removal of Jews from some of the city’s principal streets for a two-year period. The defeat of Prussia by Napoleon and the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleonic sponsorship meant that this edict was never implemented.

The Great Synagogue (right), the Judaic Studies Library, and the Institute of Judaic Studies (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny), Warsaw, ca. 1936. Postcard printed in Poland. (YIVO)

The duchy adopted a constitution on French revolutionary lines, decreeing that “All citizens are equal before the law” (Article 4). This would have given Jews the right to vote and even to sit in the Sejm. Such a situation, as was the case with the French-inspired abolition of serfdom, was unacceptable to Polish political opinion. Accordingly, a decision of October 1808 postponed the granting of civil rights to Jews for 10 years. Within Warsaw, town president Pawel Bieliński refused to recognize the position of the kehilah, appointing instead a Jewish syndic to administer the Jewish community. He also tried to restore the town’s right to exclude Jews but was unsuccessful. Within a year, Bieliński had recognized Jewish residence rights and accepted the kehilah as the responsible Jewish governing body. Attempts to exclude most Jews from the Old Town and a number of main thoroughfares in Warsaw were never given legal sanction, although Jews remained concentrated in the northern part of the city; this area retained its Jewish character until the Nazi destruction of Jewish Warsaw in 1943.

Jews played a major role in supplying the Napoleonic Grand Army, as they had done for the Russian Army during the first partition and for Kościuszko’s revolutionary forces. Indeed, these years saw the emergence of great Jewish finance houses, under such families as the Fränkls, Epsteins, Laskis, and Kronenbergs, who were to form the basis of Warsaw’s banking community. The era also saw an increase in the number of Warsaw Jews who regarded their future as tied to the Polish national cause. One of these was Berek (Berko) Joselewicz. A merchant and army purveyor who had personally witnessed the revolutionary events in Paris in 1789 when the Kościuszko revolt broke out, Joselewicz entered the militia, formed a Jewish cavalry regiment, and was given the rank of colonel by Kościuszko himself. The regiment was destroyed in the storm of Praga by the Russians in November 1794 and Joselewicz then emigrated to Galicia and subsequently to Italy where he entered the Polish legion of Henryk Dąbrowski. After the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw, Joselewicz entered its army and was granted the rank of squadron leader. For his services he was awarded the Cross Virtuti Militari. He died in a clash with Austrian forces near Kock on 5 May 1809.

The census of 1792 revealed Warsaw’s total population was 81,300, of which 6,750 (8.3%) were Jews, though this may be an underestimate. The number of Jews rose from 7,700 in 1797 and to 14,600 in 1810, when they made up 18 percent of the population. The largest occupational group among Jews included merchants and traders, ranging from prosperous financiers to impoverished stall holders and peddlers. The bulk of the remaining Jews were artisans, above all tailors, hatters, and furriers.

Jews in Warsaw during the Kingdom of Poland

Children in front of stands selling notions and tomatoes in the marketplace, Warsaw, ca. 1930s. (Center) a poster urging Jews to vote for a religious party or coalition in kehilah (Jewish community council) elections. (YIVO)

In 1815, the partition of Poland was confirmed by the Congress of Vienna. Warsaw became the capital of the new, truncated Kingdom of Poland with the Russian tsar as king. The city evolved into a major administrative and cultural center and the focus of Polish political life. Its population grew rapidly from 81,250 in 1816 to 223,000 in 1864; the number of Jews rose even more quickly from 15,600 (19.2% of the population) to 72,800 (32.7%).

Jews were not granted the status of citizenship that had been promised them in 1808, and most were banned from living on certain streets in the center of Warsaw. The ticket levy, abolished in 1811, was reintroduced in 1825. During these years, the community became increasingly heterogeneous. The bulk of Warsaw’s Jews were Hasidim. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the kehilah was still in the hands of Misnagdim (the rabbinical opponents of the Hasidim), but by 1847, Hasidim formed a majority on the kehilah council. The new chief rabbi, Dov Berush Meisels—a Misnaged—went out of his way to be conciliatory to them.

Alongside the traditional masses, a small circle of acculturated Jews and maskilim was developing. These “progressive” Jews prayed in the synagogue established on Daniłowiczowska Street in 1802 by Isaac Flatau of Berlin. This was not a “reform” synagogue of the type then developing in Germany, but the arrangements for worship had a number of modern features including a sermon, initially given in German and from the late 1850s in Polish. The Orthodox referred to the new establishment contemptuously as di daytshe shul (the German synagogue).

In order to promote their views, “progressive” Jews encouraged the founding, in 1826, of the Warsaw Rabbinic Seminary, whose headmaster, Antoni Eisenbaum, was a convinced maskil (follower of the Haskalah, or Enlightenment). The seminary aimed to produce a group of "enlightened" rabbis and laymen who, while proficient in Hebrew and well-versed in Jewish knowledge, would understand the modern world and would be well placed to serve as leaders of the Jews in Warsaw and, indeed, Poland as a whole. Linked with the school was a second progressive synagogue, on Nalewski Street, founded in 1852. Like the Daniłowiczowska Street synagogue, it remained basically Orthodox, although a number of changes were introduced in the way worship was conducted. It differed from the "German" synagogue in that its character was much more strongly Polish.

Ludwik Natanson (center), chairman of the kehilah, with other board members, Warsaw, 1894. (YIVO)

The great banking families went beyond the degree of acculturation favored by the maskilim. They constituted a closely knit circle of about a dozen families often related by marriage, though they competed on the stock exchange or in the pursuit of railway concessions. Some, such as Zelig Natanson or Mathias Rosen, remained Orthodox Jews all their lives and were enthusiastic supporters of Jewish causes. Still, conversion made steady inroads into this group. Many of them were allowed to settle outside the northern part of the city, which was the predominantly Jewish area. It should be stressed, however, that the mass of Warsaw’s Jews remained unacculturated, Yiddish-speaking, and overwhelmingly Orthodox.

The 1830 uprising against Russian rule created new dilemmas for Jews, and, in particular, for those who were becoming acculturated and assimilated. The Warsaw bourgeoisie was rather suspicious of the uprising, which was marked, in its early days, by looting and rioting. They attempted to control popular violence by setting up a “National Guard” made up of wealthier citizens who would maintain order in the capital. A fair number of Jews wanted to join this body, both to demonstrate their solidarity with Polish patriots and to justify their claim for civil rights. Revolt leaders decided that Jews could enlist, provided they shaved their beards. Most of the Jews who wished to enlist were not prepared to take this step. Still, by the summer of 1831 some 300–400 of them had joined the National Guard. The remainder were allowed to found a “Civil Guard” and avoid shaving their beards. By late summer 1831, this group numbered about 1,000.

The crushing of the 1830–1831 uprising was followed by a period of repression under Tsar Nicholas I. A large part of the Polish elite now went into exile in Paris, where the opinion arose that if any future uprising was to be successful it would have to gain the support of peasants and the still disenfranchised Jews.

Tłomackie Street Synagogue (opened 1878; Leandro Marconi), Warsaw. (YIVO)

Polish–Jewish relations improved in the later years of Nicholas’s reign and, even more, with the accession of Alexander II in 1855. The new tsar’s attempt to introduce a limited amount of self-government into the Kingdom of Poland led to widespread unrest and demonstrations in Warsaw. These conditions provided the background for the fraternization of Jews and Poles in the period preceding the uprising of January 1863. Following the demonstrations of 25 and 27 February 1861, which led to the deaths of five protesters—two of them Jews—a city delegation was elected of twelve leading citizens of Warsaw. It included Chief Rabbi Dov Berush Meisels, who had also participated in the 1848 revolution in Kraków. Meisels went to the palace of the leading Polish reformer, Count Andrzej Zamoyski, to sign a petition to the tsar calling for the restoration of the “rights of the Polish nation.” Zamoyski spoke of the “Old Testament Believers” (a Polish nineteenth-century term for Jews) as “our countrymen and brothers, the children of one land,” while Meisels replied, “And we too feel that we are Poles and we love the Polish land as you do.” Both Meisels and Rabbi Markus Jastrow of the Daniłowiczowska synagogue also took part in the funeral of the five victims, which became another major political demonstration. Meisels himself issued an appeal to the Jews of Poland. He reminded them of the persecution they had experienced in the kingdom at the hand of the viceroy, Pavel Mukhanov, whom he compared to Haman. The Poles, he claimed, had made clear their desire to grant Jews equal rights; it was then the duty of the Jews to support the Polish national movement.

From 1864 to 1914

Nonetheless, the hope that the successful achievement of national independence would usher in a new era of Polish–Jewish brotherhood proved vain. The uprising, poorly planned and ill-coordinated, was crushed by the Russians. Although the Russians now introduced a more repressive regime with a strong Russifying tendency, the new era also saw the ending of restrictions on the free movement of peasants and Jews. The abolition of the tariff barrier between the Congress Kingdom (i.e., the Kingdom of Poland created by the Congress of Vienna in dynastic union with the Romanovs) and the tsarist empire created conditions in which rapid economic development could occur, and Warsaw was central in this development. The city was a major entrepôt where the European narrow-gauge railway lines met the Russian broad-gauge, and in those years it emerged as a major industrial center.

Rachel Holzer in Julian Tuwim's Meshugene Zashke (Crazy Zashke) from the revue Tate, du lakhst (Daddy, You're Laughing), at the Nowości Theater, Warsaw, 1938. Photograph by Leo Forbert.

Warsaw’s industrial growth stimulated a rapid increase in the city’s population, which reached 625,000 in 1897 and 885,000 by 1914. The years before 1914 also saw a substantial increase in the Jewish population of Warsaw, which rose to 210,500 (33.7%) in 1897 and 337,000 (38.1%) in 1914. This growth resulted not only from natural increase and migration from the small towns and villages of the Congress Kingdom but also from the movement of Jews from the Russian Pale of Jewish Settlement to Warsaw, which was legal after 1868. This movement intensified after the introduction of new anti-Jewish laws in the tsarist empire after 1881, which did not apply to the Congress Kingdom. In all, by the outbreak of World War I, perhaps 150,000 “Litvaks,” as Jews from these areas were called, had moved to Warsaw.

Jews played a major role in the burgeoning industries of Warsaw. Jews were dominant in the textile, clothing, and tobacco trades and also constituted a majority of the city’s artisans, whose numbers increased strongly in the half century before 1914. The years down to 1914 saw a significant increase in the number of assimilated and acculturated Jews. The figure of 13.7 percent for Polish speakers among Jews in Warsaw in the 1887 census comprised nearly 30,000 people. There was also a significant increase in the number of Jews in the liberal professions.

The bulk of the community remained Yiddish-speaking (83.7% in 1897) and Orthodox. Hasidism continued to play a major role in Warsaw: in 1880, more than two-thirds of the 300 synagogues in the city were Hasidic, as were most of the shtiblekh (prayer rooms). The influx of Litvaks weakened Hasidic dominance, because immigrants often came from areas where Jewish religious life was dominated by Misnagdim. The Litvaks were resented by the Hasidim as impious intruders and were also criticized by both the more assimilated Jews and some Poles as purveyors of Russian values. There was little truth in this latter charge, for, as late as 1897, Russian speakers made up only 2.2 percent of Jews in Warsaw. More justified was the claim that they were bearers of the new ideologies—Zionism, socialism, and the various combinations of these—that were later to transform Jewish life.

Jews on a market day in Warsaw, 1880. Stereograph by Keystone View Company. (Tomasz Wisniewski, www.szukamypolski.com)

The emancipation of Jews, introduced in 1862 by the governor-general, Aleksander Wielopolski, a Pole whom Alexander II appointed to pacify the kingdom, was not rescinded after the uprising. Jews now enjoyed the right to settle freely in Warsaw and live anywhere in the city. They could hold office and practice trades from which they had formerly been barred, and discriminatory taxes, such as the levy for living in Warsaw and the tax on kosher meat, were abolished. Among Polish political activists, the dominant intellectual tone was now set by a new group, called the Positivists. They believed that the uprisings of 1830 and 1863 had failed because they had appealed to too narrow a circle of Polish society. One of the Positivists’ main aims was to incorporate previously marginalized groups—peasants, women, and Jews—into the nation. They favored a policy of Polonization that would make Jews into “Poles of the Mosaic faith.” This would be achieved through education, which would end Jewish separateness and “introduce the Jewish masses to the common norms of life,” and would help to preserve Polish national identity. In their view, moreover, Jews also possessed qualities such as thrift and industry that the Poles would have to acquire if they were to create an industrial society. Positivist views found a ready echo within the acculturated minority of the Jewish community. This group controlled the kehilah (or Warszawska Gmina Starozakonnych, the Warsaw Jewish Council), which retained important responsibilities for many aspects of Jewish life, including education. They achieved this by making a tactical alliance with the Hasidim on the kehilah council. This alliance, which lasted until 1926, left the internal affairs of the community in Hasidic hands, while contacts with the outside world were delegated to Polonizing Jews.

One sign of the acculturated Jews’ ascendancy was the construction of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street. This impressive building, consecrated in 1878, continued the religious traditions of the Daniłowiczowska and Nalewki Street synagogues. The assimilationists also sought to propagate their views through the press, above all in the weekly Izraelita, published from 1866 to 1915, which stoutly defended the assimilationist position. Under its first editor, Szmul Hirsz Peltyn, it identified with the Warsaw Positivists and the principles of the European Enlightenment, opening its pages not only to Jews, but also to leading Polish writers. It assailed Jewish religious conservatism, calling for the immersion of Jews in European culture and an end of isolation.

Members of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party marching in a May Day Parade, Warsaw, 1927. The Polish and Yiddish slogans on their placards include "Down with Facism" and "Long Live a Jewish Workers’ Society in Palestine! (YIVO)

The assimilationists succeeded in persuading the overwhelming majority of Jews to declare themselves Poles in the census of 1881, though their faith in the inevitable progress of Polish society toward secularism and toleration was shaken by the outbreak of a pogrom in Warsaw in December 1881. The financiers Jan Bogumił Bloch and Henryk Natanson enjoyed another success in 1886 when they were able to prevent the extension to the Congress Kingdom of the anti-Jewish laws introduced in the tsarist empire in May 1881.

Nevertheless, a number of developments helped undermine their position. The assimilationist hope that secular education would make possible a less prejudiced and divided society was frustrated by the slow development of publicly owned schools. New forces, above all Zionism and socialism, also began to influence the political life of the Jewish community and weakened the position of the assimilationists. New cultural movements—in particular, the development of Yiddish as a literary language—also had a major impact. It was in the 1890s that Y. L. Peretz settled in Warsaw and gathered a circle of Yiddish writers around him.

Within Polish society, the position of the Positivists was coming under attack. By the revolutionary period, 1904–1907, in the face of the challenge of the organic nationalism of Roman Dmowski and his National Democratic Movement (Endecja), it was almost entirely eroded. Still, in the freer period after 1905 a Jewish daily press developed in Warsaw. In 1906, five Yiddish newspapers were published there: Der veg, Di telegraf, Idishes tageblat, Morgenblat, and Di naye tsaytung had a combined daily circulation of 96,000. In the same year, three Hebrew daily newspapers—Ha-Yom, Ha-Tsefirah, and Ha-Tsofeh—had a combined daily circulation of only 12,000, while the single Polish-Jewish newspaper—Gazeta Nowa: Ludzkość—had a circulation of approximately 10,000. Two years later, Idishes tageblat changed its name to Haynt, which quickly established itself as the premier Yiddish newspaper in the Kingdom of Poland. Haynt’s founder and publisher, Shmuel Yankev Yatskan (Jackan), was a Zionist and a former contributor to the Hebrew-language paper Ha-Tsefirah. From its inception, Haynt, which followed the Odessa-based Aleksander Zederbaum’s practice of reprinting Yiddish fiction in serialized form, set new circulation records for Yiddish journalism, acquiring a circulation of more than 150,000 by 1913.

The degree to which Polish attitudes had changed was reflected in the elections to the Fourth Russian Duma in Warsaw in October 1912. In response to the failure of the Polish liberal candidate explicitly to condemn antisemitism, the Jewish members of the restricted electoral curia, on which they were a relative majority, elected a socialist. This was followed by a boycott of Jewish shops organized by the Polish National Democratic Party led by Dmowski. The boycott was frequently accompanied by violence. The situation was a far cry from the high hopes of Polish–Jewish brotherhood in 1861–1863.

World War I and After

Children's writer and editor Janina Mortkowicz and her daughter Hanna, a poet and also a writer for children, Warsaw, 1925. (YIVO)

The outbreak of World War I saw a further deterioration of the economic and political position of Warsaw Jews. Both the tsarist authorities and the National Democrats saw Jews as supporting the German war effort. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jews enthusiastically welcomed the Russian defeats in the spring of 1915 and that people of Jewish origin constituted a significant proportion of the officers and soldiers of the Polish legions set up by Marshal Jósef Piłsudski to fight alongside the Austrians.

German rule in Warsaw from 6 August 1915 until November 1918 saw a major revival of Jewish political life. Banned Jewish newspapers reappeared and many new ones were established. German rule also made possible the creation of a Jewish private school system that came to form the basis of the Zionist, Bundist, and Orthodox school networks in interwar Poland. The period of German occupation also saw an improvement in Polish–Jewish relations. Polish groups that supported the Central Powers, generally referred to as “activists,” had been at odds with the National Democrats before the war, and were, by and large, less likely to indulge in anti-Jewish demagogy. When elections to the city council were held in Warsaw, the more moderate Jewish groups (Zionists, Orthodox, and assimilationists), anxious to avoid a repetition of the debacle of 1912, reached an agreement with the principal Polish political organizations to divide the seats. That agreement gave Jews a significantly smaller percentage of seats than their percentage of the city’s population.

Józef Jaszuński, director of operations in Poland for ORT (Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia) (standing, second from right) with American ORT official, D. J. Brown (left), on a visit to a sewing course for girls, Warsaw, 1935. (2nd from left) Irena Pushkin, Brown's interpreter; (right) Mrs. Brandes. Photograph by Leo Forbert. (YIVO)

Warsaw again became the capital of an independent Polish state in November 1918, with the defeat of the Central Powers. A large civil service now made its home in the city. Warsaw was the focus of the country’s political life, and cultural activity of all sorts flourished. At the same time, the loss of the Russian market, on which the city’s prosperity had been largely dependent, meant that its industries suffered. The Great Depression of the 1930s intensified the difficulties. These developments conditioned the situation of its Jewish community, which was still the largest in Europe.

Warsaw’s Jewish population grew from 310,000 in 1921 to 352,000 in 1931 and 375,000 on the eve of World War II. The Jewish proportion of the total population fell in these years from 33.1 to 29.1 percent. This was the result both of a fall in the Jewish birth rate relative to that of the population as a whole and the increased immigration of non-Jews to the city. The heart of Jewish Warsaw still remained in the north of the city, in the complex of streets around Nalewki. Here were found the main Jewish restaurants and an active street life with markets and peddlers. But Jews were also found in significant numbers throughout the city. The social structure of the community did not alter greatly from the prewar period. The census of 1931 showed that 47 percent of Warsaw Jews were employed in industry (mostly in small factories or artisan workshops), while 33 percent were in commerce and insurance, 4 percent in education and culture, 4 percent in medicine and health, and 1 percent in public and social services. The census also divided the population into socio-occupational groups, giving a useful picture of the social composition of Warsaw Jewry (see Table 1).

Table 1: Socio-occupational Structure of Warsaw by Ethnoreligious Affiliation, 1931

The trends in Jewish political and cultural life that had emerged in the years before 1914 and during World War I now became firmly established. Though still influential socially and culturally, the assimilationists’ vision of a Poland in which Jews would be full and equal citizens—“Poles of the Mosaic faith”—seemed ever less attainable. Jewish political life came to be characterized by a threefold division—Zionism, Orthodoxy, and socialism, although each of these ideological camps included a plethora of subdivisions. The Folkist party, which sought Jewish cultural autonomy, was also vigorous in the first years of Polish independence. All these groupings were strong in Warsaw, which became one of the main arenas of the struggle for control of the “Jewish street.”

Warsaw Jews, like most of Polish Jewry, supported the coup of May 1926 that returned Piłsudski to power. The years following the coup were extremely fruitful in the cultural sphere. The Yiddish press flourished and reached a combined daily circulation of 170,000 in 1932–1933. The most important papers published in Warsaw were Haynt and Moment (unaffiliated Zionist), Folks-tsaytung (Bundist), and Yudishe togblat (Orthodox). By 1937–1938 Nasz Przegląd, a Polish-language daily with a largely Jewish readership, acquired a circulation of nearly 23,000 under the editorial direction of Jakub Appenszlak. Although the Hebrew press declined and many Hebrew writers left for Palestine, Jewish creativity flourished in both Yiddish and Polish, with writers such as Sholem Asch, Israel Joshua Singer, Antoni Słonimski, Julian Tuwim, and Adolf Rudnicki. It was in this environment that Isaac Bashevis Singer obtained his literary apprenticeship. A particularly important role in the cultural life of Yiddish Warsaw was played by the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists, which had its headquarters at 13 Tłomackie Street. Warsaw also consolidated its position as a major center of Yiddish publishing despite the economic difficulties of the 1930s.

Prominent Jewish writers, Warsaw, 1922. (Left to right) Esther (Esye) Elkin and her husband, director and actor Mendl Elkin; playwright Perets Hirshbeyn; poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg; Khane Kacyzne and her husband, the writer and photographer Alter Kacyzne; and poet Esther Shumiatsher, later married to Hirshbeyn. (YIVO)

In the interwar years, Warsaw played a crucial role in the development of the Jewish theater, music, and art. The most important local theatrical troupes were the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater (WIKT) founded by Zygmunt Turkow and Ida Kaminska, the daughter of Ester-Rokhl Kaminska; the New Warsaw Yiddish Theater (WNIT), organized by Jonas Turkow; and the Yung-teater (Young Theater) founded by Michał Weichert. These theaters presented not just the classics of Yiddish theater but also works by Shakespeare, Molière, Victor Hugo, Eugene O’Neill, and Theodore Dreiser. In addition, many theaters offered more popular entertainment in Yiddish. Jews were also an important part of the audience of the Polish theater, which flourished in those years and in which there were a number of actors of Jewish origin. There was also considerable contact between the Polish and Yiddish theater worlds. This interaction was especially a feature of cabaret, which played an important role in interwar Warsaw. Writers of Jewish origin, including Tuwim and Słonimski, wrote regularly for such cabarets as Qui Pro Quo and Morskie Oko, and Yiddish cabarets patterned on the Polish model were also established, of which the first was Azazel, founded in 1925. There were important Jewish choirs, among them the choir of the Tłomackie Street synagogue, and the Grosser Choir of the Bund.

Jewish scholarship also flourished. Majer Bałaban held a chair in Jewish History at Warsaw University, and the independent Institute for Jewish Studies (Instytut Nauk Judaistycznych) opened in 1928. Among the institute’s rectors were Bałaban, Mojżesz Schorr, Abraham Weiss, and Edmund Stein.

Table 2: Warsaw Population

The situation of Warsaw Jewry, as of the Jews in Poland as a whole, deteriorated seriously after the death of Marshal Piłsudski in May 1935. Calls for Polish Jewry to emigrate, the establishment of separate seating for Jews—the so-called “ghetto” benches—in the universities, a revived boycott of Jewish shops, and increased anti-Jewish violence were features of these years and undermined the security and stability of the Warsaw Jewish community. Zionists lost ground as the chances for Jewish emigration to Palestine diminished, and so did Agudas Yisroel, its policy of attempting to remain on good terms with the authorities seemingly bankrupt. The radical Revisionist Zionists, the Communists, and above all the Bund, became more important on the Jewish street. The Bund saw its influence in Jewish Warsaw grow greatly in these years, and in the local government elections in Warsaw in December 1938 it won 14 seats (61.7% of the Jewish vote), as opposed to 5 seats for the Jewish National Bloc (which included both Zionists and Agudas Yisroel) and one for the Democratic Zionists.

The Nazi Occupation

Part of the wall that sealed off the Warsaw ghetto from the rest of the city, at Okopowa Street, ca. 1940. (YIVO)

The Nazi invasion of 1939 and the Polish defeat ushered in the last phase in the history of Warsaw Jewry. The Germans did not implement their genocidal plans immediately after the occupation of western and central Poland in September 1939. Instead, they segregated Jews into ghettos, to be administered by Jewish councils “fully responsible in the literal sense of the word for the exact and punctual execution of all directives issued or yet to be issued.” The Warsaw ghetto, the largest within the Nazi New Order, was sealed on 16 November 1940. In order to create it, the Nazis compelled 113,000 Poles and 138,000 Jews to leave their homes. In the ghetto, which was sealed off from the outside world, perhaps half a million Jews were incarcerated in what was in effect a combination of the largest Jewish “prison city” in Europe and a forced labor camp.

