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[Page 17]

The History Chapters / Meir Shimon Geshuri

On Oshpitzin that Preceded Auschwitz

Notes on the Historical Chapters

Auschwitz has become an international byword as the place for extermination and as a death camp, a vale of tears, a Devil's Island of German Nazism, with all kinds of portrayals symbolizing the savagery and destructiveness of the idol of ultimate hatred of humankind. In the process, one forgets the story of Oshpitzin before the Holocaust and the Jewish community that flourished there at the highest level, in all aspects on a par with other cities and towns. I cannot, nor would it be proper for me to, begin with the history of Oshpitzin from its very beginnings without referring to the actual end of the community, with which the old name Oshpitzin disappeared and was replaced with the draconian name Auschwitz, which implies destruction and doom, Holocaust and ruin, impending disaster, and calamities that mere words cannot describe – human catastrophe in full, the Hell of Auschwitz.

The name Auschwitz was derived from the remote Polish town Oswiecim, heretofore unknown outside the borders of Poland. The city of Oshpitzin (as it was called by Jews) was situated close to the little River Sola in Polish Silesia, inhabited by a strange admixture of Germans and Poles who for centuries had absorbed the intermittent influence of Slavic and German culture. Their Polish speech was spiced with many German words, while their German was rich with Polish expressions. As was their speech, so also was their national identity shaky, and they straddled them both.

About 12,000 inhabitants lived in Oshpitzin, of which about half were Jews. Jews, as in most Galician towns, here too dealt in petty trade and handicraft and adhered strictly to the religious precepts and tradition of their ancestors. At a distance of two kilometers from the town during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a military camp had been built. This consisted of 16 one-story buildings that continued to be maintained with the change of times and governments, and these served as the nucleus of the concentration camp. Near Auschwitz flows the River Sola, a tributary of the River Vistula – in these regions still narrow, where its flow begins. On clear days, which are few throughout the year (fog is the usual weather in these parts), hints of the faraway snow-laden peaks of the Carpathian Mountains in their wild beauty can be discerned.

It would seem that the virtues of the place were not at all salutary. Had one asked the Jews whether it might not be better to choose a more suitable place to settle – since the land nearby was marshy and a cause of rheumatism, and the climate was harsh with sudden extreme changes – such remarks might have dissuaded Jews from settling there. On the other hand, were not all settlements in the Diaspora somewhat transient, a temporary expedient for a few generations, since every observant Jew knew that we had a Promised Land as given to the Patriarchs in the Land of Canaan, and that with the Redemption we would exchange our temporary stay in the Exile for a permanent abode in our true homeland, the Land of Israel?

In terms of geography, Oshpitzin was 286 kilometers from Warsaw, the capital of Poland. It was precisely in this dark remote corner, removed from the spotlight of the eyes of the larger world, that there were important railway and road junctions. Before WWI, the borders of Austria, Prussia, Russia (Congress Poland), Czechia, and Hungary lay relatively close to Oshpitzin.

In spite of all of these negative factors, Oshpitzin served as a center of comfortable Jewish life, and one found there Jews with beards and payot, white stockings and shtreimlach, with various Hassidic courts and kloizer. The kehilla in Oshpitzin constituted the basis of Jewish folk life in the fullest sense. During hundreds of years, Jews there developed legendary good manners and performed good deeds of redemption and spiritual life. Oshpitizin did not suffer from a lack of great personalities, noble men and humble spirits, intellectuals as well as Zionists of note who strove to emancipate themselves from the strictures of the environment, and multitudes of simple folk who worked hard. The beauty of their lives was suffused by their upright deeds, which spread great splendor about them.

Many books, articles, and research papers have been written about Auschwitz's horrors, stories and descriptions beyond measure, and still the ink has not dried as more details are revealed of the Hell that was Auschwitz. Yet the story of the Oshpitzin that preceded Auschwitz is still largely unwritten, and what has been written was not of notable significance. In the following chapters we will enumerate some of the annals of the history of the city and its communal life and its people. Let the coming generations learn and derive renewed strength of spirit from their origins.

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Chapter 1

Once there was an Oshpitzin…

Oshpitzin during the Middle Ages: The domicile of Princes and Rulers. – Piast, the founder of the Dynasty of Oshpitzin Princes. – Oshpitzin on the Idris map of 1150. – Paganism in Oshpitzin. – The city of Oshpitzin during the period of Poland's founding. – The first recorded information on Oshpitzin of 1179: Oshpitzin deeded to the Princes of Piast. – Mieszko [?], Lord of Oshpitzin, 1291. – Wladislaw, first Prince of the City, 1316. – The granting of Magdeburgian Rights to the city, 1291. – Oshpitzin, the Princely Capital, 1317. – Oshpitzin under Polish authority from 1457. – King Casimir [IV] Jagelloncik [?] in Oshpitzin, 1471. – The rights to hold 3 fairs per year granted in 1519. – City on fire in 1564. – Bridge over the Vistula nearby built in 1572. – The capture of the city by the Swedes in 1655. – The city burnt down by the Swedes in 1656. – The Census of the city in 1660. – The conquest of the city by the Austrians in 1787. – A major fire in the city in 1863. – The battle with Prussians in the city in 1866. – City population numbering 5414 in 1890 and 10,127 in 1910, 12,187 in 1921, and 13,000 inhabitants in 1938.

1. Oshpitzin in the Middle Ages

Oshpitzin was an ancient settlement and served as the seat of princes and rulers, and because of its hoary past there exists no evidence of its inception. Normally, historians know not only the dates of the founding of every city and town, but also of every village and settlement. The question of when and by whom Oshpitzin was founded remains a mystery. There were times when the question arose who preceded whom, the State of Poland or the city of Oshpitzin? We know that Poland first appears on the historical scene of Europe only in the latter half of the 10th Century, and Poland is mentioned in German chronicles only after the Germans subjugated the Slavic peoples in the west and reached the Polish territory in 963. A century earlier, however, during the latter half of the 9th Century there had already existed an organized state of a number of Polish tribes with their capital in Cracow on the Vistula. There were some contacts between Cracow and Oshpitzin, beyond the fact of their relative proximity to each other. Cracow was an ancient city that is first mentioned in the 10th Century and a bishop was resident from 1000 on.[1] Cracow did not enjoy good relations with its neighbor Oshpitzin and experienced many troubles from it throughout the first centuries, and perhaps the words of the Prophets are applicable “Thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth from thee” (Isaiah 49:17). Piast was the founder of the first Polish royal dynasty that ruled from the 10th to the 14th Century. It was ironically princes descended from Piast who ruled in Oshpitzin and who placed numerous obstacles in various ways, resisting in political and economic terms their subjugation to the kings of Poland in Cracow.

The beginnings of Oshpitzin are submerged in the murky depths of pre-history. On the Idris' map (an Arab geographer 1100-1166) of 1150[2] the place is mentioned as a flourishing city. Even before the founding of Poland, Oshpitzin had already been in existence for some time without any extant details or informational sources, but it is known that as far as its political status is concerned it had gone through many transformations. It seems that Oshpitzin was founded even before the geographical name of Silesia was bestowed on the area in which it is included, and in which lived Slavic tribes, primarily Lusatians (Wends) who were settled in ancient times between the Baltic Sea and the Alps[3].

It was only in the 8th Century that the Germanic tribes drove them eastward. The Wends lived in the region close to Oshpitzin and which was later called the “Dabrowan Zaglembia”. Silesia itself – and so also Oshpitzin – was transferred from time to time from one political sovereignty to another, once German, then Bohemian or Moravian. For a long time Pagans (Polytheists) lived in Oshpitzin, characteristic of all primitive religions, and only when Oshpitzin was transferred to Polish sovereignty, it too was conquered by Catholic Christianity, subsequent to the German pressure which brought about the baptism of Mieszko [?] the Prince of Poland of the Piast Dynasty in 966.

Oshpitzin, then, is one of the few locations that were already established before Poland was founded, without our knowing who founded it and when. Just as its name is not mentioned in the chronicles of the times from its founding until the establishment of Poland – so also we have no further knowledge of it until 1179, except for the fact that from the 10th Century onwards the city was ruled by the Dukes of the Polish Piast House, who also ruled other Polish Dukedoms (Mazowia etc.). There was, however, a strong Germanic influence in the city and environs. It is possible that Polish history ignored it for that very reason. It is known that Oshpitzin served as an important geographic location because of its being a transit point and on the route of international trade between distant lands in the east and west. For this alone the city life was neither bland nor monotonous. Oshpitzin lay near the Vistula, which from the days of antiquity together with the Oder River were the waterways leading to faraway lands, and it seems that the records concerning the collection of transit tolls at the Oshpitzin station have been lost with the passage of time.

Also, since the annexation of Oshpitzin to Poland, it was not always under its sway. No wonder, since the Polish rulers of Silesia encouraged the influx of Germans who steadily increased in the land, as well as in Oshpitzin. The association of the Oshpitzin territory with Silesia, and with the Opole Principality in particular dates from 1179, that is, from the moment that Casimir, the Pious, who was converted to Christianity through the efforts of the Prince of Opole, and was then granted the cities of Oshpitzin and Bytom and other towns as a gift. Mieszko, the Lord of Ratibor, Oshpitzin, and others, unified a substantial part of Silesia under his rule, and it passed to his son Casimir after his death. Some time after the demise of Casimir the territory was ruled by his son Mieszko II, and after his death – by his son Wladislaw. During his reign the Oshpitzin territory grew and expanded with the addition of new lands on the right bank of the Skaba River stretching to the Skabina River. In 1289 the four sons of Prince Wladislaw divided the Opole Principality and the territory of Oshpitzin, Cieszyn, and Ratibor passed to Mieszko and Przemislaw, who just a year later further subdivided the inheritance with Mieszko receiving the area including Oshpitzin and Cieszyn and assuming the title “Prince of Cieszyn and Lord of Oshpitzin”. In 1291, Prince Mieszko became subservient to the Czech king. After the death of Mieszko in 1316 his sons further divided the principality, bringing the Oshpitzin Principality under the sway of Prince Wladislaw. He was the first independent Oshpitzin Prince without political allegiance to Poland or Czechia. His heir, Jan the Scholastic, accepted subordination to the Czech king in 1327. In 1335, King Casimir of Poland relinquished Polish claims on the Silesian principalities, including Oshpitzin. After the death of Jan the Scholastic the principality passed to his son, Jan II, and after the latter died without issue in 1405, the Oshpitzin principality passed to Przemislaw I, the Prince of Cieszyn. It is nearly certain that yet during his lifetime this prince transferred the Oshpitzin Principality to his son Przemislaw II, who was murdered on January 1st, 1406, when his son Casimierz was still a minor, and the authority passed to his brother Prince Bulko. Only in 1414 did Prince Casimierz assume the Oshpitzin Principality's throne and served in that capacity until 1433. He left behind three sons: Waclaw, Przemislaw, and Jan. These princes at first ruled in partnership and each of them assumed the title “ Prince of Oshpitzin”, but in 1455 these princes divided the Oshpitzin Principality and all its territories and Prince Jan became the the Prince of Oshpitzin and Gleiwitz [?], while the official unity of the Oshpitzin Principalities remained in title only as “Dukas Oswiecimensis”, which they used in addition to their other new titles. During that entire period Oshpitzin and Silesia were affiliated with the group of princes descended from the Polish Piast dynasty. In 1327 the Luxenburg Kaiser Siegmunt strove to expand his rule to include Breslau, the Silesian capital, but succeeded to accomplish his goal only in 1335, and with the passage of 20 years the remainder of the Silesian cities and territories were also incorporated by the Luxenburgs[4] .

In those days Oshpitzin already had a market-place, a toll bureau, and a Parish church, and was certainly accorded city status. Municipal rights – such as those of Lebovka [?] in Lower Silesia – were granted in the middle of the 13th Century (before 1272), and in 1291 Mieszko, the Prince of Cieszyn, – granted in addition to earlier ones – Magdeburgian rights and greatly expanded its privileges, among which were the rights to establish storehouses of salt and lead. In 1317 Oshpitzin was elevated to the status of the capital of the principality of that name and separated from the Cieszyn principality. By that time it already had two parish churches and a Dominican monastery which had been founded by Princess Euphrosina, the wife of Prince Wladislaw, and a short time later the Franciscan monastery was founded. The beauty of the capital of the Oshpitzin principality was described by Kamioncki [?] in the following way: “Oshpitzin, the praiseworthy – Zator in the county of Ke[n]ty, a holy priceless pearl with its markets, Wadowice which prides itself with its clever people, Zywiec with its broad lordliness, with its magnificent castle”. In addition to these five cities, the principality consisted of 159 villages.

The western boundary of the Oshpitzin territory was inside the Silesian borders, and the lands of Cieszyn and Oshpitzin. These boundaries also corresponded in part with the common border of the Cracow jurisdiction and that of Wroclaw. While the Oshpitzin territory was always a part of the Cracow jurisdiction, the Cieszyn lands were under Wroclaw rule. This was, then, the age-old border that underwent fundamental changes with the passage of time, until finally it continued to exist without further change, and to this day it serves as a partial division between the province of Cracow and Silesia. The southern border which separates Silesian Oshpitzin from Hungary is the Baskide [?] mountain chain, starting with west of the high mountaintop Jalowice in the east until Wolowice [?] in the west. The Oshpitzin Principality had common borders with Poland on the east and northern sides.

The Vistula River marked the northern border of Silesian Oshpitzin. This border begins on the west near the estuary of the Biale, and beyond to the estuary of the Przymsze [?] is the inner Silesian boundary which separates the Oshpitzin lands from those of Racibor. From the Przymsze estuary to that of the Skaba [?], the Vistula marked the border between Kasztenia [?] of Chrzanow and Oshpitzin land. The border between Silesia and Poland held firm without change from 1274 until 1462, a period of 188 years. During this entire period, the border reached beyond Skabina [?] near Cracow. Cracow, the capital of Poland, was then a frontier city, adjacent to the territory ruled by the Czech king.

2. Oshpitzin under Polish rule

The Oshpitzin Principality was during these centuries one of nearly 20 special principalities in Silesia, and its disintegration among the other Polish regions was greater than the rest. Due to the immense weakening of the feudal system in Poland, the Tatars were enabled to complete their first major attack on Poland in 1241, and were not repulsed until the battle near Lignitz, Silesia. The Mongol invasion of Silesia did not cause much harm to the Oshpitzin Principality, since the hordes refrained from traveling the open tracts of the plains, but moved on the west along the Vistula. The Oshpitzin lands were a large wooded plain in the 13th Century, except for the area of Zator and Oshpitzin in which there had arisen the oldest settlements, while the remainder of the area of the principality was populated only later by settlers at the end of the 13th and in the middle of the 14th Centuries. The destruction wreaked by the invaders was inflicted only on the settlements on the other side of the Vistula. Poland emerged from this war wrecked and shattered. The Tatars, though, retreated from the land. The Tatar invasion later in 1259 and the third time in 1287 wrecked Poland as far as the Cracow area, and we have no details with respect to their effects on Oshpitzin and its surroundings.

In 1457, Jan, the last Prince of Oshpitzin, sold the principality to Casimierz Jagiellonczik. This was not an easy thing to do. Jan derived benefit from the consortium of murderous bands and groups of robbers as a result of the Husiat wars, who roamed the principality, and he joined them in their depredations on the borders of Poland. In order to restrain him, Diroslaw Ritwianski [?] battled against Oshpitzin, conquered Zator and transferred it to Wladislaw Jagiello. The King, however, returned Zator and other holdings to the Oshpitzin Principality on June 24, 1440 retaining only Barwald [?] which served as the robbers' base. This led to battles between the robber bands and the Prince which blocked Polish trade as they robbed the Cracow merchants on the roads and participated in attacks on Poland. As a result the Mayor Jan Mszczykowski [?] and Minister of the Treasury Jan Kuropatwa of Lublin came out against the Prince, besieged Oshpitzin, and by threatening confiscation forced the Prince to submit to the King in 1453. The Prince admitted his guilt and undertook to be subordinate to the King and to pay an 1100 Gulden fine, which he backed by putting up the Oshpitzin Castle as collateral. In accordance with this and prior arrangements, the heads of the principality swore an oath of loyalty to King Casimierz Jagiellonczik, who authorized all the previous privileges of the city and the principality. A short time thereafter Casimierz IV loaned Jan 100 Gulden, and in 1455 another 4300 Mark and 20 Gulden. Subsequently, Mikolai Medowowic [?], the administrator of the Oshpitzin Principality, issued a document in which he announced that a contract had been drawn up relating to the Castle and the Oshpitzin Principality. Even then Prince Jan was not of a mind to keep his promise, and he continued his association with the robber-bands. Only after having once more embroiled himself and been defeated did he relinquish his rights over the principality in favor of the king on February 2, 1457 in exchange for 50,000 Marks in silver. Two years later, Jan confirmed the receipt of the sum. With the demise of Jan in 1497, the dynasty of the Oshpitzin Principality faded away.[5]

The Oshpitzin Principality sported a flag with a red eagle and the letter “O” in gold emblazoned on its chest. Even after its annexation by Cracow, the inhabitants received rights on a par with Polish citizens, while retaining their officials and district divisions. The acquisition of this principality was greatly valued by Poland, since this area was populated by full-blooded Poles, and was situated only a few miles from the country's capital. The first act by the Polish Monarchy in the principality was to reconfirm the privileges of 1291, and those by Casimierz IV in 1454, and which had been renewed by Zygmund August in 1564. The Oshpitzin Principality was not immediately annexed by the crown, but remained together with the Zator Principality, acquired in 1494, under the administration of the district governor (starosta) of Oshpitzin-Zator. It was not until 1564 that these two principalities were annexed to the Cracow province, and constituted its Silesian district. In 1471 King Casimierz Jagiellonczyk visited Oshpitzin as he accompanied his son Wladislaw in a grand procession of princes and bishops, 7000 horsemen and 3000 infantry, on the way to Prague, the Czech capital to enthrone him as the Czech monarch. Wladislaw stayed at the castle for several days until the cavalcade assembled in Oshpitzin, and henceforth the privileges granted by the monarchs increased in order to elevate the importance of the city. Moreover, since the ancient road to Silesia and Moravia passed through, the inhabitants received the right to purchase blocks of salt in Wieliczka and trade in it. In 1558 a custom-house was erected in order to collect the tolls on the Rivers Vistula and Sola, and later in 1565 they received the franchise to establish a warehouse in Oshpitzin, which was renewed in 1647 and 1667. In 1470 the town burnt down. In 1504 the Village Council which had been passed on by inheritance was disbanded.

