(Pol., Śląsk; Ger., Schlesien; Cz., Slezsko), a region at the borders of Prussia, Saxony, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland. Silesia was disputed territory from the tenth century. Around 990, it was separated from the Bohemian lands and became part of Poland. In the period of the regional fracturing of Poland, the majority of the Silesian princes accepted the sovereignty of the Czech king, which Kazimierz the Great eventually acknowledged, abdicating Silesia to Bohemia. The Habsburgs ruled it from 1526, and as a result of the Silesian Wars (1740–1763), the majority of its territory came under Prussian rule, with only the southeastern regions remaining in the realm of the Habsburgs. The latter region, Austrian Silesia—comprising the principalities of Teschen (Pol., Cieszyn; Cz., Těšín), Troppau (Pol., Opawa; Cz., Opava), and Jägerndorf (Pol., Karniów, Cz., Krnov)—remained under Habsburg rule from 1742 to 1918. After World War I, the Opava and Krnov areas of Austrian Silesia became part of Czechoslovakia, while the Cieszyn region was to be divided according to the results of a plebiscite, which never took place, however, due to the earlier annexation of the western part of this region by Czechoslovakia during the Polish–Soviet war in 1920. The remaining part of Cieszyn region, together with the eastern strip of Prussian Upper Silesia, became Polish and was made the Autonomous Silesian Voivodeship in 1922. This was enlarged with the annexation from Czechoslovakia of the western part of Cieszyn region in 1938. The majority of Upper Silesia and all of Lower Silesia remained part of Germany. After World War II, all of German Silesia was annexed to Poland.
Purim plate. Silesia, ca. 1675. Pewter. Inscribed at top: H. H. Schier, A. M. Seidelin, 1675. Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw. (© Muzeum Narodowe / The Bridgeman Art Library)
The earliest evidence of Jews in Silesia is a twelfth-century reference to a Jew who owned the village of Tinz Klein. In 1204, Sokolniki, another village, belonged to two Jews. Also in the thirteenth century, there is a reference to a Rabbi Yitsḥak of Vratislau (Breslau, Wrocław) and the oldest Jewish gravestone in Wrocław (David ben Sar Shalom, d. 1203), suggesting the existence of a permanent Jewish community there. There may have been Jewish communities in Legnica (Liegnitz) and Bolesławiec (Bunzlau) by the end of the twelfth century. The thirteenth century saw rapid development; sources note the presence of Jews in Bytom (Beuthen; 1227), Świdnica (Schweidnitz; 1270), Glogów (Glogau; 1280), Opawa (Troppau; 1281), Ziębice (Münsterberg; 1285), and Kłodzko (Glatz; 1300), in addition to Wrocław and Legnica. A synod of bishops in Wrocław in 1267 called for extensive restrictions and segregation of Jews, but these probably were never put into practice. The first collective privilege to Jews in Silesia was issued by Henryk IV to the Wrocław community about 1273. It was modeled on the privilege granted the Jews of Great Poland by Bolesław the Pious in 1264.
By the fourteenth century, Silesian Jewish communities comprised a vast majority of Jewish settlements in Poland. Silesian Jews, in this period, were chiefly moneylenders, though there were also merchants and artisans. Their relative prosperity is reflected in extensive real estate holdings in Wrocław, Legnica, and Świdnica, and their expensive granite tombstones from this period testify to their sense of social and economic security.
Beginning in this period, Jewish merchants faced intense and increasing competition by German residents of the Silesian towns. A wave of pogroms broke out in 1348–1349, the worst of which was in Wrocław following a fire in the town in 1349. Two years later, another pogrom there was followed by an edict of expulsion. Henceforth, Jews wishing to reside there had to purchase a letter of protection for a period limited to between one and six years. Violent popular attacks continued to occur with one of the worst occurring in Strzegom, where 73 Jews were murdered in 1401. In Głogów that same year, a charge of Host desecration led to the burning of Jakub and Pesach Rothbart. In 1453, John of Capistrano initiated another instance of this libelous charge leading to the execution by burning of 41 people in Wrocław. Jewish property was seized and the principalities of Świdnica, Lwówek, and Wrocław prohibited Jewish residence. There were also expulsions from Ząbkowice (Frankenstein) in 1514, from Opawa in 1522, and from Głubczyce in 1543. Finally, Jews were expelled from all of Silesia by imperial edicts issued by Ferdinand I in 1559 and Rudolf II in 1582. After this time, Jews resided on the basis of special privileges only in Głogów and Zülz as well as in Osoblaha (Hotzenplotz), a Moravian enclave, with a sizable number of Jewish emigrants from other Silesian towns.
Stores owned by Jews in Plac Solny (Salt Square), Breslau (Wrocław, now in Poland), ca. 1900: (left) hat store owned by S. Lewandowski; (center) textile firm owned by Eduard Bielschowsky. Photograph by Eduard van Delden and Heinrich Götz. (Wrocław University Library, Poland)
In the seventeenth century, these three communities of Głogów, Zülz, and Osoblaha gave rise to the reemergence of Jewish settlement in other regions of Silesia, especially since most of the formal inhabitants of these communities actually traded and settled in other areas of Silesia. At the same time family privileges led to the growth of Jewish settlements in Cieszyn and elsewhere. For example, Shabetai Bass (1641–1718) was given permission to found a Hebrew press in Dyhernfurth (Brzeg Dolny) in 1688. Imperial permission was likewise accorded to a small number of Jews to reside in Wrocław, which was open to all Jewish merchants during fairs. As a result, small Jewish settlements appeared nearby. Jewish numbers, due mainly to migration from Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland, gradually increased in rural areas of Upper Silesia. Ferdinand II confirmed the Jews’ right of residence in 1628. Still, not more than 200 Jewish families lived in Silesia in 1700. Although among them was a financial elite of several families who had been expelled from Vienna in 1670, the majority of Jews were impoverished, living mainly from leasing of the minor state monopolies, tavernkeeping, the production and sale of alcohol, and peddling.
Charles VI imposed a so-called tolerance tax on Silesian Jews in 1713, which both legalized Jewish residence in Silesia and heavily taxed the registered Jewish residents. In 1725, a total of 350 families were recorded in Breslau, 180 in Zülz, and 1,564 individuals in Głogów. The pace of expansion was severely limited, however, by the law of 1726 permitting only one son to marry and remain in Silesia. Severe restrictions on economic activity were also introduced. Ultimately, Charles ordered the expulsion of Jews from Silesia in 1738, but because of resistance from the local gentry, his own death, and the annexation of most of Silesia by Prussia in 1740–1742, the order was not carried out.
In 1752, Empress Maria Theresa permitted 119 Jewish families to live in Austrian Silesia under restricted conditions. The number of illegal residents there was several times higher. Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance of 1781 maintained the limit of 119 but significantly enlarged the list of permitted occupations, eliminated some discriminatory legislation, and supported access to secular education. This prompted a fast cultural and social transformation of Silesian Jews. Nevertheless, full legal equality was not granted to this community until 1848.
In Prussian Silesia too, legislation facilitated the economic development of the Jewish community, particularly in Breslau. By 1791, there were 9,066 Jews in that region, including 2,484 in Breslau, 1,791 in Glogau, 1,012 in Zülz, and 3,799 in the villages. Wrocław became an important center of the Haskalah; the first German Jewish periodical, the Dyhernfürther Privilegierte Zeitung, was published there (in German in Hebrew letters) in 1771–1772; and the first Silesian Jewish writers in German included the poets Ephraim Kuh (1731–1790) and Esther Gad-Bernard (1770–1820).
Although the 1812 Prussian edict of emancipation expanded the rights of Jews, serious restrictions remained in force until 1848, and some obstacles to full freedom of occupation persisted until the fall of the empire. The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw emigration from older and smaller settlements and a concentration of Jews in Breslau, where in 1871 they numbered 13,916 or 6.7 percent of the population (rural communities of Jews in Silesia had virtually disappeared by 1900). Breslau served as an important publishing and cultural center, home to the Jewish Theological Seminary founded in 1854. Jews participated in city government and in various social and cultural associations. The community prospered so that by the early twentieth century, Breslau’s Jews, who made up 4.3 percent of the population, paid 20.3 percent of all taxes. While trade and commerce remained the predominant sector for employed Jews, industry and the free professions developed as tavernkeeping and the retail sale of alcohol disappeared. By this time, however, emigration, especially to Berlin and western areas of Germany, was reducing Jewish numbers in Silesia; the population fell from 52,682 in 1880 to 44,982 in 1910.
Jewish settlement intensified in the nineteenth century also in the Upper Silesian regions where coal mining and the steel industry were developing rapidly, especially in Gliwice, Bytom, and Katowice. In the last of these towns, the Jewish population increased from 12 in 1840 to 2,975 in 1910. There were tensions in this area after 1880 when it became an important region of transit for Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire, provoking reaction on the part of Prussian authorities and resentment among local Jews who resented the arrival of Ostjuden.
