Town in the Wielkopolska province of Poland. In the eleventh century, Gniezno (known in Yiddish and German as Gnesen) was established as the first capital of the Polish state; since the year 1000 it has been the seat of an archbishop. Jews likely lived in the town as early as the twelfth century, where they managed the mint of a local prince. The oldest images of Jews in Polish lands are found on the bronze door of the Gniezno cathedral, dating from the second half of the twelfth century.
According to a tax register of 1507, Gniezno was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland; by 1565, Jews lived in 27 houses. A synagogue was mentioned in the same period. Working in both crafts and commerce, Jews joined both separate Jewish guilds and a common tailors’ guild for Christians and Jews. The annual Gniezno fair attracted Jewish merchants at the end of April; in particular, Jews were interested in its horses.
One of Gniezno’s rabbis was Eli‘ezer Ashkenazi (1513–1586), author of Ma‘ase Adonai. On a number of occasions from the end of the sixteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century, the Jewish Council of Wielkopolska (Great Poland) held sessions in the town. In April and May 1656, during the Polish–Swedish war, the Jewish community suffered at the hands of units led by Stefan Czarniecki, but it was rebuilt after privileges were granted by King Jan Kazimierz. A new synagogue was erected in 1680. In the eighteenth century local Jews were accused of two crimes—profanation of an image of Christ and Mary (1722) and ritual murder (1738).
As a result of the second partition of Poland in 1793, Gniezno was incorporated into Prussia. A period of development followed, but a decline began in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In 1857, Jews accounted for 27 percent of the population (totaling nearly 1,600 people), yet in 1871 their numbers had fallen to 14.5 percent—slightly more than 1,400 people. Many Jews moved to more developed German towns; others went to the United States.
Subsequently, Gniezno’s economic growth slowed; its main activities included crafts and the grain and flour trade. Some Jews were wealthy businessmen; others owned shops and restaurants that were located in the city center. There were religious and secular primary schools. In 1846–1847 an impressive synagogue was built. Many Jews were influenced by German culture and went to study at German universities. Jakub Caro (1836–1904), a Jewish historian and professor, was born in Gniezno. Jews participated actively in local political life, and had strong representation on the town council. The Zionist movement, active beginning in 1906, continued to be influential.
After World War I, Gniezno was again part of Poland. The number of Jews constantly decreased, falling from just 395 in 1921 to approximately 150 in 1939. After the outbreak of World War II, Gniezno was annexed to the Reich territory of Warthegau. In November 1939, the majority of Gniezno’s Jews were deported to the Generalgouvernement, mostly to the Radom district, though some were sent to Piotrków Trybunalski. The synagogue and the cemetery were destroyed. After World War II the community was not reestablished.
Danuta Dombrovska (Dąbrowska), “Zagłada Żydów w ‘Kraju Warty,’” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 13–14 (1955): 122–184; Sophia Kemlein, Die Posener Juden, 1815–1848: Entwicklungsprozesse einer polnischen Judenheit unter preussischer Herrschaft (Hamburg, 1997); Arthur Posner, Le-Korot kehilat Gnezin (Jerusalem, 1958), summary in English.
Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov