Jewish Katowice

more than a year ago
The history of Katowice’s Jews is both short and, like the fate of the rest of the Jews in Eastern Europe, horrific. It’s been recorded that at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815) there was just one solitary Jew living in Katowice, who owned an inn on the site of today’s Skarbek department store close to the Rynek, and who also managed a small brewery and stables. Persecution under Prussian rule started early, and for a Jew to get on in life it was expected that he or she should change their name and write in German. In exchange for this, Jews were allowed to move freely and settle where they wished. With the completion of a direct rail connection to Germany in 1846, German Jews began moving to Katowice in greater numbers. The first prayer house opened in 1855, and the first synagogue, at the corner of today’s ul. 3 Maja and ul. Słowackiego, in 1862. By 1870 the Jews made up 10% of the city’s population, and at the turn of the 20th century the Jewish population of the city numbered some 2,000. As in other industrial cities, Jews not only prospered in the classic trades of medicine, law and commerce but also contributed heavily to the industrial make-up of the city, owning several large mills and factories.

The most remarkable contribution Katowice made to the history of modern Jewry is that of the Katowice Conference that took place in the city between November 6-11, 1884. Although no papers survive, the general belief is that 22 Jews from Russia, France, Germany, Romania, Palestine and the UK came to Katowice (the precise location is unknown) to discuss the founding of a Jewish nation in the Middle East. The meeting was chaired by the Polish-born Zionist, Leon Pinsker, aka Yehudah Leib (Lev Semyonovich) Pinsker (1821-1891), who proposed that as the Jews were never going to receive fair treatment in Europe they should all move to the country he was living in at the time, Palestine. Pinsker’s belief was - as history has shown in gruesome detail - correct, although even he couldn’t have imagined the scale of the events that were to take place less than half a century later.

On the day the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 there were somewhere between 9,000 and 13,000 Polish and German Jews living in Katowice. Most were sent to Auschwitz via the Zagłębie (Sosnowiec) ghetto. Although as many as 1,500 Jews returned to the city after the war, most left again soon after. Little remains to be seen of pre-war Jewish life in the city today, with the exception of the neglected Jewish Cemetery (ul. Kozielska 16) and an obscure monument where the Great Synagogue once stood (Plac Synagogi).



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