(Ukr., Peremyshl; Yid., Pshemishel), city in southeastern Poland. It is presumed that at the beginning of the eleventh century a Jewish trading post existed in Przemyśl. Larger groups of Jews settled in the town in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and by the end of the fourteenth century a Jewish community had been constituted. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, this community numbered as many as 100 persons. A document from 1459 mentions a “Jewish” street in Przemyśl. Jews settled primarily in the northeastern part of the city, establishing a distinct quarter. They were involved in both local and long-distance trade, and also made their living as moneylenders and artisans, the latter maintaining their own guilds.
Synagogue built in 1902, Przemyśl, Poland, 2004. Photograph by Piotr Piluk. (© Piotr Piluk)
In 1559, King Sigismund Augustus granted Jews of Przemyśl a privilege or charter, assuring them freedom of trade. Ten years later, about 270 Jews resided there, making up 8 percent of the total population; in 1629 the numbers had risen to 960, or 16 percent, and in 1785 there were 1,750, or 27 percent. Przemyśl’s Jewish community was one of Poland’s largest, and its rabbi also acted as spiritual leader for the entire district. In the sixteenth century, Przemyśl’s Jews built a wooden synagogue and, in 1594, constructed a more permanent, Renaissance-style synagogue. In the seventeenth century, a Jewish cemetery was established in the Podgórze suburb. Municipal authorities charged the Jewish community with the task of defending the portion of the city walls adjacent to the Jewish quarter. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century, the community suffered through nine anti-Jewish riots. Also during this period were five accusations of ritual murder, and in 1630 Moshko Shmukler was executed for alleged Host desecration.
After the first partition of Poland in 1772, Przemyśl fell under Austrian rule, a situation that temporarily worsened the legal status of the city’s Jews. Przemyśl’s Jewish population nonetheless continued to grow, reaching 5,692, or 38.2 percent of the total, in 1870, and 16,062, or 29.7 percent, in 1910. The rapid rise in the city’s Jewish population led to the establishment of a new cemetery near Słowacki Street in 1822 and the construction of several new synagogues. Przemyśl’s most notable rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were Shemu’el Heller, Yitsḥak Yehudah Schmelkes, and Gedalyah Schmelkes. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the trading and artisanal activity of Przemyśl’s Jews centered on supplying provisions for the city’s military base.
Proponents of the Haskalah were active in the city; at the same time, Hasidism also gained adherents in the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, Jews in Przemyśl began to form Zionist organizations. From 1905, a Jewish Social Democratic Party, affiliated with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and led by Herman Lieberman, gained substantial support as well. Jews were often members of the city council in Przemyśl; a notable example was the communal leader Mosheh Sheinbach.
During World War I, occupying Russian forces deported all Jews from Przemyśl; they returned only after the Russians were driven out of the city. In 1921, Przemyśl was home to 18,360 Jews, who constituted 38.8 percent of the city’s total population. The interwar period saw a flourishing of Jewish organizations and institutions, with Zionists gaining influence mainly at the expense of the Orthodox Agudas Yisroel party, which lost its leading role in the community’s institutions to the former group in 1936. The Bund, too, became an important political force in the 1930s. Of the 48 seats in Przemyśl’s city council, Jews won 18 in 1928, and the Zionist doctor Henryk Reichman became deputy mayor. Rising antisemitism, meanwhile, expressed itself mainly in boycotts of Jewish shops and artisans.
Przemyśl was the birthplace of the historian and philologist Matthias Mieses (1885–1942), who resided there during the interwar period. His brother, Józef Mieses (1882–1942), became the chief rabbi of the Polish army; likewise native to the city were the rabbi and historian Mojżesz Schorr and the philologist Mojżesz Altbauer, both of whom graduated from the city’s Polish secondary school.
Jews selling off their household goods, Przemyśl ghetto, Poland, 1942. (YIVO)
From September 1939 to June 1941, Soviet forces occupied the city, with the exception of the Zasanie neighborhood, which was given to the Germans. Soviet authorities deported about 7,000 Jews to Russia, and after taking over the entire city, the Germans established a ghetto on 16 July 1942. In addition to Jews native to Przemyśl, the Germans moved Jews from surrounding towns into the city’s ghetto; in all, the ghetto held more than 22,000 persons. At the end of July and the beginning of August 1942, more than 10,000 Jews were deported to Bełżec, while another several hundred were shot in a forest in Grochowce. In November 1942, the Germans sent another group of 4,000 Jews to Bełżec. Przemyśl’s ghetto was then reduced in size and divided into two sections—“A” for those who could work and “B” for those who could not. The Germans liquidated the latter section in early September 1943, sending most of its residents to their deaths at Auschwitz. The liquidation of section A began in November 1943 and ended in February 1944; Jews residing there were sent to labor camps in Szebnie, Stalowa Wola, and Płaszów.
After the city was liberated in 1944, a Jewish committee was founded. In 1947, a Jewish workers’ cooperative known as Jedność (Unity) employed 25 people. In 1966, Przemyśl still had a functioning Jewish Social-Cultural Society. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, only a handful of Jews remained in Przemyśl.
John J. Hartman and Jacek Krochmal, eds., I Remember Every Day: The Fates of the Jews of Przemyśl during World War II (Przemyśl, Pol., and Ann Arbor, 2002); Arie Menczer (Ments´er), ed., Sefer Pshemishel (Tel Aviv, 1964); Moses Schorr, Żydzi w Przemyślu: Do końca XVIII. wieku; Opracowanie i wydawnictwo materyału archiwalnego (1903; rpt., Jerusalem, 1991); Wacław Wierzbieniec, Społeczność żydowska Przemyśla w latach 1918–1939 (Rzeszów, Pol., 1996).
Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec