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[Page 8]

From the near and far past


Some information about the history of the Jews of Koło

By Dr. Rafael Mahler

Koło Jewry was first mentioned in 1429, in the records of the district courts in Konin. Nonetheless, one can assume that, much as in many towns in Greater Poland, Jews also lived in Koło in the fourteenth century. Thanks to its geographical location (it lies at crossroads where the Varta River bends west from the north) in the first half of the fourteenth century Koło was a major commercial center. It was probably this commercial importance that prompted King Casimir the Great, in 1362, to grant the colony of Koło city rights with benefits ensuing from the Magdaburg trial. In 1564, the people of Koło received a letter from the king (“privilege”), for the first time. The letter determined the city's rights and duties: the Jews there were allowed to live in the city and to engage in trading. They were also, however, bound to pay taxes, and to comply with the other duties laid down by the king, as other Koło residents.

In 1571 a contract was drafted with regard to the status of the Jews in the city, in which it was stipulated that: “The city's Christians have undertaken to provide assistance to the Jews against all attack, in return for which the Jews will pay an annual tax to the municipal kitty.” In 1593, an agreement was drawn up between the municipality and the Jews of Koło whereby it was stated that Jews found guilty in a court trial were to be incarcerated in the municipal jail, but they would be exempted from imprisonment if the leaders of the community vouched for them.

Wholesale trading activities of Koło Jews in the sixteenth century comprised two types of goods which, at the time, accounted for a major portion of the exports of Jews in Greater Poland to Germany: animal skins and milk. In 1580-81 Polish Jews shipped 545 ox skins, 50 sheepskins and 45 “stones” of milk (one “stone” was the equivalent weight of 32 liters) via the Kalisz customs station. Compared with the overall volume of trading that passed through the customs station that year this did not represent a large amount. Kalisz Jews declared only 4,479 skins (including 134 ox skins, 2,370 goatskins, 635 sheep skins) at the customs station. They also shipped furs, wool, milk (30 stones), wax and a quantity of “stones”, cotton wool and feathers. In addition to these, the customs station at Bauschtzishov recorded goods shipped by Kalisz Jews that included a large amount of animal skins (11,705, most of which were goatskins), fabrics, scythes and soap. At the time, the Jews of Kalisz contributed a large part of the country's trade, second only to the Jews of Poznan - the leading Jewish community in Greater Poland, while the Jewish community of Koło was only considered a medium sized community. In 1611, there were 24 Jewish households in Koło.

In the seventeenth century, Koło Jews continued their foreign trade activities. The list of 332 Jews who attended the 11-day Breslau Fair in 1685, from March 26 to April 5, include two Jews from Koło: Herschel Yossef and Yaakov Marcus (the visitors included 32 Jews from Kalisz, 22 from Lisa, 20 from Krotoschin and a handful from Poznan, thus one cannot conclude there was a sharp decline in trading by Koło Jews compared with the previous century).

Our knowledge of artisanship among Koło Jewry at that time is limited to information we have regarding the efforts of Christian artists to interfere with the work of Jewish artists. In 1593 the guild of Koło tailors obtained a “privilege” which stipulated that only Catholics were eligible for membership of the guild. The Christian artisans, particularly tailors and butchers, also managed to oblige the Jews to pay a “milk tax” (in return for the milk of slaughtered cattle) which went to the castle of the “voit” (the municipal judge).

The city of Koło and the surrounding area were “starostwo nieogrodowe dzierzawne”, in other words, an estate of the king given to an aristocrat in return for a minimal lease payment. During a visit by the starostwo auditor, on behalf of the Sejm[Polish parliament], the Jews of Koło complained that the city's residents illegally obliged them to provide a carriage and horses for the king's use.

The Koło Jewish community was still a medium-sized community in the eighteenth century. In 1729 the community was asked to pay 150 gold coins as an annual poll tax. In 1738 this sum was increased to 300 gold coins.

As part of the autonomy of the Committee of the Four Countries the Koło community belonged to Greater Poland, which was called Great Poland, which was governed as an autonomous region with its own committee. The committee was dominated by the three large communities: Kalisz, Lisa and Krotoschin (the Poznan community was considered a region of its own). However, sometimes other communities, such as Zlotsch and even a small community like Yarotschin, one of whose leading members was appointed to a position on the state committee, also achieved this status. The Koło community never enjoyed this status. The community was never cited in the list of benefactors and state heads, or in the list of cities and towns where the committee convened.

The 1764 census of Jews conducted throughout the kingdom of Poland for poll tax calculation purposes includes 256 Jews from Koło. Based on its size, the Koło community was ninth among communities in the Kalisz voivode, the largest of which was Krotoschin with 1656 Jews, according to the official census, followed by Kalisz which had 809 Jews. It is clear that the actual number of Jews in Koło, as in other Polish towns, was larger than the number that appeared in the census. First, one should add all the babies under the age of one year, who were not included in the census as they were exempted from poll tax. In places where nursing babies were included in the census, in a separate list, the number rose to 5.6% of the total number. Based on this, the number of Jews in Koło, even according to the official census, rose to 270. However, one must take into account the phenomenon of census avoidance, due to the imposition of poll tax. Bar from Bolochov relates in his memoirs that the Jews did their best to keep themselves out of the census, particularly the children who could be hidden easily, and the poorer members of the community for whom, had they not concealed them, they would have had to cover their taxes to the Crown. One can assume that the number of “hidden community members” would have increased the number of Jews in the community by 20%.

Thus, the actual number of Koło Jews in 1764 was at least 310-325. The official figure of 256 reflects much of the demographic, economic and social conditions of the time. The 256 Jews over the age of 1 year comprised 130 men and 126 women. These included 128 married (64 couples), 1 widower, 52 boys, 52 girls and another 23 male servants, female servants and artisans' assistants.

The professional breakdown of heads of houses was as follows:

13 merchants
16 tailors
1 milliner
6 furriers
4 weavers
9 butchers
1 glazier
1 barber
1 rabbi
1 synagogue usher
12 unspecified professions

Total 65

There were 23 salaried earners, including 7 servants – all in merchants' houses, as commercial assistants – 6 artisans' assistants, all of whom were tailors; 14 female servants.

The most striking aspect of this professional breakdown of community members is the high percentage of artisans. Of the 53 household heads whose professions were specified in the census, 38 (72%) were artisans. The professions of 12 household heads, however, were not specified and it is likely that these included not only artisans but also peddlers and brokers, and undoubtedly also included “people with free professions” not mentioned in the list of professionals, such as the cantor, the “shokhet” (ritual slaughterer), and the “melamdim” (Torah scholars) of the community (and probably a klezmer musician or two). Even if we assume that there were no artisans among the 12 professionals whose professions were not specified, even so a number of the 38 artisans whose professions were specified would be added to the 58.5% of the heads of households who responded to the census.

This high percentage of artisans was a common phenomenon in cities and towns in Greater Poland and is a result of the rapid socio-economic development in this region. In Greater Poland, which was more developed than provincial Poland, Jews did not work in the drinks trade. Estate owners either ran this highly profitable part of their businesses themselves, or entrusted it to their employees. The 1764 census of the Kalisz voivode cited just 3 Jewish families living in villages! The Jews of Greater Poland were barred from earning a living from leasing property, or as publicans. These professions provided all Jews living in rural areas of Greater Poland – who accounted for a third of all Polish Jews - at that time with a means of livelihood. If we add these to those engaged in the sale of beverages in cities and towns this indicates that more then two-fifths of all Jews in Poland worked in this sector. After being barred from working in property leasing and as publicans the Jews of Greater Poland opted, against their will, for artisanship. It was the Jews who couldn't make a living as merchants who became artisans. As a result, the Jews of Greater Poland, despite their significant contribution as merchants, were far more productive than the Jewish towns in all the other provinces of the kingdom.

The high productivity of Greater Poland Jewry is even more remarkable if we add other Jewish workers to the artisans, who comprised a separate entity. If we add to the 38 artisans in Koło the 23 assistants who worked for artisans or merchants, and as female servants, we arrive at a total of 61 Jews earning their living from manual labor. This represents around 70% of the 88 breadwinners in the community. As shown by records from 1793, during this period, the owners of large businesses were most prominent among the dozen or so Jewish merchants in Koło. These include visitors, similar to Jewish merchants from the community of nearby Konin and those who attended fairs in Frankfurt in Prussia.

During the time when the community census was being conducted, between 1763-65, a new synagogue was being built in Koło (the second synagogue was built in 1860). The high level of culture in the community is indicated by the following fact: in 1775 the Sejm imposed a special stamp duty on books written in Hebrew (Hebrew and Yiddish) of one grush per book. To this end, the Jews had to bring all their books to be stamped by the officials sent to each community. The list of books submitted for stamping in Koło in 1776 included 243 books belonging to 29 community members. This means that over half of the family heads recorded in the official community census owned books – an average of six books per person. However, despite the heavy penalties imposed on owners of unstamped books, many books were concealed from the authorities (the evil eye). There were more unstamped books than stamped books.

After the second partition of Poland, in 1793, Koło was included in Prussian territory along with the rest of Greater Poland. However, this kingdom could not control the territories it conquered. In 1794, there was a Polish national rebellion led by Kosciuszko. Koło changed hands between the rebels and Prussia and this affected the Jewish community of Koło which had to pay heavy rates and provide provisions to each of the warring parties. The community was forced to offer provisions to the Polish army (troops serving under Generals Dombrowski, Nozjwoski, Madalinski and various divisions commanded by officers) and to the Prussian forces which alternately conquered the town. These provisions included horses and carts, fodder, bread and wine, whisky, arms and uniforms and the costs of messengers and spies. During a period of just two months, from August 26 to October 27, 1794, the community's rates and forced labor costs totaled in excess of 587 tallars. After the uprising was quashed in 1795, Poland was partitioned for a third time and Koło returned to Prussian rule. This imposed further
duties on the Jews with the issue of the “Reglement” decrees of 1979. Following Napoleon's victory over Prussia in 1806 the Polish kingdom was reinstated under the title of the Duchy of Warsaw. Koło was assigned to the “department” of Kalisz, as had been the case in the old Poland when it fell within the boundaries of the Kalisz voivode. The ducal census of 1808 recorded 2313 Koło residents, of whom 802 were Jews, accounting for around one third of the total number of residents.

After Napoleon's defeat in 1813 the Duchy of Warsaw came to an end and most of its territory was annexed by Russia as part of the Congress Kingdom (Congressional Poland), named after the Congress in Vienna where, in 1815, its fate was decided.

During the nineteenth century the town of Koło grew into a small city, and the number of Jewish residents grew disproportionately.

Table A

The Population of Koło in the Last Century

Year 1808 1827 1857 1862 1897
Total no. of residents 2515 3182 4610 4832 9359
No. of Jews 802 1184 2318 2478 9359
Percentage of total 31.7 37.2 50.3 51.3 42.9

The table indicates that while the total population grew 3.7 times, the Jewish population grew fivefold. However, towards the end of the century, the growth rate of the Jewish community declined, and dropped below that of the other residents. The size of the Jewish community, compared with the total population of the city, peaked in 1862 when it accounted for more than half the number of residents – 51.3%. In 1897, the number of Koło Jews dropped below half and, to be more precise, they accounted for a little over two-fifths (43%). It seems that this drop in the rate of growth was the result of the industrialization process the city underwent at the end of the nineteenth century. The new industrial plants that were built in the city attracted peasants from the surrounding area who found employment there.

At the end of the 1870s there were three ceramic factories that employed 165 workers. In addition, there were smaller factories that produced ribbons and confectionery; there were breweries, a watermill and about a dozen windmills. In total, the 300 or so industrial facilities employed some 850 workers. The large number of mills was a result of the high fertility of the soil in the area which produced large yields of wheat. On the other hand, Koło's geographical location was not an advantage, as it had been during the Middle Ages when it was just this factor that had encouraged the development of local trade. As trains routes were developed Koło found itself cut off from the new transportation routes. The nearest train station, the Kotno station on the Warsaw-Bydgoszcz line, was 40 wurst (about 44 kilometers) away. Lack of investment in rerouting the Varta River prevented the development of transportation along water routes. As a result, Koło's growth stopped and it remained a small regional town which prided itself in its district court and the windmills that characterized the local landscapes. We have detailed information about the professions of the Jews of Koło at the end of the nineteenth century, based on the population census conducted in the Russian empire in 1897.

Table B

The Professions of the Jews of Koło in 1897

Profession Men* Women* Total* Men** Women** Total** TOTAL
Administration, courts, police - - - - - - -
Public Servants 2 - 2 1 4 5 7
Independent court profession - - - - - - -
Military 7 - 7 - - - 7
Synagogue Service 1 - 1 - - - 1
Non-Christian religious service - - - 4 11 15 15
Cemetery work 8 - 8 15 22 37 45
Education, study, science & arts 13 3 16 10 25 35 51
Medicine and sanitary work 7 2 9 3 12 15 24
Charity institution work 91 112 203 2 40 42 245
Servants and day laborers 76 35 111 3 168 171 282
Income from capital and assets 12 1 13 - 1 - 14
Income from payments received from the state treasury and public institutions - - - - - - -
Supplies from individuals 1 - 1 - - - 1
Fishing and hunting 1 - 1 - - - 1
Fiber material production 17 2 29 13 14 27 46
Animal hide processing 9 - 9 15 21 36 45
Wood processing 2 - 2 1 3 4 6
Metalwork 15 1 16 13 19 32 48
Mineral processing 4 - 4 3 10 13 17
Chemicals 2 - 2 2 3 5 7
Alcohol production, beer and meed production 2 - 2 1 7 8 10
Vegetable and animal processing for production 49 2 51 28 30 58 109
Printing 6 2 8 8 8 16 24
Surgical instruments, clocks, optics 4 - 4 - 8 8 12
Jewelers, painters 1 - 1 - 1 1 2
Clothing 185 22 127 145 202 347 154
Construction, apartment repair and maintenance etc. 11 - 1 - 26 37 48
Vehicles (Cart owners) 48 - 49 67 114 181 250
Land transportation and haulage 3 - 3 5 - 5 8
Credit institutions and public commercial institutions 1 - 1 - 4 5 6
Trade brokers 29 - 29 50 84 134 163
General trade 17 5 22 35 43 78 100
Animal trade 15 - 15 15 36 51 66
Agricultural produce 64 1 65 104 172 276 341
Other agricultural produce 140 21 161 205 416 621 782
Construction and heating materials 10 1 11 14 29 43 54
Household goods 16 1 17 18 52 70 87
Metal goods, machines 6 1 7 2 10 12 19
Fabrics and clothing 45 2 47 70 107 177 324
Hides, furs, etc 15 - 15 18 39 57 72
Luxury goods, science and the arts 1 - 1 1 4 5 6
General merchandise 5 1 6 6 8 14 20
Peddling, etc 2 1 3 4 4 8 11
Hostels, inns and furnished rooms - - - - - - -
Drinks trading 17 2 19 29 51 80 99
Cleaning and hygiene 2 3 5 3 10 13 18
General workers 12 8 20 2 9 11 31
Prostitution - - - - - - -
Undeclared professions 1 10 11 1 - 1 12
TOTAL 975 240 1215 928 1827 2755 3970

