EDUCATOR'S PRIMER: Background Information The history of Poland and the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish people who lived there is complex. Poland was annexed by different countries at different times -- four times by Russia alone between 1772 and 1815. Consequently, each region of the country developed at different paces and in different ways, and the history of the Jewish people, and their relationship to the non-Jewish people, varied from region to region and from partition to partition in Poland.
Jews moved to Poland for many reasons. Some came after being stripped of their assets and expelled from the countries of western Europe; namely England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. At times, Jews were actually welcomed in by the Polish government to establish new industries as part of an effort to improve the Polish economy. There were times from the late twelfth century to the end of the fourteenth century, when Jews enjoyed many of the same rights as other citizens, such as land ownership and involvement in commerce, which had been previously denied. However, as the fourteenth century drew to a close, persecution of Jews in Poland began. From anti-Jewish riots to the creation of enforced ghetto life, Jews became targets of violence and discrimination.
Changes came again when over a million Polish and Lithuanian Jews were incorporated under Russian rule as a result of Russia's westward expansion. These included several thousand Jews who were expelled from Russia in 1727 and 1747 and who had fled to Poland for safety. Geographic restrictions tightened even further in the late 1700s when Jews were confined to living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, a designated area in which Russian Jews were forced to live as stated in laws of 1795 and 1835. By 1897, more than five million Jews were living in the Pale.
Following World War 1, the three partitioning powers of Poland---Prussia (later Germany), Austria-Hungary, and Russia --- collapsed, yet, it took years for Poland to be reestablished as an independent country. Democracy for this new country did not last long. After only three years, the government took a shift towards authoritarian rule in 1923.
Hitler's rule of the German Empire from 1933 until his death in 1945 did not bode well for the Jewish people. His plan to rebuild Germany by exterminating Jews and promoting the theory of racial purity through an Aryan race would be at the expense of the entire world community. Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 was a death knell for many Polish people, but especially for the Jews. Of the approximately 3.25 million Jews living in Poland, less than 300,000 would survive. Today, the Jewish population in Poland numbers less than three thousand.
Issues of power, inclusion and exclusion have been played out continually throughout the history of Poland. We can all learn from looking at this country, its people and the plight of the Jews who lived there.
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