Jewish Poznań

The history of Jews in Poznań dates back to the first days of the city, though like so many other towns in Central and Eastern Europe this rich heritage was all but extinguished with the horrors that followed Hitler’s rise to power. Although first recorded mention of a Jewish presence is dated to 1364, it is commonly accepted that the first Jewish settlers arrived in the 13th century when Prince Bolesław the Pious issued a decree granting Jews his protection. As Poznań grew so did the Jewish population, and by the start of the 15th century it’s estimated that one in four buildings on ulica Sukiennicza - the de facto centre of the Jewish community - were occupied by Jews, a fact not lost on city planners who promptly rechristened it ‘ulica Żydowska,’ or ‘Jewish Street.' An influx of German burghers and suspicious arsons marked a 15th century decline for Poznań’s Jews, though Poznań’s Jewish population stood around 3,000 in the early 17th century when racial tensions reached a nadir with the infamous 1736 trial of Rabbi Yossef, who was accused of ritual slaughter and publicly burnt at the stake.

When the city fell under Prussian jurisdiction in the 19th century, however, Jews slowly found themselves accepted into the fold. Following the Great Fire of 1803 they were allowed to live freely throughout the rest of the city and as such ties between Jews and Germans strengthened. In fact, so solid were these relations that the Jewish community rallied around the Germans during the 1918-1919 Wielkopolska Uprising, a fact not forgotten by the local Poles.

When Poznań was absorbed into the Polish nation in 1919 the Jews found themselves once more on the hard end of local feelings, and a significant number migrated west to Germany, where they expected greater tolerance.

With WWII looming, Poznań’s Jewish population stood around 1,500 - a number that would vanish soon after the city was annexed into the Third Reich in 1939. The city was named capital of the Wartegau province, and a plan was hatched to rid the city of its Jews within three months.
Deportations began on December 11th of the same year, with Jews packed into cattle trucks bound for the ghettos of Warsaw or Lublin, and on April 15, 1940, the fascist rag Ostdeutscher Beobachter gleefully reported the removal of the Star of David from the last synagogue left standing. Those who remained in the Poznań region were sent to a labour camp next to the city stadium where their duties primarily consisted of building roads and other back-breaking work. The camp operated until August 1943, when the decision was taken to liquidate both camp and inmates.
Indeed, Poznań was something of a model Nazi city, and on October 4, 1943, Heinrich Himmler gave a sordid speech to his Nazi cronies about the extermination of the Jewish people. A small number of Jews survived in hiding, and after the war several hundred actually returned to re-settle in the city. However no effort was made by the government to re-establish Jewish culture, and the subsequent anti-Zionist policies of the post-war communist government saw the number of Jews dwindle to well under a hundred.

The Nazis were meticulous in their destruction of Jewish heritage and traces of it are few and far between today. Rather miraculously, however, Poznań's Old Synagogue (ul. Wroniecka 11a) survived the war by being converted into a swimming pool and rehabilitation centre for Wehrmacht officers.
The 'swimagogue' (as it was cheekily known) was returned to the Jewish community in 2002, however disrepair forced its closure and plans for its restoration have stalled.

The early 19th century Jewish cemetery on ul. Głogowska was destroyed and its tombstones used to pave roads during WWII, after which the area was incorporated into the Trade Fair grounds. In recent times, however, steps have been taken to commemorate its existence with a memorial plaque on ul. Głogowska 26a, and in 2008 a ceremony took place to commemorate Rabbi Akiva Eger - commonly accepted as Poznań’s greatest Rabbi. Previously a parking lot, his grave site has been turned into a grassy square named in his honour. A memorial to the victims of Poznań’s Nazi labour camp stands by the Multikino cinema (ul. Królowej Jadwigi 51), and prayer services take place each Friday at ul. Stawna 10. Other efforts to reintroduce Jewish culture to the city include the annual Tzadik Poznań Festival (www.tzadikpoznanfestival.pl) - a feast of music aimed at celebrating the past, building bridges and opening dialogue between local communities.


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