* Self-Employed

[Editor's note: There are errors in the addition totals (e.g. Clothing) but the numbers used are faithful to the original chart]

According to the official census, in 1897 there were 4013 Jews living in Koło, of 1924 men and 2089 women. The professional statistics relate to only 3970 Jews. There are no statistics for the other 34.

The following is a summary of the professional statistics, according to main areas of commerce (earners and relatives together).

Areas of commerce Absolute no. % of Jewish
Clerks with free professions employed in public service 406 10.2
Servants and day workers 282 7.1
Industry and crafts 928 23.4
Transportation and haulage 238 6.0
Trade 2064 52.4
Unspecified profession, others 52 1.3
Total 3970 100.0

Compared with the small Jewish community of Koło of the 18th century, the community's professional breakdown changed radically. It grew thirteen fold during 130 years of capitalist evolution. A town that mainly earned a living from artisanship became a largely commercial town.In 1897, 52 percent of Koło Jewry earned their living from various types of trade. Industry and the crafts were only a source of income for less than a quarter of the community – 23.4 percent. Even if we add the many local cart owners to this figure the productive base of the community reaches no more than 29.4 percent, in other words, less than one third of the community.

The uneven make-up of the professional breakdown is even more striking in the special areas of industry and the crafts in which local Jews worked: the majority of those recorded as working in industry and the crafts were accounted for by those employed in the clothing and food industries. 554 Jews, or 60% of those working in industry and the crafts, earned their living in the clothing sector, while 109 – or close to 12% - worked in industry and the crafts. If we describe the statistics in human terms we find that over half of those making a living from the crafts and industry were tailors, furriers, milliners etc., and together with butchers and bakers they account for close to three-quarters of the “industry” and crafts sector in the community. Other areas of industry and crafts provided only weavers and sewers (fiber material production) – 19 breadwinners; 15 metalworkers and another 11 “construction workers”, most of whom were mold makers. Traders in produce and “other agricultural products” accounted for the largest group among the various areas of trade – 226 breadwinners including, with family members, 1123 people, or 53% of all those earning a living from trade. This reflects the town's special position as a regional center, known for its agricultural produce because of the high fertility of the soil. The second largest group included traders in fabrics and clothing – there were 47 of them, and the total 224 people who lived off this area of trade account for just less than 11% of all those earning a living from trading. It is also noteworthy that just 19 people (99 in total) worked in the drinks trade, and just 29 trade brokers (mediators etc.) (a total of 163 with family members), who comprised a small group in view of the large number of traders in the town.

After World War One, in 1921, around three years after Poland was re-established, the census in Koło indicated a population of 11,450, including 5159 Jews (45%). There were 13,800 residents in the 1931 census.

In 1938 the official figures indicated the existence of 1400 craftsmen's workshops, of which 550 were owned by Jews, comprising 37.7 percent – almost two-fifths. 329 of these hired employees, 221 or 40% worked themselves or were only helped by family members. This was about a year and a half before the Holocaust which was to decimate the ancient community.


Berson M. Dyplomataryusz dotyczacy zydow s. dawnej Polsce Nr. 118
Ringelblum E. Kolo, Encyclopedia Judaica
Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego, art. Kolo
Waslutynski B. Ludnose zydowska w Polsce, Warszawa, 1930 str. 25.
Berszadsju S,A, Ruski-Jewrejski Archiw III
Szipper I. Dzieje jandlu zydowskiego na ziemiach polskich, Warszawa, 1937, str. 97, 294

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