A history of an ancient jewish community in poland

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One of the outstanding personalities who lived in the second half of the 16th century was Josef, the son of Miriam. He was one of the rich community leaders, maintained personal contacts with Polish noblemen and served as an intermediary between the Jewish population and the King's Court. His son-in-law Shimon was another well-known businessman and money-lender. A certain Felix Berman is also mentioned as a defender of Jews against blood libels and other accusations.
Plotzk was frequently being visited by a great number of Jews from outside, many coming from neighboring localities and some even from as far as Poznan. The municipality tried to impose restrictions on this influx, and Jews who wished to settle in town, had to pay special fees for the acquisition of that right. On the other hand many Plotzk-born Jews left the town for Lublin, Poznan, Lentshitsa and other localities, yet most of them did not sever their attachment to the place of their birth.

The Swedes invaded Plotzk in 1655. A year later they were driven out again by a group of Polish partisans who celebrated their victory by attacking, plundering and slaughtering the Jewish inhabitants. The Poles accused the Jews of assisting the invaders, while the Swedish attitude to the Jews had not been less hostile.
After a short period the Swedes once more returned to Plotzk but finally left it as a result of an epidemic disease which ravaged among the citizenry. For three months Plotzk remained a "no man's land" until a company of Austrian soldiers took hold of the town. Their treatment of the Jews was no better than that accorded by the Swedes.
A historical document mentions a complaint by the Jews to the effect that many of them were killed and their houses, including the synagogue, destroyed during the Swedish invasion. Only seven Jewish houses remained in Plotzk in 1661.

By Yeshaya Trunk

Page 16-24


After the years 1656-1657, the Jewish Kehila of Plotzk remained weak and suffered from manifold disasters. The Jewish quarter was burned down in 1688 - about 30 years after the Swedish invasion; a few years later an epidemic disease broke out, and a large number of Plotzk's citizens, including the Jews, perished. The "Great Northern War" at the beginning of the 18th century brought in its wake a wave of murder, robbery, arson and diseases to town.
Plotzk was recaptured by the Russian army from the Swedes in 1709. Fighting was always accompanied by attacks on Jewish property and life.
The allover situation of the Polish Jews deteriorated in the 18th century as a result of the strengthened position of the reactionary Polish Catholic circles, who demanded the imposition of restrictions on the commerce and the free movement of Jews from one town to another. The Catholic clergy and the lower and impoverished class of Polish noblemen presented a united front in their efforts to restrict Jewish "expansion" and decisions to this effect were taken at several conventions.
The Bishop of Plotzk invited the leaders of the Jewish community in 1775 and accused them of having built new synagogues. He decreed that Jews were not to trade on Sundays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., whilst they were permitted to buy only the most necessary articles before 9 a.m. During the "Corpus Christi" procession which used to pass through the market square, the Jewish quarter was blocked off, so that the Jews should not see the Holy Pictures.
Blood libels were common practice in that century and the Jews of Plotzk suffered from them no less than co-religionists elsewhere in Poland. A Christian infant died soon after its birth in a village near Plotzk. Rumors were spread that it had been killed by Jews. The "Starosta" (District Governor) encouraged the circulation of these rumors and ordered the Jewish inn-keeper of that village to be arrested. After murderous tortures he died in jail. The Governor kept looking for new victims and the Jewish community leaders were compelled to bribe him in order to prevent further outrages.
He then tried to turn that bribe into a steady yearly payment and when one of the community leaders refused to be blackmailed he was imprisoned and tortured. In spite of these persecutions some community leaders preferred to suffer rather than to have further payments imposed on their poor community.
The two last decades of the 18th century were marked by growing anarchy and internal disorders which led to the division of Poland by its neighbors. The Jewish population of Plotzk suffered greatly from that state of affairs. A then newly-elected Governor kept interfering in internal community affairs, demanding a substantial bribe for approving the election of the communal rabbi, although its leaders were in possession of a legal consent, issued by his predecessor.
When the heads of the community refused to pay the bribe they were arrested, the Rabbi beaten and the money collected by force. Those were the last acts of lawlessness carried out by representatives of a government nearing its downfall.
The second division of Poland was put into effect a year later, in 1793, and Plotzk, together with the greater part of Mazovia, came under Prussian rule.
Although only very little is known about the cultural life of the Jews of Plotzk during the second half of the 18th century, some names of Plotzk-born prominent rabbis appear in chronicles of that century. Among them we find Rabbi Zelig Margolies, the author of some commentaries on the Mishna and Talmud, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Munk, who officiated as community-rabbi and others.


