Jewish History in Poland Before World War II

The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was the centre of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. This ended with the Partitions of Poland which began in 1772, in particular, with the discrimination and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. During World War II there was a nearly complete genocidal destruction of the Polish Jewish community by Nazi Germany, during the 1939–1945 German occupation of Poland and the ensuing Holocaust. Since the fall of Communism there has been a Jewish revival in Poland, characterized by the annual Jewish Culture Festival, new study programmes at Polish high schools and universities, the work of synagogues such as the Nozyk, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. Known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise for the Jews”), it became a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world’s largest Jewish community of the time. According to some sources, about three-quarters of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century. With the weakening of the Commonwealth and growing religious strife (due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century onward. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire, as well as Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia (later a part of the German Empire). Still, as Poland regained independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was the center of the European Jewish world with one of world’s largest Jewish communities of over 3 million. Antisemitism, however, from both the political establishment and from the general population, common throughout Europe, was a growing problem.

Appian Way

Begun in 312 BC, the Appian Way is perhaps the most famous Roman road of all. It was wide enough for two carts to pass in opposite directions or for five soldiers to march side by side. Building the Appian Way was a massive undertaking, but the excellent craftsmanship of the road was apparent for centuries.

Ancient Rome was famous for many things, many of them big and flashy. Gladiators, triumphs, and emperors often spring to mind, but perhaps Rome’s most enduring contribution to history is more humble: their roads (which all led back to Rome), a vast, interconnected network spanning as many as 322.000 km at its maximum.

Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain

The huge Roman aqueduct built in Segovia, Spain, by the Roman Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117).

One of the best preserved Roman engineering works, the structure was constructed from approximately 24,000 dark colored Guadarrama granite blocks without the use of mortar. The above ground part is 2,388 feet long. And it consists of approximately 165 arches that are more than 30 feet in height.

The Black Death (The Plague)

The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or the Plague) was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread by fleas, but it can also take a secondary form where it is spread person-to-person contact via aerosols causing septicaemic or pneumonic plagues.

The Black Death was the beginning of the second plague pandemic. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.

Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed the plague, which devastated medieval Europe.

The origin of the Black Death is disputed. The pandemic originated either in Central Asia or East Asia but its first definitive appearance was in Crimea in 1347. From Crimea, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese ships, spreading through the Mediterranean Basin and reaching Africa, Western Asia and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. There is evidence that once it came ashore, the Black Death mainly spread person-to-person as pneumonic plague, thus explaining the quick inland spread of the epidemic, which was faster than would be expected if the primary vector was rat fleas causing bubonic plague.

A hand showing how acral gangrene of the fingers due to bubonic plague causes the skin and flesh to die and turn black.

The Black Death was the second great natural disaster to strike Europe during the Late Middle Ages (the first one being the Great Famine of 1315–1317) and is estimated to have killed 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population, as well as about one-third of the population of the Middle East. The plague might have reduced the world population from c.  475 million to 350–375 million in the 14th century. There were further outbreaks throughout the Late Middle Ages and, with other contributing factors the European population did not regain its level in 1300 until 1500. Outbreaks of the plague recurred around the world until the early 19th century.

Hellenistic Tesserakonteres: Largest Human-Powered Vessels In History

Hellenistic Tesserakonteres: Largest Human-Powered Vessels In History

During the Hellenistic era, heavy polyremes warships such as hexaremes, septiremes, etc, became fairly common and were definitely used in battle, although the pentere remained the main line-of-battle galley.

“Appearing at the end of the fourth century BC in the fleet of Demetrios Poliorketes, these super-galleys expanded quickly to reach the level of twenty and thirty rows of oars and culminate, towards the end of the third century BC, with the forty of Ptolemy IV Philopator powered by 4000 rowers.”

~Patrice Pomey.

During the war between Ptolemaios Keraunos and Antigonos Gonatas, the Heraklean fleet (which fought on Keraunos’ side) was made up of “hexaremes, penteres and an octere”. The latter, probably the flagship, had 1600 oarsmen and 1200 soldiers and mariners on the decks, and two helmsmen. Memnon states that this giant ship was actually effective during the battle.

“These warships resembled to floating fortresses, very similar in size to the modern battleships and aircraft carriers. The tessarakonteres had a crew of 6.000 men (officers, oarsmen, sailors, marines and others), as many as a modern aircraft carrier.”

~Periklis Deligiannis.

Stats of the tesserakonteres: Length: 130 m. Beam: 17 m per catamaran hull. Longest rowing oars: 17 m. Oarsmen: 4,000, officers, ratings, deckhands: 400, Marines: 2,850.

Source & Illustration: Paweł Moszczyński for Mówią Wieki Magazine, Feb. 2010.

Medieval Vampire Defense

If your local villagers neglected to unearth and stake a suspected vampire and he or she has returned from the grave, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. The exact method varies around the world, but in some traditions the best way to stop a vampire is to carry a small bag of salt with you. If you are being chased, you need only to spill the salt on the ground behind you, at which point the vampire is obligated to stop and count each and every grain before continuing the pursuit. If you don’t have salt handy, some say that any small granules will do, including birdseed or sand. Salt was often placed above and around doorways for the same reason. 

Some traditions hold that vampires cannot enter a home unless formally invited in. This may have been an early form of the modern “stranger danger” warnings to children, a scary reminder against inviting unknown people into the house.

