The Jewish community in Warsaw has a rich history. It is undoubtedly the story of one of the largest, most interesting and varied communities in the history of the Jewish people.
There has been a Jewish presence in Warsaw since the time it became the capitol of the small province in the Mazovia Principality. There was a Jewish settlement on the northwest outskirts of the Old Town, between Dunai and Piekarska Streets. There was a synagogue there and a cemetery further away, near the site of the Bristol Hotel today. The Jews were exiled from Warsaw towards the end of the 14th century by one of the Mazovian princes and the edict prohibiting Jews from residing in Warsaw remained in effect until the 19th century. In spite of that, as Warsaw became an important political-cultural center, more Jews were allowed to settle on its periphery, since the nobility recognized that the Jews represented a significant commercial force. The nobles exploited their right to rule over autonomous territories, and brought Jews to live under their protection. Legally, this system was called Juridica. Thus, the Potocki family, in the 18th century, created the neighborhood Nowy Potok, today the area of the Hotel Sobieski. The Sulkowski family established New Jerusalem – the street leading to the area is still called Aleje Jerozolimskie [Jerusalem Blvd].
In the beginning of the 19th century, the Leczczynski family founded a neighborhood, and hence the name of Leszno Street. A Venetian architect designed the Muranow neighborhood, and named it after the city of his birth, Merrano. Jews in increasingly large numbers also settled in the Praga district. One of the neighborhoods still carries the name Szmulowizna, in honor of the Jewish merchant Shmuel Zbytkower, who also received permission to build Jewish cemeteries, first in the Praga district, and later, on the western bank of the Vistula.
With the Prussian regime came the partition of Poland. During the period of the Napoleonic principality of Warsaw, and later Congress Poland, (named for the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which transferred control of Warsaw and the surrounding area from Prussia to Russia, and hence the name of all the territory annexed by Czarist Russia), more and more Jews settled in Warsaw. After the removal of all special tax restrictions on the rights of Jews in the city in 1862, Jews settled in all sections of Warsaw. Most of them, for economic, cultural and religious reasons, continued to reside in those areas where Jews were the majority.
The Jewish population of Warsaw grew significantly – from about 10,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to approximately 350,000 by the end of World War 1. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe at that time. Like all of European Jewry in the 19th century, the Jews of Warsaw vacillated between assimilation and attempts to preserve a distinctive Jewish character in their lives. The relationship between the Poles and the Jews changed frequently: there were periods of cooperation, active inclusion of Jews in Polish struggles for independence, and the protection and advancement of Jewish culture, followed by periods of crises, often with the “help” of the Russian powers, who practiced a policy of “divide and conquer”.
During the 19th century, two distinct approaches to the relationship with the Jews developed among the Poles. One approach – the romantic, liberal, democratic and later socialistic one – called for the inclusion of the Jews and other minorities in Polish civic life. Others took a different approach – the nationalistic, religious one. This group viewed the Jews and the German minority as eternal enemies and developed a politically motivated anti-Semitism, especially towards the end of the century. This modern antisemitism served to compound ancient antisemitism already prevalent in Polish society, especially in religious circles and among those who controlled financial competition. The PPS, The Polish Socialist Party, headed by Jozef Pilsudski, was founded in the 1890’s. In opposition to the Socialists, the ND, the National Democratic Party, called the Endeks, headed by Roman Dmowski, was established. A third political force was the Farmers’ Party, led by Wincenty Witos, which served as a balance.
Jewish figures like Berek Joselewicz [Yoselevich], Rabbi Meisels, Michael Landy and Henryk Wohl – are remembered for taking active roles in the history of the shared homeland. On the other hand, antisemitism, economic struggles and even riots -usually instigated by the Cossacks – were also prevalent. During the 19th century, the growing and developing Warsaw became a magnet for Jews, who streamed into the city for economic reasons, but also in order to obtain an education and participate in the building of a modern city.
Several Jewish families became influential in the financial, cultural and municipal life of the city. Scions of many families (Kronenberg, Nathanson, Berenson, Wawelberg, Bloch, Toeplitz and others) converted under pressure and are buried in cemeteries belonging to the different faiths. These families were major contributors to the development of education and trade in Warsaw. Yet thousands of Jews continued to live in poverty, with no electricity or running water.
Leopold Kronenberg (1812-1878). Banker, Industrialist and major philanthropist. He built the railway lines connecting Warsaw to St. Petersburg, Minsk, and Brest, and other places. He and his family assimilated and converted.
Warsaw became the center of Jewish activity. The Gur Rabbi temporarily established his court there while some progressive rabbis such as Kramsztyk and Jastrow preached a different approach. Zionism was an important force. At the same time a rabbinical school was established – a school which preached involvement in the life of the city, but produced not a single rabbi. Jewish schools were established and contributed to Jewish creativity in the Polish language. A Hebrew and Yiddish cultural center was also established.
While Polish society with its many different political parties became more united, all the conflicting Jewish ideologies flourished. At the same time, new ideas were burgeoning in the Jewish world. In independent Poland, Jews had been equal citizens by law since 1918 yet many began to feel more and more like strangers. In the streets of Warsaw, every fourth person was a Jew. Among them you could find rabbis from Agudat Israel, Zionists, leaders of the Bund and classic Polish intellectuals of Jewish background. Youth movements were active in the city, representing the entire range of political parties, educational trends, and community institutions. And all of these were constantly meeting and debating issues, fighting and arguing in a never-ending stream of Jewish creativity. Ten daily newspapers and several monthlies were published. Jews boxed, rode bikes and participated in many organized sports. Meir Balaban, Moshe Shorr, Yitzhak Shiper and the young Emanuel Ringelblum laid down the foundation of Jewish historiography and Shimon Ashkenazi and Marceli Handelsman joined forces with them. Jewish culture thrived – theatre, cabaret satirical performances, movies and literature. The most outstanding 20th century Polish authors and poets met in Cafe Ziminski – the Jewish writers, Julian Tuwim, Slonimski, Lesmian and Schulz. The Singer brothers, Sholem Asch, I.L. Peretz and others, sat somewhere in Krochmalna Street or in the Yiddish Authors House on Tlomacka Street.