Lesser Poland is a region that hides certain stories, tales or sights, forgotten relics bearing witness to the colourful past, at its every corner. It is a region of rich culture, long and complicated history, great ethnographic diversity. Today, when, unfortunately, more and more parts of our lives are shared and similar for great masses of people, often no place remains for the multiculturalism and ethnicity of the old Lesser Poland. That is why we think that the remaining relics, the history of our lands, the memory of the old days should be supported and cared for.
The Jews have left many important historical traces in our memory. They have lived in every town and most of the villages. They had their own religion, culture and customs. They constituted an inseparable element of the Polish social landscape. This community, so strongly tied with the Polish tradition and history has suddenly disappeared. The tragic course of World War II left empty spaces, not only in abandoned Jewish houses but also in Polish society, of which the Jewish nation was an integral part.
Let's set out on the trail of the Jewish society. Let's recall where the Jews used to live once, what businesses they were in, what they loved...
Those willing to deepen their knowledge of the Jewish nation will find many interesting and reliable information on www.sztetl.org.pl – a web site which aim is to popularise the knowledge about Polish Jews and which is updated and expanded with more new collections of documents, articles, maps, photographs. You will find a description of over two thousand Polish towns and villages inhabited by Jews.
To those interested in Jewish cemeteries we recommend a website http://www.Jewish cemeteryy.xip.pl, a collection of information and descriptions of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Additionallyit contains a large repertory of photographs and information about the precise location of the historical sites.
Jews in Lesser Poland
It is here that the beating heart of the Jewish society in Poland was located, where the Jews contributed to the creation of the peculiar culture and landscape of the Lesser Poland's towns and villages. When looking at the written history of Jews in Lesser Poland, one can easily divide it into two parts – the history of settlement (in particular places and on particular terms) and the history about which we learn from documents which do not directly refer the Jewish nation, in which Jewish figures appear sporadically, in undocumented records – for example about a Jewish merchant or a Jewish innkeeper. We have information from a parish register about some Jew being baptized, but we have no sources, no evidence of a Jewish community existing in a given place. However, there is no doubt that with the growth of the Polish state, Jews arrived in ever bigger numbers, particularly so after Boleslaus the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz in 1264, granting the Jews a freedom of trade, a right to give real estate loans, liberty of life and religion.
At the beginning, the Jewish settlement only pertained to cities, the settlement on rural areas starts only in the middle of the XVI c. At this time the economic activity of the Jews intensifies and the "Jewish professions" are established. Craftsmanship, trade and manufacturing become the main sources of upkeep for the families.
In the next centuries, the role of Jews becomes bigger. They played no small part in the development of foreign trade and strengthening contacts with the East and the West – mainly thanks to their rich trade contacts. The Jews had their own Communities, built synagogues, bath houses, created their own districts or streets. However, it was not an entirely care-free life. Supported by the wealthy and the gentry on one side, on the other they were faced with Christians agitated by the church, who only saw them as evil, faithless competition which should be removed or deprived of rights.
A radical change of legislation came during the Prussian partition, when the Jews – along with other inhabitants of Galicia – came under imperial tutelage. At first At first the Jews were declared completely separate from the rest of the society, their rights were limited, high taxes were imposed on them, the poorest were expelled from the country. The situation changed im the 19th century, when the Jews were granted full civil rights.
The reclamation of Poland's freedom was a happy event, both for the Polish and the Polish Jews. Their enterprise was developing quickly – Jewish businesses, factories and facilities, social and journalistic activity started again.
However, the centuries of common life and building of the state were to fall into ruins with the outbreak of the World War II. The events of this period – the persecutions of the Jewish population and the extermination have erased the Jews from the Polish multicultural mosaic. This element, which was present for centuries, which was a part of everybody's life, stopped to exist and only relics of it remained. After years of oblivion, the memory of the Jews' history in Poland is being rekindled. The Jewish inhabitants of Polish towns started being rembered again, and the Jews – those who survived the extermination – started to come to Poland and ten to the traces they have left – the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries remaining after the war.
Many of the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were renovated, put in good order. However, there are still many historical sites, mainly cemeteries, which are still forgotten. The Jewish cemeteries are being gradually devoured by the vegetation growing on them. With their appearamce and disrepair they beg for someone to take care of them and with that, remind that the Jews used to live here, that they were members of the community and, like everyone, worked, prayed and died...