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Jews in Upper Silesia

A Brief History and Guide to Collections at LBI

“Patriotism was in high gear. I assume it played an even greater role in a border land. There was no difference between Christians and Jews when it came to patriotism”
—Max Grünewald in "Childhood Memories." LBI Archives, ME 806

A Brief History of Jews in Upper Silesia

Throughout its history, Upper Silesia has been a borderland region between various kingdoms and countries. Since the high Middle Ages, Silesia has changed hands many times. First, it was ruled by the Polish Piast Dynasty, followed by the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, Germany, and finally Poland. The people living in the region developed unique customs and traditions cultivated by the frequent border shifts forging a strong local identity. Jewish life in Upper Silesia varied depending on who controlled the region.

The first records of Jewish life in Upper Silesia can be traced to a 1226 document written about the town of Olesno by the Bishop of Wrocław. Jewish settlement in Upper Silesia during the high and late Middle Ages grew steadily because of protections granted to them by the Piast dukes. However, by the 14th century growing tensions marked a shift in Christian- Jewish relations that shaped the decades to come. The hostility culminated in the granting of the de non tolerandis Judaeis status to many towns in the region.

In 1526, the region of Silesia, including both Upper and Lower, came under the control of the Austrian branch of the Habsburg monarchy. However, it was only in the mid-17th century that restrictions on Jewish settlement in Upper Silesia were eased. Jews began to slowly return to the region, but the new policies did not bring long-term stability to the Jewish population.

Seal of the Zabrze Jewish Community
19th century seal of the Zabrze (Hindenburg in Oberschlesien) Jewish community. The seal combines the Star of David with the hammer and pick, a symbol closely associated with Upper Silesia. Source: Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance/ Dom Pamięci Żydów Górnośląskich.

After the First Silesian War in 1742, most of Silesia was relinquished by the Austria crown to Prussia. Jewish life in Prussia was regulated by the General Juden-Reglement für Süd und Neu-Ostpreussen. The policies of tolerance slowly made way for Jews emancipation in Prussia. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews in Upper Silesia where granted voting and citizen rights. The emancipation of Jews led to a rapid growth of the population from 15,064 in 1843 to 24,348 in 1880.

As Jews were being brought into the German fabric, a wave of nationalist movements began to bud across Germany. These movements were fueled by the unification of Germany in 1871 and anti-Catholic policies like the Kulturkampf. Ethnic and nationalist tensions grew after the German defeat in World War I, when the recently reestablished state of Poland began to lay claim to Upper Silesia. Jews where caught between the Polish and German nationalist groups vying for influence in the nationally ambiguous region. Ultimately, the region was divided between the two nations in 1922 after a plebiscite organized by the League of Nations. Most of the Jewish population supported the German cause, however some supported the region joining Poland.

Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Oberschlesien Postcard ( page 1)
Front of a 1937 Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Oberschlesien (Gleiwitz) Postcard. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, Herbert Buky Collection, AR 5143 .
Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Oberschlesien Postcard ( page 2)
Verso of a 1937 Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Oberschlesien (Gleiwitz) Postcard. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, Herbert Buky Collection, AR 5143 .

In the interwar period, Jew in Upper Silesia were faced with growing antisemitism in Poland and Germany. The antisemitism in the German part of the region was exasperated by Hitler's rise to power in 1933. The Nazis ascent brought about extensive anti-Jewish legislation that limited Jewish life in Germany. In 1933, Franz Bernheim, a Gleiwitz resident, petitioned the League of Nations to uphold the minority protections granted in 1922 as part of the Upper Silesian border settlement. The Bernheim petition was successful, resulting in the inability of the Nazi government to implement anti-Jewish laws in the region until the expiration of the provisions in 1937. Meanwhile in the Polish portion of the region, an increase in immigration of Orthodox Jews from the East lead to increasing hostility and antisemitism among the Upper Silesians. The demographic changes combined with general anti-Jewish sentiments in interwar Europe led to violent clashes and boycotts of Jewish goods. As a result of growing persecution, many Jews in Upper Silesia chose to emigrate, and some of their stories can be found in our extensive collection of unpublished memoirs listed below.

The pre-war Jewish communities in Upper Silesia were virtually destroyed during the Holocaust. Jews in both Polish and German Upper Silesia faced daily persecution and deportation to labor and concentration camps. Many of those deported perished in Terezín, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. Jewish survivors returned to an almost unrecognizable Upper Silesia.

Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance
Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance/ Dom Pamięci Żydów Górnośląskich. The 1903 Jewish funeral home in Gliwice is the only musem in Poland dedicated to the history of Jews in Upper Silesia. Photo: Agata Sobczak.

As part of the post-war border shift in Europe, all of Upper Silesia became part of Poland. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Upper Silesia became a hub of Jewish life where local Jewish survivors were supplemented by a large number of Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union. However, antisemitic campaigns and incidents resulted in large waves of emigration out of Upper Silesia and Poland. The numbers of Jewish inhabitants in the region decreased from a little more than 25,000 in the immediate post war period to 148 by the 1983. A small resurgence of Jewish life occurred in the 1990s and continues to this day. This is manifested in the creation of the Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance/ Dom Pamięci Żydów Górnośląskich in the previously abandoned funeral home designed in 1903 by Max Fleischer. Local grassroots organizations are working to reconcile the common Jewish, German, and Polish history in the region, and educate the younger generations about the regions rich and diverse cultural background.

Upper Silesian Collections at the Leo Baeck Institute:

Donation Certificate for Emmanuel Fraenkel.
Donation certificate for Emmanuel Fraenkel who contributed 3000 marks to the German cause in Upper Silesia. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, Emanuel Fraenkel Family Collection, AR 6455.

Highlights of Memoirs at the Leo Baeck Institute:

Michael Frankel Memoir
Cover of Zur Lebensgeschichte meines geliebten Sohnes Michael Fraenkel by Siegfried Fraenkel, 1948. Leo Baeck Institute Archives, ME 137.