General information: First Jewish presence: 15th century; peak Jewish population: 1,096 in 1812; Jewish population in 1933: 12
Summary: Jews—the first of whom were presumably from Bohemia and Moravia—lived in Zuelz (the city of Biala in today’s Poland) from the 15th century onwards. The oldest document referring to a Jewish presence in the town is dated 1543; at that time, all Zuelz’s Jewish residents were obliged to live together on one street. Zuelz was one of the few towns in Upper Silesia to develop a very large Jewish population; its Jews were shielded from persecution and expulsions by local rulers and, in 1699, they received a letter of protection from Kaiser Leopold himself. The towns of Zuelz and nearby Golgau (also in southwestern Poland) were the only places where Jews were given permission to stay even after the general expulsion of Jews from Silesia and Bohemia in 1582. This prompted significant growth of Zuelz’s Jewish community, and the town came to be known as “Zuelz of the Jews” (Judenzuelz in German; Makom Tzaddik in Hebrew). During the years 1780 to 1820, Jews made up 50% of Zuelz’s total population; in fact, for a time during the 18th century, the majority of Zuelz’s residents were Jewish. A report from 1688 mentions a wooden synagogue and a Jewish burial ground located outside town. A new Jewish cemetery was later established on Kopiec Hill; that cemetery was used by Jews from other communities in the area too (including the Jews of Breslau until 1761) and had to be extended at the end of the 17th century. Today it contains more than 3,000 graves. In addition to the wooden synagogue, the Zuelz community used a number of small prayer rooms, even after a proper synagogue was built in 1774. The new synagogue, a stone building with a beautiful facade, replaced the old wooden house of worship, which had been destroyed in a fire. The new synagogue was one of the largest in Germany at that time; it had seating for 300 men and 100 women. Initially Jewish education in Zuelz was offered only by a private school; in the 18th century, however, another school, accepting children from the town’s poorer Jewish families as well, was opened; its syllabus was dedicated almost exclusively to Jewish studies. The Zuelz Jews prospered and their community continued to grow until the late 17th century. In the 18th century, their economic situation deteriorated significantly; by that time they were living in cramped conditions, most of them in rented accommodation. The majority made an income through petty trade and peddling wares at weekly and annual markets, and only very few Jewish families were financially secure. From the 19th century onwards, local Jews began leaving in search of better economic opportunities. This decrease in the Jewish population improved relations between Jews and Christians in Zuelz, which, due to economic tensions, had been strained for some time. The Jews who stayed in Zuelz did better financially, and this benefitted the entire town. Nevertheless, owing to the sharp decrease in its Jewish population, after 1812, Zuelz lost its status as an important center for Silesian Jewry. By 1840, only 755 Jews still lived there; this number continued to fall and, in 1914, Zuelz’s Jewish now-small community lost its independence and was affiliated with the congregation in Neustadt; the synagogue in Zuelz was sold that year. By that time Jewish community life in the town had ceased almost completely. In the years 1925 to 1935 only 12 Jews lived in Zuelz. It is not known what happened to them under the Nazis; however, we do know that the former synagogue was burned down on Pogrom Night, November 1938, and was demolished completely in 1939. Today, a children’s playground is located where the synagogue once stood; as of this writing, no commemorative plaque has ever been erected there.
Photo: The synagogue of Zuelz. Courtesy of: The Wiener Archive.
Author / Sources: Bronagh Bowerman
Sources: EJL, LJG
Located in: silesia