During the first 15 months of its existence, the ghetto and its institutions seemed to achieve a modicum of stability. The Judenrat, headed by the assimilated engineer Adam Czerniaków, hoped by the sedulous implementation of the Germans’ directives to protect the Jews from the worst consequences of Nazi rule until the dawn of better times. The role of mediator between the German authorities and the inhabitants of the ghetto was a thankless one, and the Judenrat was soon the target of bitter attacks from those it was trying to serve. Indeed, the Germans well understood that by using the council to impose their will on the ghetto, they could deflect much Jewish hostility away from themselves.

Passersby and an adult who has collapsed from hunger on the sidewalk outside the offices of TOZ (Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population), Warsaw ghetto, ca. 1942. (YIVO)

Many of the leading members of the Judenrat had previously held positions in the Jewish community and clearly regarded themselves as charged with a special responsibility made all the heavier by the flight from Warsaw (along with many members of the Polish elite) of many Jewish leaders. Czerniaków’s diary shows him to have had little faith in the abilities of the average inhabitant of the ghetto, but it also shows his motives to have been above reproach. His sense of responsibility was also shared by a number of other leading members of the Judenrat.

The Judenrat’s position was further undermined by the presence within it of opportunists, to say nothing of outright German agents. Also, its policy of using indirect taxation to finance its needs bore heavily on the poorest elements in the ghetto. Similarly, when required to supply men for forced labor, the Judenrat tended to take those who had less influence or position. These policies were maintained despite of the establishment of public watchdog committees on which sat prominent social activists.

The Jewish Self-Help Organization, while loosely linked with the Judenrat, retained a degree of both integrity and independence and was the only Jewish body whose activities covered the whole of the Generalgouvernement and, until the entry of the United States into the war, continued to receive funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It attempted, above all, to use its resources to aid those sections of the population—refugees, starving children—who were neglected by the Social Welfare Department of the Judenrat, which, under German orders, was forced to favor “active” and “productive” members of the population.

Page from Emanuel Ringelblum's manuscript of Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941–1942, part of Oyneg Shabes, the secret ghetto archive. (YIVO)

The Self-Help Organization also gave financial support to the creators of the underground archive, Oyneg Shabes. The establishment of this archive was a characteristic feature of resistance in the ghetto. Its leaders were determined to record all aspects of the tragic ordeal they were undergoing. According to Emanuel Ringelblum, the guiding spirit of the archive, “Everyone wrote—journalists, authors, teachers, social activists, young people, even children.” Along with Ringelblum himself, the Oyneg Shabes group included many leading communal activists and writers, such as Shmuel Winter, Eliyahu Gutkowski, Hersh Wasser, Menakhem Kon, and Rabbi Shim‘on Huberband. They were determined to chronicle all aspects of life in the ghetto to serve as a record for future generations.

Initially the Nazis’ aim was to impoverish and plunder the Jews, while exploiting their labor. In the first 15 months of the ghetto’s existence, malnutrition, overcrowding, cold, and their attendant diseases led to the death of nearly 100,000 people. The decision to “solve” the Jewish question through mass murder was taken following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Most Warsaw Jews were murdered at Treblinka, a killing center on the railway line from Warsaw to Białystok. The deportations began on 22 July 1942, and for the next seven weeks the Nazis removed between 2,000 and 10,000 people a day from the ghetto. Altogether nearly 350,000 people perished in three major deportation waves: July–September 1942; January 1943; and April–May 1943. In addition, more than 10,000 died or were shot in violence accompanying the actions, 12,000 were sent to slave labor camps, and more than 20,000 sought refuge on the “Aryan” side. Armed resistance to the Nazis was discussed in political circles in the ghetto from July 1942. On 28 July 1942, the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ŻOB) was formed. This group made contact with the Polish underground movement and obtained some weapons from it. A smaller organization, dominated by revisionist Zionists and known as the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy; ŻZW) was also set up. It was clearly understood that any revolt, given the enormous disparity of the forces involved, would be suicidal, an assertion of Jewish dignity in the face of overwhelming Nazi power.

