Little Synagogue (built ca. 1765) on Jerozolimska Street, Piotrków, Poland, 2001. Photograph by Piotr Piluk. (© 2001 Piotr Piluk)

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City roughly 16 miles (25 km) southeast of Łódź in central Poland, Piotrków was the capital of the Piotrków guberniia from 1867 to 1915. Founded in the twelfth century, the town was the site of the Polish Crown Tribunal between 1578 and 1792. Although Piotrków was granted the privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis (1487, 1569, 1628, 1673, and 1720), Jews settled with royal permission in its suburbs during the sixteenth century.

A blood libel in 1590 led to expulsion; synagogues were burned; and Jews were later attacked by Polish troops led by Stefan Czarniecki in 1657. The Jewish community received a privilege from King Jan Sobieski in 1679, removing them from urban jurisdiction. Jews were permitted to trade freely and engage in crafts, and were allowed to bake and sell bread. Royal officials and the municipal council were ordered to ensure the Jews’ safety. After Prussian rule from 1793, the town was under tsarist-ruled Poland from 1815 until World War I.

During the nineteenth century, and particularly after the route of the new railroad line between Vienna and Warsaw passed through Piotrków, industrial development (involving textiles and timber) was quite rapid. The Jewish population increased from 2,133 in 1827 (totaling 45% of the town’s population) to 9,370 in 1897 (33%). An important Hebrew press was established in 1864.

In interwar Poland, Jews comprised a quarter of the city’s population of 50,000. A center for wood and glass manufacturing and textile production, Piotrków was also well known for its Hebrew and Yiddish book publishing. There were three Yiddish weeklies and numerous Jewish political, social, economic, cultural, and religious organizations. The chief rabbi from 1924 to 1932 was Me’ir Shapira, the Sejm deputy and subsequent founder of the Yeshivat Ḥakhme Lublin. The town’s last rabbi, Mosheh Ḥayim Lau (1892–1943), who wrote on kidush ha-Shem (martyrdom), was active in the Beys Yankev movement for girls’ education. The town attracted followers of the Hasidic courts of Ger, Aleksander, Radomsk, and Amshinow, as well as adherents of the Zionist and Bundist movements. Interwar Piotrków had two yeshivas and a Polish–Hebrew secondary school, as well as elementary schools operated by Tarbut and TSYSHO, an ORT vocational school, and two szabasówki (closed on the Jewish Sabbath) municipal elementary schools for Jewish children.

Jews were active in local politics, usually in support of the socialist (PPS) coalition. In 1919, the city council of 33 included 7 Jews, increasing to 8 in 1928 and 9 in 1939, when the Bund and Po‘ale Tsiyon swept the seats won by Jewish lists. The kehilah was controlled by Agudas Yisroel until 1936, after which the socialist Bund dominated, reflecting Jewish protest against increasing anti-Jewish violence, discrimination, and boycotts. Youth groups were sponsored by Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, Betar, the Bund, and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, as well as Orthodox and Communist groups. Jewish sports organizations included Maccabi, Ha-Po‘el, Morgnshtern, Shtern, and the Kraft bicycle team.

With the German invasion of September 1939, about 2,000 Jews fled the city, where in October 1939 the first Nazi ghetto was established on Polish soil. When the ghetto was sealed in April 1942, it housed 16,469 Jews, including about 8,000 refugees, who were subjected to forced labor, starvation, and murderous abuse that the Judenrat and clandestine groups attempted to ameliorate. By October 1942, there were about 25,000 Jews in the ghetto. The majority of them were killed between 14 and 22 October 1942; about 2,400 remained in two labor camps, most of whom were sent to death camps in July 1943. The last Jews of Piotrków were deported to concentration camps in Germany on 25 November 1944.

After World War II, survivors returned seeking relatives, although the Jewish community did not persist for long. Among the survivors were three sons of Mosheh Lau, including the future Israeli diplomat Naftali Lavie-Lau and the youngest son, Yisra’el Me’ir Lau, who became a chief rabbi of Israel. The large former synagogue is a public library, while the adjacent former bet midrash houses children’s books.

Suggested Reading

Danuta Dombrovska and Abraham Wein, eds., “Piotrkuv Tribuna’lski / Piotrków Trybunalski,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 1, Lodz´ veha-Galil, pp. 186–201 (Jerusalem, 1976); Ben Giladi, ed., A Tale of One City: Piotrków Trybunalski (Poland) (New York, 1991); Shimon Huberband, Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland during the Holocaust, trans. David E. Fishman, ed. Jeffrey S. Gurock and Robert S. Hirt (Hoboken, N.J., and New York, 1987); Ya‘akov Malts and Naftali La’v (Lavi’), eds., Piotrkow Tribunalski veha-sevivah: Sefer zikaron / Pietrkov Tribunalski un umgegnt: Yizker-bukh (Tel Aviv, 1965), in Hebrew and Yiddish; Shmuel Spector, ed., “Piotrkow Trybunalski,” in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust, vol. 2, pp. 994–996 (New York and Jerusalem, 2001).