Plotzk enjoyed considerable expansion in the last decade of the 18th century, having become the administrative center of the newly-formed "New Southern Prussia". New and imposing buildings were erected in the town. The Prussian authorities revoked the old decree by virtue of which the Jews were concentrated in a ghetto, but the Jews took no advantage of this liberation and preferred to live on in the old Jewish quarter.
Many Jews from nearby localities moved to Plotzk. 731 Jews lived in the town in 1800 among 1874 Christians, two years later there were 1783 Jews. This increase of 150% in the course of only two years was due to a large-scale influx from the countryside.
These newcomers were attracted to German culture and probably brought with them the spirit of "Haskala" (Enlightenment). Their influence on the community grew notably, since many of them were wealthy. German gradually became dominant and the documents of the community were being composed in that language.

During that period Yehuda Leib Margulies was rabbi of Plotzk. He is the author of some books on religious subjects as well as of some works on philosophy, ethics, etc. His book "Or Olam" (The Light of the World) was reprinted several times and enjoyed widespread popularity. Rabbi Margulies was a conservative "rationa­list" who did not see any conflict between religious faith and science. In one of his books he criticizes the internal Jewish community relations, the lack of intellectuals and the corruption of the Kehila's oligarchy, which furthered their own interests rather than those of the people.

His bitterly critical remarks on the deplorable social position of the Jewish masses were probably the result of his experience as rabbi of several Jewish communities. (He served only a short time as rabbi of Plotzk). We may assume that he was forced to change positions at frequent intervals, due to his critical attitude towards the administrative shortcomings of the Jewish communities.
The names of two other influential Jews are recorded in the chronicles and autobiographies of that period: Itsikel Plotzker, who maintained commercial and social relations with Count Radziwil and other members of the nobility and acted as their adviser on many issues pertaining to Jewish life; and Daniel Landau who supplied the French army during the war. The latter represented the commu­nities of the Plotzk region at the Conference of Jewish Communities of the Warsaw Principality.
In that period the statutes of the Jewish Tailors' Union were renewed. They contain interesting rules and regulations concerning the professional relations between its members, and were meant to prevent competition and supply work to all members on cooperative lines. These statutes also contain paragraphs which protected the rights of workers seasonally employed by their masters.
Plotzk was made the center of one of the six districts which formed the Duchy of Warsaw, established as a result of the peace treaty between Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia. The position of the Jewish population of Plotzk did not improve, although its members were given equal civil rights with the non-Jews. On the contrary, the burdens and special payments increased and the community leaders fought hard to reduce the huge amounts which the community -impoverished by frequent wars - could not afford to pay. A Govern­ment decree of 1812 prohibited the production and sale of alcoholic beverages by Jews. This spelt complete economic ruin for many Jews whose livelihood derived from the production and sale of alcoholic drinks. The Governor of Plotzk was one of the first who endeavored to enforce that decree. Its implementation was postponed after many interventions.
A great fire which destroyed the whole Synagogue and 90 houses broke out in 1810. The homeless moved to other quarters where they were allowed to reside temporarily. The King's ministers counseled Friedrich August of Saxonia (who was at that time also the ruler of the Duchy of Warsaw) to expel the Jews from the mixed quarters. They motivated their advise by insinuating that Jews were dirty and caused fires and filth "because of their natural inclination to dirt", but the King protected the Jews maintaining that it would be unjust to expel them. A few years later the King consented to the proposal which allocated the Jews special quarters where they were allowed to live. Jews were allowed to rebuild their houses only in eight streets, among them the "Synagogue Street" and "Jerusalem Street". The Jewish Quarter of Plotzk existed till 1862.
The famous Rabbi Leibish Charif, author of many religious books, officiated as communal rabbi of Plotzk in that period. Seventeen of his books were published during his lifetime and some others after his death. Leibish Charif made a name for himself in rabbinical literature.

The Dukedom of Warsaw was abolished after Napoleon's defeat and its territory became an integral part of Russia. As a result of the new division of Poland, Plotzk was made the administrative center of a new district.
New houses were built in the town and the population grew in the years 1816-1830. 2447 Jews lived in Plotzk in 1822. Many newcomers were absorbed, mostly Jews from all parts of Mazovia, including those who left villages where they were forbidden by law to engage in the production and sale of alcoholic drinks.

Government circles initiated in the second decade of that century a special campaign against the Chassidic movement in order, as they put it, to raise the cultural level of the Jews and to make them equal with the other citizens. A memorandum on this subject stated that all Polish Jews were under the influence of the Chassidic sect, except those in the regions of Kalish and Plotzk.

In this spirit the Regional Commission of Plotzk proposed the establishment of special Jewish secular schools, where the younger generation could specialize in natural sciences and learn trades. The memorandum mentions a retroactive decree against the approval of elections of any rabbis, who had no knowledge of Polish.
The Enlightenment Movement reached Plotzk. A circle of Jewish Maskilim, influenced by German culture through their Prussian neighbors became active under the leadership of a certain Josef Frenkel. Native-born Jewish doctors lived there at that time; one of them even served as chairman of the local Doctors' Association.
When the Polish revolt against Russia broke out in 1830, a number of patriotic Jews joined the Polish fighting units. Nevertheless, Jews were suspected on many occasions of spying for the Russians.
In spite of the economic "boom" then prevailing in Poland, Plotzk did not enjoy special prosperity, because the export of agricultural produce did not pass through Plotzk, since the town was too far from the nearest railway. Only the hotel branch, which served Government officials and the landed gentry who used to settle their business in local offices and courts, prospered in town.
The following table shows the increase of the general and Jewish population of Plotzk during the first half of the 19th century.


General Population


Percentage of Jews




48.3 %




34.7 %




37.5 %




42.3 %

Between 1840-1850 compulsory recruitment of Jews into the Russian army was enforced, although more liberally than in Russia proper. This measure caused many family tragedies and the annual mobilization days were full of tension. Another anti-Jewish decree was specifically harmful to the Chassidic circles; it prohibited (with some exemptions) the wearing of traditional Chassidic garb. The Chassidim tried to have this restriction annulled and to bribe the officials empowered with its implementation, and even the poorest among them were prepared to give away their last Zlotys in order to be exempted from that decree and be allowed to continue wearing traditional garments.

Several agricultural Jewish settlements were founded in the Plotzk region in that period. 170 Jewish families settled on the land and the Governor stated in one of his reports that the Jews "are seriously engaged in agriculture".
The first municipal elections in which the Jewish population participated, took place in 1862. Local Government was abolished just one year later, when the Polish revolt broke out. The Jewish community was then split into two groups, the "Chassidim", and their opponents, the "Maskilim", who strove for certain reforms in the traditional Jewish way of life. They established some modern schools which adopted a progressive educational system. Their leader, Shlomo Zalman Posner, was a wealthy and influential man who was also instrumental in the founding of the above mentioned Jewish agricul­tural settlements.


