Breslau - Introduction

General information: First Jewish presence: 13th century; peak Jewish population: 23,240 in 1925; Jewish population in 1933: 20,202
Summary: The Middle Ages
An extant tombstone, dated 1203, indicates that Jews may have settled here as early as the 12th century. The city’s first medieval Jewish community maintained two synagogues and lived on a Judengasse. Although Silesian dukes encouraged Jews to settle in Breslau, anti-Jewish attitudes were common among church leaders and officials, resulting in the disbanding of the Jewish community shortly after 1347. Breslau was home to another short-lived Jewish community between 1350 and 1360, and yet another from the late 1300s to 1453, when 41 local Jews were burned at the stake and the others expelled.
The 17th and 18th Centuries
Jewish merchants, who played a significant role in import trade, traveled to Breslau for its fairs and holiday markets. Beginning in 1630, Ferdinand II granted residency rights to a number of Jewish families, enabling them to settle on the city’s outskirts. Many of these Jewish arrivals were traders (of silver, for example). Jews congregated for worship according to their place of origin, e.g., Zuelz, Glogau, or Lemberg, and set up culturally appropriate prayer rooms, or so-called shuls, of which the two oldest were the Lissa Shul (~1685) and the Landshul. Wealthy families established several private prayer halls, so that in 1701 the city was home to 10 places of worship. A chevra kadisha was founded in 1726, but the various congregations had not yet established an official community. This changed in 1744, when Frederick the Great issued an edict permitting the establishment of an official Jewish community, after which Benedict Reuben Gomperz (Baruch Wesel) was appointed state and local rabbi. A Jewish cemetery (1760- 1856) was consecrated on Claasenstrasse in 1760. Nearly a century later, in 1856, a new cemetery was consecrated on Lohestrasse, where Heinrich Graetz, Ferdinand Cohn, Gedalya Titkin, and Edith Stein’s parents were later buried. Another cemetery was consecrated in Cosel in 1902. In Breslau, it was mainly the wealthier families who supported the Jewish Enlightenment, setting up a Jewish school on Wilhelmsschule (1791-1848) where children studied the humanities and, in 1801, an industrial school (Industrieschule) for girls. In or around 1800, Breslau’s Liberal Jews formed the Zum Tempel synagogue association, in which sermons were conducted in German. Later, in the 19th century, disputes erupted between Liberal and Orthodox members; in 1854, the two sides reached a compromise, resulting in the creation of a “united community” that would serve as a model for other Jewish communities in Germany. The 19th century until the Rise of Hitler Following the edict of Jewish emancipation in 1812, Jews began to branch out into areas of social and professional life that had previously been closed to them. They joined political parties, and even served on the municipal council, the national assembly and the Reichstag (parliament); Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), Paula Ollendorff (1860- 1938) and Eugen Schiffer (1860-1954) were actively engaged in politics. Aided by generous philanthropists, two of whom were David Fraenckel and Julius Schottlaender, the community was also able to establish many new social and educational organizations. These included a new Jewish hospital, a shelter, an orphanage, several charitable foundations and the Jewish Theological Seminary (1854- 1939), the first modern rabbinical seminary in Central Europe. In 1829, after receiving permission from the government to build a synagogue, the community inaugurated the Storchsynagoge, which initially served liberal Jews. In 1872, when Breslau’s Liberal congregation inaugurated the Neue Synagoge—the second largest in pre-war Germany—under the guidance of Abraham Geiger’s successor, Rabbi Manuel Joel, the Storchsynagoge became the religious center for those who adhered to the Modern Orthodox tradition. From 1810 until 1925, the Jewish population grew from approximately 3,000 to a peak of 23,240—the third largest Jewish community in Germany.
The Nazi Era
Anti-Semitism intensified in Breslau in the late 19th century, with its proponents gaining a foothold among students, teachers and medical doctors. In 1923, Jewish-owned stores were looted, the cemetery desecrated, and in 1926 local Jews were accused of blood libel. In 1933, 20,202 Jews lived in Breslau, served by four ritual slaughterers, a mikveh, a hospital, an orphanage, a kindergarten, a library, the above-mentioned seminary and an old-age home. Also active in the community were local branches of national Jewish organizations and various burial, educational, welfare and cultural associations. In 1932/33, 1,650 schoolchildren received religious instruction at Jewish secondary schools and schools for religious studies. We also know that, in 1934, a local branch of the Jewish Cultural Association was opened in Breslau. Zionist groups increasingly attracted younger Jews, in response to which the community offered vocational training courses to prepare the youth for life in Palestine. In Breslau, anti-Jewish boycotts occurred even before the official boycott of April 1933. Jurists, doctors, professors and teachers were dismissed from their posts, and local Jews were beaten, tortured, imprisoned and killed by Nazis. In October 1938, Polish Jews were expelled from Breslau. On Pogrom Night, Nazis vandalized most of Breslau’s prayer rooms, completely destroying the Neue Synagoge. Jews were killed on the streets; property and shops were destroyed. Approximately 2,500 local Jewish men were arrested, most of whom were sent to Buchenwald. The Storchsynagoge was also damaged during Pogrom Night, but Liberal and Orthodox Jews continued to conduct services there until 1941. Services also continued at the Israelite Hospital, the Beate-Guttmann Home and the Rehdiger School. In August 1939, the confiscation of Jewish community buildings began in earnest. Jews were seized for forced labor, and between 1939 and 1941 more than 600 left Breslau. In September 1941, the remaining Jews were moved into designated “Jewish houses.” Deportations left Breslau from June/July of 1941 until early 1945. Between 1,500 and 1,800 Jews were initially sent, in a total of three transports, to the nearby camps, from which they were deported to the East and to Theresienstadt. Only 150 Jews remained in Breslau in 1945.
After the Second World War
After the war, when the city became Polish, approximately 10,000 Eastern European refugees settled there. The new community (8,000 in 1962) conducted services at the Storchsynagoge. Most Jews later left Breslau—mainly for Scandinavia, Israel and elsewhere—as a result of the communist government’s anti-Jewish policies. The Storchsynagoge was restored and reopened in May 2010. A plaque has been affixed to the building, informing passersby that Jews had been rounded for deportation there. As of this writing, the site of the Neue Synagoge serves the city as a school playground; there, too, a memorial stone was unveiled. In 1988, the old Jewish cemetery (1856) was opened to the public as the Museum of Cemetery Architecture. Breslau’s Jewish community is the largest in Poland.
Author / Sources: Heidemarie Wawrzyn
Located in: silesia