Medieval Ways To Identify A Potential Vampire

Interest and belief in revenants (one that returns after death or a long absence) surged in the Middle Ages in Europe. Though in most modern stories the classic way to become a vampire is to be bitten by one, that is a relatively new twist. In his book “Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality” (Yale, 2008), folklorist Paul Barber noted that centuries ago, “Often potential revenants can be identified at birth, usually by some abnormality, some defect, as when a child is born with teeth. Similarly suspicious are children born with an extra nipple (in Romania, for example); with a lack of cartilage in the nose, or a split lower lip (in Russia) … When a child is born with a red caul, or amniotic membrane, covering its head, this was regarded throughout much of Europe as presumptive evidence that it is destined to return from the dead.” Such minor deformities were looked upon as evil omens at the time.

Roman Baths

Roman baths, used for both socializing and cleaning, were a marvel of engineering. The water was heated by the fire lit under the pool and the hot air was circulated between the walls of the bath; so that both the water temperature and the temperature of the building would remain constant. The water used in the Roman baths was generally carried from the water source to the bath with the help of aqueducts.

The dirty water coming out of the baths had a function. These dirty waters were drained from the canal and used to clean the dirty canals of the latrinas (Public Toilet) next to the baths.

For the Romans, these baths were an important part of daily life. They would go every day and stay for a few hours. The wealthy Romans used to come with their slaves. The slaves brought in usually took on the task of carrying towels and drinks. Before bathing in Roman baths, sports exercises were done. Running, weight lifting and wrestling are examples of these. After the exercises, the servants would smear their masters with oil and then scrape off the oil with the help of a board or bone. In this way, great dirt would be removed.

In the Roman bath, body cleaning was done with an apparatus called strigilis. With this apparatus, sweat, sand and dust sticking to the body were removed, and then the body was lubricated in the area called aleipterion.

Roman baths were also present inside various palaces or castles. The Romans used the same name (Thermae) for them as well. The design of the baths is mentioned a lot on Vitruvius’ De architectura.

Since the limits of socialization were exceeded in some baths and there were incidents such as prostitution, it was decided that women would enter the bath from morning to noon and men would enter the bath in the afternoon. So they were prevented from entering to baths together.

For example, Emperor Trajan forbade men and women to bathe together in the Ephesus Bath in 98 AD.

Jewish Poland

The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was the centre of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. This ended with the Partitions of Poland which began in 1772, in particular, with the discrimination and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. During World War II there was a nearly complete genocidal destruction of the Polish Jewish community by Nazi Germany, during the 1939–1945 German occupation of Poland and the ensuing Holocaust. Since the fall of Communism there has been a Jewish revival in Poland, characterized by the annual Jewish Culture Festival, new study programmes at Polish high schools and universities, the work of synagogues such as the Nozyk, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. Known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise for the Jews”), it became a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world’s largest Jewish community of the time. According to some sources, about three-quarters of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century. With the weakening of the Commonwealth and growing religious strife (due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century onward. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire, as well as Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia (later a part of the German Empire). Still, as Poland regained independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was the center of the European Jewish world with one of world’s largest Jewish communities of over 3 million. Antisemitism, however, from both the political establishment and from the general population, common throughout Europe, was a growing problem.

At the start of World War II, Poland was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The war resulted in the death of one-fifth of the Polish population, with 90% or about 3 million of Polish Jewry killed along with approximately 3 million Polish non-Jews. Examples of Polish gentile attitudes to German atrocities varied widely, from actively risking death in order to save Jewish lives, and passive refusal to inform on them; to indifference, blackmail, and in extreme cases, participation in pogroms such as the Jedwabne pogrom. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

In the postwar period, many of the approximately 200,000 Jewish survivors registered at Central Committee of Polish Jews or CKŻP (of whom 136,000 arrived from the Soviet Union) left the Communist People’s Republic of Poland for the nascent State of Israel and North or South America. Their departure was hastened by the destruction of Jewish institutions, post-war violence and the hostility of the Communist Party to both religion and private enterprise, but also because in 1946–1947 Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to allow free Jewish aliyah to Israel without visas or exit permits. Britain demanded Poland to halt the exodus, but their pressure was largely unsuccessful. Most of the remaining Jews left Poland in late 1968 as the result of the Soviet-sponsored “anti-Zionist” campaign. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews became normalized and those who were Polish citizens before World War II were allowed to renew Polish citizenship. Religious institutions were revived, largely through the activities of Jewish foundations from the United States. The contemporary Polish Jewish community is estimated to have approximately 20,000 members, though the actual number of Jews, including those who are not actively connected to Judaism or Jewish culture, may be several times larger.

80th Anniversary of the Murder of the Jews at Babi Yar

Marking 80 years to the Murder of the Jews at Babi Yar:

On 29-30 September 1941, approximately 33,771 Jewish men, women and children from Kiev and the surrounding areas were murdered at Babi Yar by Einsatzgruppe soldiers (mobile killing units) with the assistance of local collaborators. Jews who managed to escape the massacre in September but were discovered in the ensuing months, were also brought to Babi Yar and murdered.

Yad Vashem (Israel Holocaust Museum & Memorial) has 80 photos and stories of the Jews murdered at Babi Yar and now an online special exhibit on their website.

The photos were submitted to Yad Vashem together with Pages of Testimony containing the names and brief biographical information of the victims. Each Page is a mute testament to the persecution of an entire Jewish community: Rabbis, teachers and pupils, traders and artisans, philosophers and scientists- and in many cases entire families.

In this moving exhibit we can see the faces and explore the stories of 80 of the Jewish men, women and children who were murdered 80 years ago at a ravine called Babi Yar.

Sources: Yad Vashem