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“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
Throughout its history, Upper Silesia had been a borderland region between various kingdoms and countries. 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.
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 de non tolerandis Judaeis status to many towns in the region.
In 1526, Silesia came under the control of the Austrian branch of the Habsburg monarchy. Restrictions on Jewish settlement were eased in the 17th century, and Jews slowly return to the region. Nevertheless, the easing of restrictions and the implementation of new and more tolerant policies did not bring long-term stability to the Jewish population.
The Habsburgs were forced to relinquish Silesia to Prussia in 1742 after the First Silesian War. Under the Prussian rule, Jewish life in Upper Silesia was regulated by the General Juden-Reglement für Süd und Neu-Ostpreussen, which slowly made way for Jewish emancipation in 1812. The emancipation led to a rapid growth of the Jewish 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 the introduction of anti-Catholic policies. 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 became 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.
In the interwar period, Jews in Upper Silesia faced 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 ascent of the Nazi Party 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 as part of the Upper Silesian border settlement in 1922. 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 part of the region, a rise in immigration of Orthodox Jews from the East led to an increase in antisemitism among the Upper Silesians. Many Jews chose to emigrate from the region, 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 Theresienstadt, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. Jewish survivors returned to an almost unrecognizable Upper Silesia.
As part of the post-war border shift in Europe, all of Upper Silesia became part of Poland in 1945. The region became a hub of Jewish life where local Jewish survivors were supplemented by a large number of Eastern European Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union. However, waves of antisemitic incidents resulted in a large numbers of Jews emigrating 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. Local grassroots organizations are working to reconcile the common Jewish, German, and Polish history in the region, and educate the younger generations about the region's rich and diverse cultural background. These efforts by present-day organization include the creation of the Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance/ Dom Pamięci Żydów Górnośląskich, a museum dedicated to the region's Jews.