UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


Jewish Self-Government in Poland from its inception to the present

Jewish Self-Government in Poland from its inception to the present 

A project to identify, translate and comment on the most relevant and most significant sources pertaining to the history of Jewish self-government in Poland from its beginnings in the Middle Ages to the contemporary world, headed by Dr Francois Guesnet (Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department, UCL) has been awarded a € 55,000 (£50,000) grant, , and goes back to a joint application with the late Prof Jerzy Tomaszewski (Warsaw University).

Jewish self-government in Poland is arguable the most significant political legacy in European-Jewish history. It rested on a two-fold constitutional basis of Jewish community by-laws (Hebr. takanot) and privileges granted by Polish princes and kings. This combined legislation allowed for an exceptionally stable political framework for the growing number of autonomous Jewish communities. Religious and civil leadership of these communities rested with the so-called kahal, a highly diversified functional and honorary elite, formed after the template of Christian and western Ashkenasic urban communities. Furthermore, supra-communal gatherings, the so-called councils (Hebr. va'adim) of specific regions, as well as for the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania emerged as administrative bodies responsible for the repartition and collection of taxes, thus establishing a system of communal communication and interaction.

Challenges to Jewish self-government came from within the Jewish communities, as well as from the non-Jewish context. The kahal system tended toward oligarchic rule and was detrimental to social and political flexibility within the communities. From the 18th century onwards, more and more Jews saw a remedy in turning to non-Jewish courts in cases of litigation, thus undermining one of the core elements of Jewish autonomy, Jewish jurisdiction. Competing claims of crown and nobility eroded the constitutional basis and safety of Jewish communities. Most significantly, the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century triggered the end of Jewish autonomy in its traditional framework, with the partitioning powers Prussia, Austria, and Russia abolishing the autonomous kahal at various stages early in the 19th century.

Deprived of formal autonomy, Jewish communities nonetheless strove to maintain a certain degree of informal independence from non-Jewish legislation and administration, a fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish self-government in the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, as the hope to defend a certain degree of self-reliance led to a variety of political strategies and outcomes. In the context of the Polish independence movement, World War One, and the (re-) emergence of a number of nation-states after the Peace treatises of Versailles, Trianon, and Sevres, the status of Jewish minorities and their continuing and renewed claims for self-governance constituted a critical issue. In independent Poland as well as Lithuania, Jewish political leaders vigorously defended the right of their community to autonomy against sometimes highly aggressive attacks.

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, marking the beginning of World War Two and the genocidal persecution of Polish Jews, all forms of recognized autonomous community life ceased to exist. The 'Judenrat' established by the invader bore no resemblence with any prior form of Jewish self-governement, and the invader's intention to subjugate their members to be administrative tools failed in many cases. In contrast, examples of grass root initiatives aiming at mobilizing self-help in the face of the ultimate catastrophe are a witness to the ongoing effort to reclaim/maintain human dignity.

After World War Two and the annihilation of most of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry, few attempts were made to re-establish traditional forms of Jewish communal life, not in the least due to the strong pressure of Communist rule. Jewish sections of left wing parties did not survive for long, attempts to establish Jewish cooperative settlements in Silesia, resonating to a certain degree with some Polish-Jewish traditions, came to naught. However, the tradition of Jewish autonomy and self-government in Poland has inspired political movements on the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as communal organization throughout the 20th century and beyond, and can justly be considered one of the central political forebearers of contemporary Jewish life.

The project proposes to select, translate and comment on the most relevant and most significant sources pertaining to the history of Jewish self-government in Poland from its beginnings in the Middle Ages to the contemporary world. The result, a critical and annotated source reader, will be divided into ten chronological and regional chapters, authored by experts in the respective periods. An introduction by the projects' prinicipal investigators, Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski of Warsaw University, and Dr Francois Guesnet, University College London, will discuss the main features and shifts of Jewish self-government over time. Each of the ten authors will identify, annotate, and comment those documents pertaining to Jewish self-government that best reflect its scope and substance.

Preliminary prospects for each chapter have been discussed during a workshop by the principle investigators (PI), all authors and a group of ca 15 experts. This initial workshop took place at the University of Warsaw in October 2009. The source reader will offer for the first time a comprehensive survey of documents pertaining to this core element in European Jewish history. These documents, originally in the Hebrew, Latin, Polish, Ruthenian, Russian, German, Lithuanian, and Yiddish languages, will be presented in English translation.

The following colleagues agreed to contribute to this project:

  • Dr Cornelia Aust (University of Bielefeld) 
  • Dr Artur Grabski (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)
  • Dr Piotr Kedziorek (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)
  • Dr Andrey Zamoiski (Free University Berlin)
  • Dr Artur Markowski (Warsaw University)
  • Prof Wacław Wierzbieniec (Rzeszów University)
  • Prof Adam Teller (Brown University)
  • Dr Marcin Urynowicz (Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw)
  • Dr Michał Szulc (University of Potsdam)
  • Prof Hanna Zaremska (Polish Academy of Sciences).

The project has been awarded a research grant of Û 55.000 (ca £ 50.000) by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, Duesseldorf (Germany), supporting historical research. An agreement has been reached with Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden, to publish this source reader. The project is intended to be completed in 2020.