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Jewish settlement here was not formally possible until the beginning of the 19th century. But that does not mean that Jews were not present in Osztyn. In medieval times, they would arrive here occasionally as merchants, who had been granted permission to take part in fairs, but who, at the same time, were forbidden to trade freely within the villages. They were seen as competition for the Warmian and Prussian townspeople. Nevertheless, the local authority benefited from business conducted by the Jewish traders. Often, these two issues were contentious and difficult to reconcile and, therefore, their rights underwent constant change[1.1].

The situation remained the same, even when Warmia was incorporated into the Republic of Poland. In 1717, the town council in Olsztyn expressed its dissatisfaction with the Warmia chapter which allowed two Jewish merchants to remain within the Olsztyn administrative district (komornictwo). Threatening their arrest and the confiscation their products, in 1718, Bishop Teodor Potocki imposed a ban on trade by Jewish and other travelling merchants. Ten years afterwards (1728), Bishop Krzysztof Andrzej Szembek permitted Jews to engage in trade, but this was extended only to those who had the appropriate privilege. Three years later, however, he issued a complete ban on Jewish trade. In 1742, Bishop Adam Stanisław Grabowski reversed the ban on Jewish trade, but only within the cities. This limitation, however, was not very effective as, by the mid-18th century, Olsztyn residents complained that the Jews were purchasing flax, yarn and animal leather ain the villages and not at the fairs.

In 1753, the Warmia chapter gave its permission for Jews to trade exclusively in haberdashery. A year later, Bishop Grabowski permitted only three Jews to sell their products at annual fairs. Others were also allowed to trade, but only at the annual fairs. The Jews circumvented the bishop and chapter’s regulations, gladly establishing themseoves within the estates of the landed gentry[1.2].

Permanent Jewish residents appeared in Olsztyn during Prussian times. They arrived in 1780 although, formally, they were deprived of citizenship status and lived outside the city walls[1.3]. Settlement conditions changed with the end of the Napoleonic wars. The so-called Tolerance Edict of 1813 came into force and the first Jews arrived in the city from West Prussia and then from the Kingdom of Poland.

The first Jewish shop in Olsztyn was opened in 1814 by the Simonson brothers. By 1816, the number of Jews numbered sixty and rapidly their religious and school infrastructure. In 1819, a Jewish cemetery was established and, in 1835, a synagogue was built[1.4]. For the most part, local Jews worked in trade and crafts. Amongst individual families, there was a wide range of wealth. By the second half of the 19th century, Izaak and Simon Simonson, as well as Frankenstein were considered the richest Jews[1.5].

Apart from the Jews who had settled permanently in Olsztyn, other Jews appeared in the city and its surroundings, who derived their income from peddling, usury and smuggling. In 1850, the Olsztyn Landrat (official authority – starost) announced, “I order the gendarmes to detain and bring here all Polish Jews who wander without a special permit. Residents are reminded that anyone who admits non-resident Jews into their homes and hosts them will be fined two thalers or will be imprisoned for as many days as those Jews stayed in their homes”[1.6].

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[1.1] W. Knercer, Cmentarze i zabytki kultury żydowskiej w województwie olsztyńskim, „Borussia”, no. 6, 1993, p. 53; vide K. Forstreuter, Die ersten Juden in Ostpreussen, „Altpreussische Forschungen”, ch. 14, 1937, pp. 42-48.

[1.2] W. Knercer, Cmentarze i zabytki kultury żydowskiej w województwie olsztyńskim, „Borussia”, no. 6, 1993, p. 53; S. Achremczyk, Olsztyn w latach 1466-1772, in: Olsztyn 1353 - 2003, ed. S. Achremczyk, W. Ogrodziński, Olsztyn 2003, p. 133.

[1.3] J. Jasiński, Olsztyn w latach 1772 - 1918, in: Olsztyn “1353 - 2003, ed. S. Achremczyk, W. Ogrodziński, Olsztyn 2003, p. 228.

[1.4] A. Sommerfeld, Juden im Ermland, in: Zur Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in Ost- und Westpreussen, ed. M. Brocke, M. Heitmann, H. Lordick, Hildesheim 2000, pp. 48-49; J. Jasiński, op. cit., p. 228.

[1.5] J. Jasiński, Olsztyn w latach 1772 - 1918, w: Olsztyn 1353 - 2003, ed. S. Achremczyk, W. Ogrodziński, Olsztyn 2003, p. 229.

[1.6] J. Jasiński, Olsztyn w latach 1772 - 1918, in: Olsztyn 1353 - 2003, ed. S. Achremczyk, W. Ogrodziński, Olsztyn 2003, p. 229.

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