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THE JEWS IN POLAND

But the real pre-history for the Jews themselves lay in Poland, using that term to cover the territory (now in Ukraine and Belarus) that fell to Russia in the partitions, and without going into the details of the interplay between 'Poland' and 'Lithuania.'

This 'Poland' had become a place of refuge for Jews, both from the East (Khazars etc) and German Jews from the West. According to Leon Poliakov in his History of Antisemitism: 'In a country with a rudimentary economy, whose population consisted only of nobles and serfs, the Jews soon gained a dominant role in all activities connected to the circulation of goods and money. It is certain that at first they lived in a state of excellent harmony with the Christians. We have already had many occasions to make this observation and I believe we can see a constant link between the moral state of an uncultivated population, only barely worked by the teachings of Christianity, not having yet learned to harbour any particular suspicions with regard to the so-called 'deicide' race, and its primitive state of economic development, allowing the Jews to assert themselves in a field where they didn't yet have any competition.' (5)

(5)  Léon Poliakov: Histoire de l'antisémitisme. t.1. L'âge de la foi, Calmann-Lévy, 1981. This and the following extracts from pp.388-394. An English translation exists but since I don't have easy access to library facilities, I am using my own translation of the original French.

He says that some of the earliest Polish coins, from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, carry inscriptions in Hebrew. A substantial hostility to Jews began to manifest itself from the end of the fourteenth century (accusations of ritual murder and profanations of the Host) and at the end of the fifteenth century they were expelled from Warsaw and Cracow. (6) But, says Poliakov:

'the economic and even administrative positions the Jews could fall back on were so solid, so profoundly rooted in the social foundations of the country right up to modern times, that it was impossible to remove them. Contrary to what happened in the West, where the numerical weakness of the Jews would in the end facilitate their economic integration and cultural assimilation, the existence in the East of a Jewish social class would result in the appearance of a real nation sui generis.' (p.390)

(6)  In the 1795 partition, Warsaw went to Prussia and  Cracow to Austria.

Poliakov sees this numerical strength as being maintained by a constant influx from the West, from Germany, in particular following massacres that accompanied the Black Plague. He thinks that already in the fifteenth century their number was approaching 100,000, 'a number that is certainly open to question but the first systematic census, conducted around 1765, shows that they made up 10% of the population of the country. Given such a solid demographic basis, they exercised all crafts, held a monopoly in some of them and were organised along the lines of a state within a state.'

They didn't live in ghettos, they fulfilled essential administrative functions, notably tax and customs collections, set up industries, worked closely as assistants to the local nobility (as 'court-Jews - very little courts of course, given the anarchic fragmentation of power in Poland at hat time'). 'Overall, it is true to say that in Poland they formed a whole social class - that urban middle class that had taken so long to form in Poland. Last distinctive characteristic: contrary to the great flexibility which previously their ancestors had shown in quickly adopting the normal language of the European countries where they were installed, the Polish Jews maintained the use of German, which became yiddish ...'

This predominance of a version of German seems to suggest that there were many more Jews of Western origin than of Eastern, but Poliakov suggests that it was more a matter of cultural prestige than of numbers. Very important for the subsequent development in Russia was the tight social organisation of the Jewish communities:

'It is not surprising, given what  has just been said, that the Jews in Poland enjoyed a very high degree of internal autonomy, not just on a local but also on a national level. They more or less administered themselves, following a constitution which could be called customary and federal. At the local level there was the community, or 'kahal' which corresponded to a particular territorial area and included together with the Jews of a town of whatever importance those who lived in the surrounding area. The government of the kahal was oligarchic' chosen by the richest and most influential members of the community. They looked after the collection of taxes, public order, the synagogue, a strictly regulated labour market. They chose the rabbi 'a most important personage since his moral authority was reinforced by powers in judicial matters. He was by right president of the Judicial Commission, the kahal's tribunal'. The kahal presided over a number of other commissions looking after charitable works, ransom of Jewish prisoners, care for the elderly, refugees, poor students etc and, very importantly, the proper respect for the dead.

This organisation 'was favoured by the Polish authorities for whom it was convenient to raise taxes globally and by community and consequently to be dealing with a strong community power. Later these authorities decided that it would be even more convenient to impose a single global sum of money annually on all the Jews at once, requiring them themselves to share out responsibility among the different communities. As a result the consultations and meetings which had been taking place among representatives of the kahals in a sporadic and irregular manner acquired a great importance. Starting in the second half of the sixteenth century these representatives would meet twice yearly in the Fair in Lublin in the spring and that of Yaroslav in Galicia in the Autumn ... the federal chamber thus put together, a real Jewish parliament with thirty or so members, was called the 'Council of the Four Lands' and it wasn't without good reason that contemporaries compared it to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Never, in fact, had the Jews in Europe enjoyed such a degree of autonomy.'

The contrast with Germany is striking. Where legal documents relating to Jews in Germany took the form of requirements imposed on the Jews who were not considered to be a legal entity in their own right, in Poland they took the form of ugody - contracts agreed between Christians and the legally accredited representatives of the Jewish community. According to an academic account of the ugody system:

'In order to assess the origin of the legal agreements between Christian burghers and Jews in early modern Poland, one thinks first of those German territories from which the great majority of Polish Jews originated. In the course of the sixteenth century, German Jewry suffered expulsions from most large urban centres, including some of the most prestigious and ancient communities in German land, as well as from most Imperial cities. In sharp contrast to developments in Poland, where the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries are considered the "Golden Age" of Jewish communal life, marked by a significant extension of autonomous rights and the flourishing of prominent communities, German Jewish communities suffered what Yitshak Baer called a process of "atomisation" by which he meant their reduction into small and dispersed aggregates, mostly in rural areas (the landjudenschaften) dependent on the goodwill of local or regional princes ...' (7) 

(7)  François Guesnet: 'Agreements between neighbours. The 'ugody' as a source on Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Poland, Jewish History, Vol 24, No 3/4, 2010, p.263.

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