On the eve of World War II there were 352,600 Jews living in Warsaw – nearly 40% of the city’s total population. Warsaw’s pre-war telephone directory began and ended with a Jewish name. It was there that Jewish social organizations had their head offices and the most prominent and influential Jewish leaders were active. All Jewish organizations and enterprises had their headquarters in Warsaw. The application Warszawa, Warsze allows you to discover the “archaeology” of this city from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews to Grzybowski Square.
From 1527, with the introduction of the de non tolerandis Judaeis privilege, Jews could no longer live in Warsaw on a permanent basis, although later regulations allowed them to stay in Warsaw and to conduct business there during sejm sessions. Jews in black vests – often worn by tavernkeepers and petty sellers – appear in the paintings of Bernardo Bellotto Canaletto. Jews lived on a permanent or temporary basis in the jurydykas – private estates outside the city jurisdiction – most of them in Leszno, Tłomackie, Grzybów and Wielopole. The jurydykas were abolished in 1793 but their Jewish inhabitants stayed. After the third partition of Poland Warsaw became part of the Prussian partition from 1795 to 1806 and saw the inflow of Prussian Jews – often wealthy individuals influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). The circle of Haskalah supporters soon grew to include local Jews. The progressive Jewish community built the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street.
A wave of pogroms and anti-Jewish regulations in Russia contributed to a mass immigration of Litvaks – Jews from the western guberniyas of the Russian Empire (present-day Lithuania and northern Belarus) – who were strongly attached to their religious institutions and spiritual leaders. They settled mainly in the developing Northern District, north of Tłomackie. They spoke Yiddish and lived amongst themselves within a closed circle of Orthodox coreligionists. A passer-by chancing upon them – like the protagonist of Stefan Żeromski’s The Coming Spring – might feel like he had stepped out of his world.
The activities of socialists and communists also left their mark on the Jewish community of Warsaw. Grzybowski Square witnessed numerous demonstrations in 1905 – the escaping protesters and anarchists would often seek shelter in the local establishments. This was highly detrimental to business and many owners and leaseholders were forced to close down successful restaurants. World War I brought hunger and poverty. Profiteers and extortionist gangs appeared in the marketplaces of Grzybów and Wielopole. Fences, thief school owners and human traffickers installed themselves next to respectable dwellers. A criminal jargon emerged – a mix of Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.
The regaining of independence by Poland and the enforcement of the Minorities Treaty, guaranteeing the rights of national minorities, led to the emergence of numerous denominational schools in the capital. Political parties and social organizations were highly active. Mounting anti-Semitism in the 1930s fueled the activity of Zionist groups focused on building Jewish life in Palestine. Warsaw witnessed numerous street demonstrations and marches by Jewish youth squads protesting British policy in the mandated territory.
The Jewish intelligentsia broke with the traditional environment that limited its creative freedom. The Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists, promoting the literary use of Yiddish, was founded with its seat at 13 Tłomackie St. Cinemas and theaters offered a Yiddish repertoire.
World War II brought a tragic end to Warsaw’s Jewish community…