The Historical Background
by Adv. Menachem Tamir (Turk)
Translated by Henry Tobias
The Migration of Jews from Germany and Austria to Poland
In the latter part of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century a large wave of Jewish refugees who were expelled from some cities in Germany and Austria came to Poland.
The Jewish population of Poland was still small and did not live in the same cramped conditions as the Jews of other countries where wandering Jews were often denied admission or expelled even if resident. The Jews were welcomed by the authorities in Poland, the land owners (noblemen) and the peasants, a situation which helped them easily adapt. Also, they had more rights than they had had in Germany and Austria where they were limited to being money-lenders and pedlars. In their new country, they were allowed to work in all spheres of industry, even agriculture, mostly as tenant farmers, and sometimes were even allowed to work the land.
These Jews did not go directly to Poland, but via Bohemia and Moravia where they did not settle for long before being forced, along with the local Jews to leave and find another country of residence. Their wanderings lead them mainly to the area around Krakow.
The reigning king of Poland, Sigismund the First (born 1467, reign 1506-1548) was involved in many wars, which depleted his treasury, so he looked favourably on Jewish immigration, which he expected to bring in revenues as well as a well-developed culture.
Jews were mainly involved as middlemen and in banking. The wealthy Jews leased tax collecting from the monarchy (border and road taxes) or state taxes on food and alcohol. As financial agents of the government they accumulated money and influence due to their commercial activity of Poland, which could not be ignored. As time passed, they used their money to lease estates from the kings and nobles, which included the right to sell alcohol, the use of the salt mines, the forests and other natural resources. They also engaged in buying and exporting agricultural products. The Jews also continued to work as artisans in small (cottage) industries.
At that time the urbanised Poles wanted to hold on to trade and labour as had their counterparts in Germany. But the nobles were a stumbling block who curtailed their options to take such steps. The nobles had previously obtained all the political power for themselves which undermined the fundamental rights of others. This was expressed in a number of laws aimed at limiting the rights of the urban population.
The economic war against the nobles was difficult and the urban Poles were unable to improve their economic standing in relation to the nobles, but it was easy to do so at the expense of the Jewish tradesmen and artisans. In this struggle against the 'non-believers' the urban Poles had an important ally. At this time, the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Protestant movement was increasing its power, which the Catholic clergy saw as mortally dangerous, so to strengthen its organization it attacked both the Protestants and the Jews. However, the nobles saw the Jews as a counter to the expanding ambitions of the urban Poles, and supported the Jews, whom they used as agents. The Jews continued to enjoy to the benevolence of the king and except for isolated local outbreaks of hostility, did not face a danger to their standing.
The Question of the Jews in the Sejm (Polish Assembly)
In the 1530's the question of the Jews was a bone of contention in the Sejm. The Sejm which convened in 1538 in the city of Piotrków passed a law forbidding the Jews to be tax clerks, and forbidding them to trade without a license from the king or the city council. At this time the nobles took on the privilege of being 'the protectors of the Jews' on their estates, where they ruled like kings. These estates included towns populated by many Jews locked into serfdom and who paid taxes for leasing property and trading rights. So the nobles protested against this new law which abolished the rights of these Jews.
In the Sejm of 1539 Sigismund the First declared that the Jews who were residents of the nobles land were entitled to the guardianship of the owners of these estates, but this nullified the protection of the king and his ministers; those who profit from the Jews should protect them. In this way the Jews of Poland were divided into 'King's Jews' and 'private Jews'.
In the middle of the sixteenth century we find a similar battle in the cities of Lithuania such as Vilna, Brisk (Brest) and Grodno the latter two now in Belarus.
These were the factors which defined the situation of the Polish Jews in the sixteenth century during which the Jewish community of Tykocin was founded.
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