Poznan

Jewish Poznań

14 Jun 2017

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 renamed 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 Reichsgau Wartheland 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 ghettos of Reichsgau Wartheland, as well as some poor souls from Austria, Luxembourg, and other countries - around 11 000 people total - were brought in to the city’s 29 labour camps to do back-breaking including building the Poznań airport and a highway connecting Berlin and Łódź (using Jewish tombstones as some of the building materials), digging what is now Lake Rusałka and Lake Malta, and liquidating Jewish cemeteries. Meanwhile, horrific medical experiments were conducted on inmates at the ‘Reich University’ Institute of Anatomy, with some corpses shipped off to the Natural Museum in Vienna to become part of an anti-Semitic exhibition. The labour camps operated until August 1943, at which point prisoners were sent off to the Auschwitz death camp.

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