The first decades of this period were influenced by the disputes and controversies between two leading groups of Jewry: The Chassidim - on the one hand and the "Mitnagdim" (Opponents of Chassidism) and "Progressive" circles on the other hand. This dispute reached its climax in Plotzk upon the appointment of Rabbi Azriel Leib Rakovsky as communal rabbi. He maintained good personal ties with the Governor, belonged to the "Mitnagdim" and was in favor of secular elementary education alongside religious instruction. He was so greatly persecuted by the Chassidim that he was eventually forced to abandon his post and move to another town.
The cholera plague broke out in Plotzk in 1867, felling many victims. Many people considered the plague as God's punishment for the persecution of the rabbi whose absence was widely felt. He was called back and remained in office till 1880, when he resigned finally, due to false accusations leveled against him.
A secular Jewish school was opened in Plotzk in 1865, following a ceremony at which both the Mayor and the District Education Officer delivered speeches. This school existed a brief time only and was probably closed in 1871, as a result of governmental policy which sought to discourage separatism among Jews and to admit Jewish children into general schools. The great majority of Jewish children studied in those years in religious schools ("Cheder" and "Talmud Torah"). The Czarist Government attempted to compel the Jews to close their separate educational institutions by demanding that the religious Jewish teachers pass examinations in the Russian language. A com­promise was reached, whereby every "Cheder" had to employ a teacher of the Russian language.
The first high school was founded in Plotzk in the sixties, the only one in the region, and being attended by many Jewish pupils, it soon turned into a center of secular education and culture. It also occupied an important position in the community's economic life, since scores of families derived additional income from the letting of rooms to out-of-town pupils. For a short period Jewish pupils were exempted from writing on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
The then famous Hebrew writer and educator Avraham Yaakov Papierna taught Religion for many years in Plotzk's two high schools. Being a Russophile, he favored the separation of Polish and Jewish children so that the latter would be educated as loyal citizens of Russia. A pamphlet of his, advocating these ideas, was brought to the attention of the Russian authorities, who helped him in many ways. He soon became a spiritual leader, respected by the Jewish population, and a representative of the community on many occasions. He was the only Jewish leader capable of making speeches in Russian.
The trend in favor of secular education grew constantly; some of the younger generation, especially children of "Maskilim", went to other centers to be educated and some of them even severed completely their relations with Jews and Judaism, while others played active roles in the Polish struggle for independence and in the Socialist movement.
It is worth mentioning that the famous Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov spent his boyhood (1865-1878) in Plotzk, where he became famous as the "prodigy" of the little "Beit Hamidrash".
A Hospital building committee was established in 1865, at the Governor's initiative. Five years later the cornerstone was laid, in the presence of Rabbi Rakovsky and the above mentioned Hebrew writer Papierna, who both spoke on this occasion. This hospital fulfilled an important role in combating the cholera epidemic of 1892-93 by setting up a special wing for this purpose.
A Home for the Aged was opened in Plotzk in 1891, thanks to the initiative and the funds raised by a group of Jewish women. A performance of a Jewish play ("Uriel d'Acosta") was put on in Plotzk that year - quite probably the first show in town - and the proceeds from the sale of admission tickets were allocated to the Home for the Aged.
The powers of the Vaad Hakehila were reduced by law. Only tax-paying community members enjoyed voting rights. Two-thirds were not eligible for electing their representatives. These always belonged to the circles favored by the civil authorities.
Due to the grave economic condition and the drain of population through considerable emigration, the Kehila's revenues constantly decreased until it had difficulties in balancing its budget.
Community rabbis were often compelled to resign their positions as a result of friction between "Mitnagdim" and "Chassidim", being unable to make peace between the rival groups.
Among the rabbis of Plotzk who deserve to be mentioned are the following: R' Azriel Leib Rakovsky, R' Yehoshua Falk Auerbach, R' Naftali Yehuda Berman, R' Yehezkel Lifschitz and R' Yona Mordechai Zlotnik.
In the period under review most Plotzk Jews dealt in agricultural produce, especially in cereals. According to a census held in 1897 dealers in agricultural produce constituted about one third of the merchants. Trade connections were mainly with Prussia. The port of Plotzk was a shipping center for the agricultural produce of the fertile Mazovia region. But the customs war which broke out between Russia and Germany in the years 1879-1893 as well as the establishment of "purchasing centers" was detrimental in some ways to the Jewish cereal trade.
Jewish merchants were also affected by the competition of Polish peasants who left the villages and, with the help of credit institutes, began to trade their own produce. This new class of farmers sometimes engaged in anti-Semitic activities although historical documents indicate that some cooperation between Jewish and non-Jewish merchants existed. Jewish-Christian communal credit institutes also served the town's economy.
But the terrible poverty among some groups of the Jewish population and periodic anti-Jewish outbursts encouraged overseas emigration, especially to the United States. It started in the sixties and developed into a mass-emigration in the nineties.
According to current newspaper reports those who left town for the States via Berlin were completely destitute and could only pay their traveling expenses to Berlin, where they depended on the Jewish community's assistance for continuing their journey. The number of emigrants was considerable and gradually reduced the total Jewish population of Plotzk, which only increased somewhat again in the last decade of the 19th century.
The following statistical table regarding the Jews in Plotzk in 1883-1910 is self-explanatory.


General Population


Percentage of Jews




36.9 %




43.4 %




28.4 %




39.2 %




40.6 %

More than a third of the Jews lived on commerce, nearly a third on handicraft and industries and the remainder included house-owners, capitalists, clerks, etc. About 30% of the merchants dealt in agricultural produce, 15% - in textiles and clothes and the remainder in various unclassified articles. The number of people employed in the various trades was: in the clothing branch - 55%; in the foodstuffs branch - 14%; in metallurgy - 10%; in print­ing - 6%.

Jewish communal records and taxpayers' lists show that about one third of the Jewish population was so impoverished that it had to be exempted from payment of Kehila-dues, and that about 40% paid so little that they lost their voting rights.