Delegates to the conference at which the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement was founded, Katowice, Poland, 1884. (Front row, center) Lev (Leon) Pinsker, author of the proto-Zionist manifesto Autoemancipation. (YIVO)
In the aftermath of World War I, the Jewish community of Upper Silesia virtually unanimously voted for the German and against the Polish side in the plebiscite, and many Jews subsequently emigrated from regions allocated to Poland. Other Jews took their place, arriving from central Poland and Galicia. As a result, the social and occupational structure of the Jewish community changed, with new political and ideological formations—Jewish labor movements, political representation of Orthodoxy, and even Hasidism—taking root. This created strong conflicts between “old” and “new” Jewish residents in Polish Upper Silesia, the fact further complicated by the union of the territory of formerly Prussian and formerly Austrian parts of Upper Silesia. These conflicts dominated life of the Jewish community in Polish Upper Silesia until the Holocaust.
In the interwar period, despite economic difficulties, the Prussian Silesian Jewish community experienced a remarkable cultural efflorescence. There was a communal press, a Jewish museum in Breslau, and considerable artistic activity, and the number of Jewish professors at the university in Breslau increased.
All this was brought to a halt by the rise to power of the Nazis. Jews emigrated in ever-larger numbers. The population shrank from 34,423 in 1933 to 17,257 in 1939—it had been 44,000 in 1920. For a brief period, Nazi anti-Jewish legislation was blocked in part of this region because under the Geneva convention Jews had been included in minority rights guarantees for Upper Silesia. The Geneva convention, however, expired in 1937 and immediately afterward Upper Silesia was subject to Nazi anti-Jewish legislation.
On Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), 80 Silesian synagogues were burnt and large numbers of Jews were transported to Buchenwald. While 544 Jews of German Silesia still managed to emigrate in 1940 and a few others in 1941, the remainder died either in the labor and transition camps in Silesia or after being deported to Kaunas, Sobibór, Bełżec, Terezín, and Auschwitz. In addition, those who did not manage to escape from Czech and Polish Silesia before annexation of these territories by Nazi Germany in 1938–1939 were sent mostly to the ghettos in Gliwice, Wadowice, Sosnowiec, Będzin, Myszków, Ostrava, and Frydek and eventually perished in Terezín and Auschwitz.
Students from the Talmud Torah (tuition-free elementary school) at a kosher soup kitchen, Gliwice, 1946. YIVO (YIVO)
In 1946, Polish Silesia—that is, prewar German Silesia and the Polish Silesian province—became a center for the settlement of Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union. By July of that year, they numbered 110,000. Many emigrated almost immediately after the Kielce pogrom of 4 July 1946; a year later, about 53,000 remained, making up just over half of the entire Jewish population of Poland at the time. For a short while, the government supported the revival of Jewish cultural life in the region. A press in Yiddish (Nidershlezye) and Polish (Nowe Życie) was published; and there were Jewish political parties, religious communities, schools, and a theater. The Silesian community, however, dependent as it was on government support, was soon overshadowed by Warsaw and Łódź. By 1949–1950, all independent social, cultural, and educational activity had been shut down by the state. Emigration continued, though there was a brief revival of Jewish life with the arrival in 1957 and 1958 of the last wave of repatriates from the Soviet Union. State antisemitism in 1967–1968 led to even more emigration, leaving just some 3,500 Jews in Lower Silesia.
There was a revival of Jewish communal life, mainly around the synagogue, in the later 1980s. Although they regained some prewar communal property, the three Silesian Jewish communities—Wrocław, Katowice, and Bielsko-Biała—faced many challenges as the twentieth century drew to a close. Still, in addition to the national Social-Cultural Association, organizations of the children of Holocaust survivors, and religious and educational associations were active. Membership in these organizations did not exceed 700 in 2004, although the number of people of Jewish origin was probably several times higher.
In Czech Silesia after 1945, four small communities were revived, numbering about 500 Jews in total in 1948, mainly in Těšín. By 1960, official statistics recorded 130 Jews in Czech Silesia and by 1970, all Jewish communities in the region had been dissolved.
M. (Marcus) Brann, Geschichte der Juden in Schlesien, 6 vols. (Breslau, 1896–1917); Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse, Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City (London, 2002); Margret Heitmann and Andreas Reineke, Bibliographie zur Geschichte der Juden in Schlesien (Munich, 1995); Marcin Wodziński and Janusz Spyra, eds., Jews in Silesia (Kraków and Wrocław, 2001); Marcin Wodziński, Bibliographie zur Geschichte der Juden in Schlesien II (Munich, 2004), compiled as supplement to Heitmann and Reineke (1995); Leszek Ziątkowski, Dzieje Żydów we Wrocławiu (Wrocław, 2000), also in German as Die Geschichte der Juden in Breslau (Wrocław, 2000).