When the Nazis resumed deportations on 18 January 1943, ŻOB offered resistance. The Germans responded with a massive show of force. However, after several days, and the removal of about 6,500 people from the ghetto, they halted the deportations but returned on 19 April, intending to destroy the ghetto entirely. Resistance was now on a larger, more organized scale. For three weeks, members of the Jewish resistance fought the Germans with their small supply of weapons. In the unequal battle, almost all the Jewish resistance fighters, as well as most of the remaining Jews in the ghetto, were killed.

The Postwar Period

Hannah Fryshdorf, a participant in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, amid the ruins of the ghetto, ca. 1945. Fryshdorf, a member of Tsukunft, the youth movement of the Bund, immigrated to the United States and eventually became the assistant director of the YIVO Institute. (YIVO)

After 1945, perhaps 10,000 Jews returned to the Polish capital and an attempt was made to create the institutional basis for organized Jewish life. A Yiddish (Communist Party) newspaper, Folks-shtime, was created, the Yiddish theater of Ida Kamińska was reestablished, the Jewish Historical Institute was set up, and a religious congregation and Jewish Social and Cultural Society were founded. More acculturated and assimilated Jews were concentrated in the area of Mokotów, above and all around Puławska Street. Many of them, having regretted their enthusiastic support for the establishment of communism in Poland, became supporters of the reformist faction in the Polish United Workers Party after 1956 (the Puławska group). Attempts to create a viable Jewish community in Warsaw were vitiated by political conditions and the waves of emigration in 1945–1947, 1956, and 1968. Since 1989, Jewish life has begun to revive, but it will be a great challenge to ensure the survival for another generation of what is left of what was once the largest Jewish community in Europe. Today in Warsaw there are 500 registered members of the Jewish community, about 2,000 Jews who belong to some Jewish organization, and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 who are in some way Jewishly connected. The city is home to a Jewish elementary school, a theater, the Jewish Historical Institute, a synagogue, a Reform congregation, and a kosher cafeteria. There is also a Jewish Student Organization, a Maccabi sport club, and a number of periodicals, most notably the monthly Midrasz.

Certainly, much has been done to preserve some memory of the history of the community. New monuments have been erected on the Umschlagplatz, from which the overwhelming majority of Warsaw Jews were sent to Treblinka, and in the ghetto; the Nozyk synagogue has been restored; and much has been done to preserve the two great Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw, on Okopowa Street and in Bródno (Praga). A Jewish Museum in Warsaw is also being planned.

Suggested Reading

Władisław T. Bartoszewski and Antony Polonsky, eds., The Jews in Warsaw (Oxford, 1991); Stanislaus Blejwas, “Polish Positivism and the Jews,” Jewish Social Studies 46.1 (1984): 21–36; Nathan Cohen, Sefer, sofer ve-‘iton: Merkaz ha-tarbut ha-yehudit be-Varshah, 1918–1942 (Jerusalem, 2003); Stephen D. Corrsin, Warsaw before the First World War: Poles and Jews in the Third City of the Russian Empire, 1880–1914 (Boulder, Colo., 1989); Marian Fuks, Żydzi w Warszawie: Życie codzienne, wydarzenia, ludzie (Poznań, Pol., 1992); Alexander Guterman, Me-Hitbolelut la-le’umiyut (Jerusalem, 1993); Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, trans. Ina Friedman (Bloomington, Ind., 1982); Emanuel Ringelblum, Żydzi w Warsawie (Warsaw, 1932); Ruta Sakowska, Ludzie z dzielnicy zamkniętej; Z dziejów Żydów w Warszawie w latach okupacji hitlerowskiej październik 1939–marczec 1943, 2nd ed. (Warsaw, 1993); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, 3 vols. (New York, 1947–1953); Michael Steinlauf, “The Polish-Jewish Daily Press,” Polin 2 (1987): 219–245; Edward D. Wynot, Warsaw between the World Wars: Profile of the Capital City in a Developing Land, 1918–1939 (Boulder, Colo., 1983); Gabriela Zalewska, Ludność żydowska w Warszawie w okresie międzywojennym (Warsaw, 1996).