Town in the Wielkopolska province of Poland. Established by the Leszczyński family, Leszno (known as Lissa in Yiddish and German) granted its population civic rights in 1547. Jews were living in Leszno as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century; records indicate that they paid a coronation tax in 1507. Many Protestants, including Czech Brethren, settled there as well.
Jews were granted a community privilege in 1580, and it was probably then that a cemetery and a synagogue were established. In April 1656, during the Polish–Swedish war, many Protestants and Jews left for Silesia, fleeing Stefan Czarniecki’s Polish army. In 1709, Jews importing furs from Russia were accused of carrying the plague; consequently, Jews were temporarily expelled from the town.
Jews played an important role in developing Leszno into one of Poland’s most important centers for commerce and textile manufacturing. As many as nine Jewish craft guilds existed, including goldsmiths, tailors, furriers, butchers, tanners, and embroiderers. Since Jews were not permitted to trade in clothing, they dealt instead in wool, which they sold in Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia. Jews maintained close contacts with German towns, especially Breslau, where there had been a synagogue from 1684. They also participated in Leipzig’s fairs: in 1686, as many as 23 Jewish merchants from Leszno traded there.
In the eighteenth century, Leszno became a leading Jewish community in Great Poland. Its yeshivas attracted students from German territories and all over Poland, including the young Akiva Eger. Among its rabbis were David Tevele and Ya‘akov Lorbeerbaum. In 1765, approximately 5,000 Jews lived in Leszno (about 15% of the town’s population); it was one of the largest Jewish communities in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Jewish quarter was destroyed by fire several times. This did not, however, result in a population decline. An imposing synagogue was built during this period.
After the second partition of Poland (1793), Leszno was annexed by Prussia. Jews were attracted to German culture, and many gradually left for cities such as Berlin and Breslau. In 1837, the Jewish population of 3,470 accounted for 40 percent of the town’s residents; by 1881, it had fallen to 1,833, or 15.5 percent. Leszno and its Jewish community lost its economic position, due (among other factors) to the imposition of new customs duties that limited trade with Russia. However, religious and cultural institutions continued to develop.
After Leszno was reincorporated into Poland in 1918, only 322 Jews remained in 1920; this number fell to 172 in 1939. With the outbreak of World War II, the town was annexed to the Reich territory of Warthegau. At the beginning of 1940, some Jews were moved to the Generalgouvernement, to Grodzisk Mazowiecki, and then to the Warsaw ghetto in February 1942. From April 1941 until August 1943 a labor camp was run in Leszno for some 500 Poles and Jews, who were forced to build railway tracks. After the camp’s liquidation some prisoners were sent to Silesia.
Leszno’s late eighteenth-century synagogue has been preserved, with fragments of its early twentieth-century polychromy. Presently the building is used as a museum and exhibition hall. The Jewish department of the museum is located in the former building of the burial society.
Sophia Kemlein, Die Posener Juden, 1815–1848: Entwicklungsprozesse einer polnischen Judenheit unter preussischer Herrschaft (Hamburg, 1997); Louis Lewin, Geschichte der Juden in Lissa (Pinne, Ger., 1904); Magdalena Rakowska and Agnieszka Wojciak, Żydzi w Leszczyńskiem (Leszno, Pol., 1995); Fritz Scherbel, Die Juden in Lissa (Berlin, 1932); Abraham Wein, ed., “Leshno / Leszno,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 6, Meḥozot Poznan ve-Pomeranyah / Gedansk (Dantsig), pp. 83–87 (Jerusalem, 1999).
Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov