Tombstone of David ben Sar Shalom. The oldest Jewish tombstone in Poland, it is dated 1203, Wrocław. Photograph by Marcin Wodziński. (Courtesy of the photographer)

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Capital city of the province of Lower Silesia, in Poland. The first reference to Jews in the vicinity of Wrocław (Lat., Vratislavia; Ger., Breslau; Czech, Vratislav) dates to before 1153; the next citation is from the beginning of the thirteenth century. The oldest Jewish gravestone, dated 1203 (for David ben Sar Shalom), indicates that there probably was permanent Jewish settlement at that time. In 1267, a synod of bishops in Wrocław imposed limitations on the Jewish population, yet the restrictions were probably never implemented. The first privilege was granted in about 1273 by Duke Henry IV Probus, confirmed by his successor Henry V in about 1290 (neither has been preserved). At that time, Wrocław had the largest Jewish community in East Central Europe after Prague. The main occupations of Jews were moneylending, trade, and, marginally, artisanry.

Stores owned by Jews in Plac Solny (Salt Square), Breslau (Wrocław, now in Poland), ca. 1900: (left) hat store owned by S. Lewandowski; (center) textile firm owned by Eduard Bielschowsky. Photograph by Eduard van Delden and Heinrich Götz. (Wrocław University Library, Poland)

In the fourteenth century, the situation of Jews rapidly declined. After a pogrom in 1349, only 5 or 6 families out of 70 remained; another pogrom took place in 1360. The Jewish community was expelled in 1453, under the influence of the Franciscan friar John Capistrano (1386–1456) and following a trial for the alleged profanation of the Host, after which 41 people were burned on the stake. In 1455, the Czech king Ladislaus (the town came under the Bohemian rule in the mid-fourteenth century) granted the status de non tolerandis Judaeis to the town. From that time, Jews could visit only during fairs, as Wrocław remained one of the most important centers of international trade for Polish Jews.

Although the imperial mintmaster, Isaac Meyer, supplier and supervisor of the imperial mint, had lived in the city from 1546 to 1548, the beginnings of modern settlement were connected with the activities of Zacharias Lazarus, also a supplier to the emperor’s mint, in the second half of the seventeenth century. Other suppliers and merchants settled in suburban areas, which were owned by the church rather than subject to municipal jurisdiction; Jews could settle in these districts after obtaining the consent of the owner. At the same time, the town council allowed Jews to stay in Wrocław after a fair for the period necessary to conclude transactions. In the 1670s, under pressure from the Council of Four Lands, the so-called Schamesse (beadles)—Jews representing the interests of Jewish communities or supra-kehilah organizations from Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia—were allowed to settle permanently. In 1722, about 775 Jews were living in Wrocław, most of them illegally. In 1738 Emperor Charles VI ordered the explusion of all “unprivileged” Jews (i.e., those without residence rights).

After Silesia was annexed by Prussia, Frederick II in 1744 approved the existence of a Jewish community in Wrocław, officially defining its status. The number of Jews grew from 534 in 1747 (1.1% of the total population); in 1810, there were 3,255 (5.2%). By the end of the eighteenth century, Wrocław had become an important Haskalah center, home to activists Ephraim Kuh (1731–1790), Elias Henschel (1755–1839), Joel Loewe-Brill (1762–1802), and David Zamość (1789–1864). A Haskalah-oriented school functioned in the city as well.

Certificate issued by Zacharias Frankel, Director of Jewish Theological Seminary, Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Pol.), 28 April 1862. The document attests that Michael Holzmann from Ostrowo attended the seminary from Michaelis 1854 to Easter 1862 and earned the marks of "good" in behavior and "satisfactory" in studies. German. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Integration processes intensified following the Emancipation Act of 1812, which granted most civic rights to Prussian Jews. In the 1830s and the 1840s, Breslau was the scene of a controversy between rabbis Shelomoh Tiktin (d.1843), who was Orthodox, and Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), a leader of Reform Judaism, resulting in the division of the community into Orthodox and Liberal congregations. Breslau was home to the Jewish Theological Seminary, established in 1854, which became a prototype of an academic institution for Conservative Judaism and a center of Wissenschaft des Judentums. Among those who taught there were Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), Heinrich Graetz (1817–1819), Marcus Brann (1849–1920), and Saul Horowitz (1858–1921).

Until the 1860s, the numbers and the material status of Jews in Breslau grew quickly. From the 1870s, slower growth of the Jewish population in absolute numbers was accompanied by a decrease in the city’s population in general. At the same time, the economic and social-cultural position of Jews improved as they became active in the city council and cultural societies. Outstanding figures included the botanist Ferdinand Julius Cohn (1828–1898), the physician and biologist Leopold Auerbach (1828–1897), the physician Albert Neisser (1855–1916), and the physicist and Nobel laureate Max Born (1882–1970). Other notable figures included Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864), founder of the socialist movement; Fritz Haber (1868–1934), the physical chemist and Nobel laureate; Julius Guttmann (1880–1950), the philosopher; and Norbert Elias (1897–1990), the sociologist.

Table: Jewish Population of Wrocław

A decline in the economy of the city in the early decades of the twentieth century affected Jews no less than their neighbors. This period saw an influx of Ostjuden, who increased the number and proportion of Jews in Wrocław (in 1925 there were 23,240, or 4.2% of the total population), which led to changes in the Jewish community’s occupational structure and an exacerbation of relations with gentiles. After 1918, the number and brutality of antisemitic acts increased, and in 1920 Bernhard Schottländer, a socialist journalist, was murdered.

The situation worsened dramatically after Hitler came to power in 1933. Jews were deprived of most civil rights, and the so-called Aryanization of property began. During the Reichskristallnacht in 1938, the largest synagogue was burned down and Jewish properties were vandalized. From November 1941 to the summer of 1944, Jews from Wrocław and Lower Silesia were deported in 11 transports. The first went to Kaunas, where everyone was shot. The next transports, between April 1942 and the summer of 1944, were sent to the camps of Sobibór, Bełżec, Terezín, and Auschwitz. Some Jews were temporarily sent to labor camps. In January 1945, the last 150 Jews were transported to Gross-Rosen, where they were murdered.

From May 1945, Wrocław served as the transit location for Jews returning from Nazi camps in Silesia and Poland. Beginning in the spring of 1946, repatriates from former Polish territories annexed by the Soviet Union arrived in several waves. Wrocław was then the largest Jewish community in Poland; in July 1946, a total of 78,044 Jews were registered in Lower Silesia, including 17,747 in Wrocław. After the pogrom in Kielce (July 1946), the numbers fell considerably. In the spring of 1947, about 45,000 Jews (48% of all Jews in Poland) were registered in Lower Silesia, including about 15,000 in Wrocław.

Magazine advertisement for locomotive factory of Smoschewer & Co., a Jewish-owned firm, Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Pol.), ca. 1920. The company had branches in Prague and Bucharest, among other places. Published in Deutschlands Städtebau—Breslau by Georg Hallama (Berlin: 1924). (Wrocław University Library, Poland)

After World War II, Wrocław contained legal and illegal political parties; the Provincial Jewish Committee; a religious community; preschools, primary, and secondary schools; ORT; TOZ; Jewish cooperatives; and a Jewish theater with its star director Jakub Rotbaum (1901–1994). In 1949–1950, the state put an end to independent social service organizations, creating instead the dependent Jewish Social-Cultural Society. Emigration resulted in a decease of the population to 3,800 in 1960. As a result of state-sponsored antisemitism in 1967–1968, the Jewish theater and a school were confiscated and emigration intensified.

A revival of the Jewish community began in the late 1980s, with the greatest contribution coming from its chairman, Jerzy Kichler. In 2000 Wrocław again had a Jewish Social-Cultural Society, a Jewish school, and self-education societies. Jewish organizations in the city now have about 400 members, but the community board estimates that the overall number of people of Jewish origin in Wrocław is considerably higher.

Suggested Reading

Marcus Brann, Geschichte der Juden in Schlesien, 6 vols. (Breslau, 1896–1917); Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City (London, 2002); Manfred Hettling, Andreas Reinke, and Norbert Conrads, eds., In Breslau zu Hause?: Juden in einer mitteleuropäischen Metropole der Neuzeit (Hamburg, 2003); Till van Rahden, Juden und andere Breslauer: Die Beziehungen zwischen Juden, Protestanten und Katholiken in einer deutschen Grossstadt von 1860 bis 1925 (Göttingen, Ger., 2000); Leszek Ziątkowski, Dzieje Żydów we Wrocławiu (Wrocław, Pol., 2000), also in German translation as Die Geschichte der Juden in Breslau (Wrocław, Pol., 2000).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 116, Territorial Collection: Germany 2, , 1939-1945; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Germany 1, , 16th c.-1932, 1946-1950s.



Translated from Polish by Bartek Madejski