The earliest reference to the Jewish community in Leszno in historical sources dates back to 1604. The privilege granted to Jews on 10 March 1628 permitted them to own houses in the town, though they were obliged to pay rent to the town owner. At that time, there were 28 Jewish-owned houses in Leszno. Most local Jews were involved in trade and crafts – they were glaziers, tailors, hat makers, furriers, jewellers, locksmiths, tanners, goldsmiths, and hairdressers. Porters were considered a separate group and had their own trade union. In 1690, Jewish musicians from Leszno were granted a special privilege. As the local authorities imposed various restrictions on Jewish merchants, they branched out and specialised in trading with other Polish towns (especially Wrocław) and foreign countries (even as remote as Turkey). They were mostly involved in trade in cloth, but hides were also a popular product among the Jewish population. The entrepreneurial spirit of Jewish merchants led many of them to amass significant wealth.
The Swedish Deluge and the Northern War were a tragic time for the Jews of Leszno. The town was set on fire on the night of 29 June 1656, with the blaze taking the lives of many of its residents. The fire was started by the victorious Polish army to punish its citizens for allying with the Swedes. Only ca. 100 out of the 400 Jewish families living in Leszno managed to escape to Silesia. In spite of the great damage, the community of Leszno soon started to recover.
Another disaster struck Leszno on 29 of July 1707, when the Russian army invaded the town. The occupying troops imposed a high contribution on the local citizens. Despite paying the due amount, the local Jews were not spared from assaults, with their district eventually burned down by the Russians. Many local Jews were murdered that day. The survivors escaped to Silesia and eventually returned to the city.
On 25 July 1709, tragedy struck again. Jews were accused of bringing the plague to Leszno. The majority of the Jewish population (ca. 8,000 people) was forced to leave the town. They waited out the period of terror in the local forests. They returned to Leszno once the epidemic was thwarted.
In the second half of the 18th century, the size of the local Jewish population started to grow. In the years 1767–1790, it fluctuated between 4,000 and 5,000 people. At the time, Leszno was known as “the Main Synagogue of Greater Poland” (Hauptsynagoge von Großpolen). It was also a period of exceptional development of Jewish education in Leszno. Many of the town’s distinguished scholars worked as rabbis in other localities. In honour of the memory of seven Leszno scholars named Loeb, the local Jewish community came to be known as “the Lion Cave” (die Löwenhöhle). Rabbi Akiva Eger, a prominent Jewish scholar, lived and taught in Leszno in the years 1780–1790.
On 11 of August 1767, yet another disaster struck the Jewish community. A fire broke out in the town and destroyed the entire Jewish district, killing 20 local Jews. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the town owner exempted the community from paying taxes for a period of six years. The Leszno community also received financial aid from German and Italian Jews. On 2 June 1790, another fire broke out in the town. It destroyed 481 houses, including 196 owned by Jews. The frequent fires afflicting Leszno also destroyed the archives of the Jewish community, which contained a number of interesting documents.
In 1792, the Jewish community held an extraordinary meeting in order to discuss the reconstruction of the Jewish district. On 15 October 1793, the Jews from Leszno together with their rabbi paid homage to King of Prussia Frederick William II during the monarch’s visit to the town.
In the 18th century, a large number of Jewish schools operated in Leszno. A total of 11 male and two female teachers and an additional Jewish music teacher worked in the town in 1833. At that time, some Jewish students also attended the local lower secondary school.
In the 19th century, the Jews of Leszno continued to work in trade and crafts (tailors, furriers, jewellers, locksmiths, tanners, and butchers). They would buy agricultural produce from peasants all around Greater Poland and export it to Königsberg, Berlin, Gdańsk, Frankfurt am Main, and Leipzig. They also bought cloth in Lower Silesia and transported it to Petersburg. There were also many Jewish entrepreneurs in Leszno – forerunners of the local industry. At the time, the Jewish community owned a synagogue, Talmudic school, cemetery, hospital, and poorhouse. In 1868, a Jewish entrepreneur from Leszno by the name of Philipp Hannach founded a pump and fire-hose factory. It was one of the most modern enterprises in Prussia at the time.
Thirteen Jews from Leszno took part in the French-Prussian War of 1870–1871. One of them, grenadier Markus Sachs, died in combat.
The mid-19th century saw the beginning of the Jewish emigration from Leszno. In 1842, 150 Jewish families left for Germany and the United States. The trend escalated at the turn of the 20th century.
After World War I, Jews started to leave Leszno in throngs. After 1924, the Jewish population comprised only ca. 160 people. This number remained largely unchanged until 1939. Most local Jews made their living by running small companies, enterprises, and workshops, mostly family-owned. The only entrepreneurs to hold a more prominent position in the local economy were Hans Kretschmer, who traded in grain, and the owners of large-scale factories: the Machine and Metal Foundry Plant (Adolf Pachtern, an engineer), the Clothing Plant (A.W. Goldschmidt), and the “Obrót” Tricot Plant.
Despite the exodus of Jewish people from the town, the Leszno community continued its activities. It was later converted into the Board of Jewish Communities with seat in Leszno and held jurisdiction over the Jewish residents of Bojanowo, Rawicz, Śmigiel, Czempin, Jutrosin, Krobia, and Borek Wielkopolski.
A Jewish school with 39 students operated in Leszno until 1921. The facility was closed after the head teacher, Jenna Barschar, left for Germany. From then on, Jewish children attended the Evangelical school and public schools. Some of them graduated from Leszno’s lower secondary schools.
After German troops invaded Leszno in September 1939, the local Jews were deprived of their property. Some people voluntarily left for the General Government in the autumn of 1939; among them were the families Diamant, Kretschmer, Kalmus, Pachter, Kibel, and Litwak. Those who remained were deported to Tomaszów Mazowiecki, Sokołów Podlaski, and Sarnaki in Siedlce District in December 1939.
- Czwojdrak D., Z dziejów ludności żydowskiej w południowo-zachodniej Wielkopolsce, Grabonóg 2004.
- Heppner A., Herzberg I., Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den Posener Landen, Koschmin – Bromberg 1909.