The first 14 years of the 20th century were a period of continuous social and cultural progress in the life of Plotzk Jews. The unsuccessful revolution of 1905 caused some political indifference, but on the other hand a great many social energies found their expression through legal channels. The Zionist and Socialist movements gained followers in Plotzk. Cultural institutions were being established. The number of Jews in Plotzk increased, both as a result of curtailed overseas emigration-quotas and of a mass-exit of Jews from small townships. The "Hovevei-Zion" movement (which preceded the organized Zionist movement) had a branch in Plotzk since 1891. The "Bund" (So­cialist Jewish Workers' movement) and "Poalei Zion" (Zionist-Socialist movement) also had branches in town. Among the leaders of the Polish Socialist Party (known as P.P.S.) there were some Jews who played an important part (Josef Kwiatek and Esther Golda Strozewska) in its activities.
The political events of 1905 were accompanied by clashes between striking workers and policemen and some Jews took an active part in these events.
After the repressions following the revolt of 1905 and the strengthening of reactionary political circles, the younger Jewish generation of Plotzk began to show an increased interest in cultural activities.
The famous "Hazamir" association was founded in 1906. It held public lectures and maintained a theatre group. Another association, called "Tikvat Israel" (The Hope of Israel), organized literature and history courses. Jews were also active in the general cultural life, and a Jew (Ludwig Platau) was one of the founders of the local "Popular University".
A Yeshiva was founded in Plotzk a few years before the outbreak of the First World War by Rabbi Michael Rubinstein, who acted as "Rosh Yeshiva". This Talmudic College became soon very popular and many students, even from far away, flocked to this institution.
The ancient Jewish Community of Plotzk was regarded at the beginning of the twentieth century as one of the most enlightened Jewish centers in Poland, and could be rightly proud of the famous personalities who were either born or brought up there, such as Nahum Sokolov, Itzhak Grinbaum, A. Y. Papierna, A. Kahanstam and others. Among its great rabbis were Y. L. Margolies, Z. Plotzker, A. L. Zunz, I. D. Graubart, A. L. Rakovsky, Y. M. Zlotnik. The generation who grew up in Plotzk during the last decades produced many pioneers and idealists who fought for the freedom of the Jewish people and general humanitarian aims.

By Dr. Yitzhak Schipper

Page 25

The author of this article was one of the outstanding Jewish historians in Poland. Having specialized in the history of Jews in Poland in general, he wrote on the occasion of the 700-year anniversary of the Jewish community of Plotzk a substantial work on this particular subject.
The first part deals with the years 1650-1793, the Swedish invasion, the pogroms carried out by the Cossacks and the reconstruction of the community after these disasters. It further describes the anti-Jewish legislation of that period, the mutual relations between Jews and Christians in Plotzk and economic life. The period 1794-1858 is the subject of the second part. During that time the Jewish population grew in number, absorbing newcomers from the German-held western part of Poland who in time influenced the cultural life of the Jewish community considerably.
The author mentions in conclusion the names of prominent rabbis and describes their cultural and communal activities: R' Arie Lajb, R' Arie Lajb Zunc, R' Natan ben Shimon Horowic, R' Aleksander Kohen. The author also writes about some "Maskilim": Dr. Philip Lubelski and Dr. Zygmunt Perkal.


By Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum

Page 25
This article analyzes and describes the rules and regulations of the Tailors' Union of Plotzk. These laid down the relations between the tailors themselves, between them and their apprentices and their clients. Its purpose was to prevent unfair competition, as well as to serve as a basis for the general welfare of the Union's members.

Such "Tailors' Unions" existed in a number of Polish Jewish communities, but that of Plotzk was exceptionally well organized, devoting much of its endeavors to the social and religious welfare of its members and their families. The author compares the Statutes of the Plotzk Union with those of other similar bodies and emphasizes the liberal character of the Plotzk Union, which had a beneficial influence on labor conditions in other trade branches in Plotzk and surrounding townships.


By E. E.

Page 25
The above - according to his memoirs - served at the end of the 18th century as a "go-between" of the Jewish community in Plotzk in its relations with the authorities, and as ritual slaughterer ("Shohet"). But as a result of frictions between him and his superiors in the Kehila, he was forced to resign.

Thereafter he did not leave town, but being a man of initiative, bought a plot of land outside Plotzk, where he built an inn in 1803, the first in the town. This large-sized inn served travelers, merchants and people on official duty who came to Plotzk.
Its owner and manager, Moshe Wasserzug, distinguished himself by his great ability. When the inn was partly destroyed by fire in 1807, he rebuilt it. "In a short time I succeeded", he writes, "to build it all again, including stables for 70 horses and sheds for the carts..."
Those were the days of the great French campaign against Russia, civilian traffic stopped altogether and Moshe Wasserzug lost his livelihood. Thanks to his connections with the authorities he was granted a license to collect slaughtering fees in Plotzk and Wyszogrod, although this was not considered an honest occupation, since such license-holders were in the habit of paying the authorities a certain sum, whilst keeping the remainder. He, eventually, became rich and sued the Plotzk Jewish communal authorities for their accusations against him during the years of his service in the community.
Heinrich Loewe, the publisher of these memoirs, states that they contain authentic facts throwing light on the daily life of Polish Jews at the end of the 18th century.

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