In 1519 the king granted the city of Oshpitzin the right to hold three annual fairs, and in 1519 – 1565 he conferred a series of tax-exemptions in order to promote the salt trade. In 1564 the city once more was engulfed in flames, destroying a portion of the city as well as the Dominican Monastery. In 1563 the first map of the principality was published in Venice as prepared by Stanislaw Pora [?] (Pogorzelski [?]). In 1572 a wooden bridge was built over the Vistula. Some time before that (1563), apparently due to the increasing Jewish population, further influx of Jews was forbidden, and those who were already residents were forbidden to build homes in the town square. In 1564 a storehouse was built for coarse salt prior to being transported to Moravia and Silesia. This threatened those who traded in it illegally who were liable to confiscation, where half would belong to the city and half to the castle. That year the first census was taken which included the debts of the inhabitants. Five years later (1569) the inhabitants received a license to brew beer known as “Mertz” and freedom of fishing in the Sola River.

By the end of the 16th Century Oshpitzin was categorized as a medium-sized city; it had 6 squares, three mills, and two horse driven wheels [ostensibly for grinding grain], and the population included 76 craftsmen among whom were 16 bakers, 1 tailor, 10 shoemakers, 10 butchers, 8 furriers, 7 smiths, six weavers and goldsmiths, as well as 32 salt dealers and 49 tenants. The City Council and the priest conducted a Parish school. In 1604 the city founded a hospital. In the middle of the 16th Century the city became a battleground of severe religious struggles, resulting in the domination of the Dominican Monastery by heretics for about a hundred years. The flourishing period of Oshpitzin came to an end in the first half of the 17th Century. The vacant lots in the city increased. The school was closed for lack of means, and the city's debts reached 2000 Gulden by 1652.

The Swedish war with Poland practically liquidated the city during the siege of Cracow. On October 30, 1655 Swedish forces took the town together with its castle. Indeed, in that very year Oshpitzin was emptied of its inhabitants by a regiment commanded by General Toriszynski [?], which was composed of mountain dwellers of Zywiec and peasants of the area. In response, the Swedes burned down Oshpitzin in February 1656. The permanent garrisons and the punitive tributes exacted by the military weakened Oshpitzin in utter defeat. In 1660 half of the houses were empty of dwellers, and in 1662 the population was reduced to only 350-450. The Franciscan Monastery and the ancient church named for Nikolai were in complete collapse. The 1660 census describes the situation as follows: There were only 20 houses, 6 craftsmen, where before the war there had been 200. The franchises had not been properly renewed, and goods passed through town towards Moravia and Silesia avoiding tolls without fear of sanctions. The inhabitants petitioned the king with the complaint that the managers of the salt-mines of Wieliczka had peremptorily transferred the bulk salt warehouses to Paszcziena [?]. This situation gradually improved during the 18th Century.

In the first partition of Poland, Oshpitzin came under Austrian rule, and the income from 1787 on was assigned to Joachim Potocki as a partial grant for the Bolchowski estate. In 1818 the Oshpitzin and Zator Principality were declared – not including the outlying district – as belonging to the German Republic, as part of Czechia, which remained in force until cancelled by the conditions of the Prussian Peace Treaty in 1886. In 1863, a major conflagration consumed the church, the municipal building, and 130 homes. In the beginning of the 19th Century the Austrian government granted Oshpitzin the right to hold 12 fairs annually. The city then had 2,118 inhabitants and 295 wooden houses. Only in the market square stood a one story building of stone, the municipal building which had been refurbished in 1792, and three more stone buildings.

During the Austro-Prussian War, an Austrian infantry regiment and battalion of Uhlans fought a bloody battle with the Prussians who had seized the railroad station after suddenly crossing the border. After several infantry attacks to retake the station with drawn bayonets which were rebuffed, the Austrians placed four cannons on the castle grounds and with their support the Austrians succeeded in retaking the position which had been temporarily lost. The city did not suffer much due to this struggle.[6]

In 1851 Oshpitzin numbered 2,453 inhabitants, and after the fire which had destroyed the town in 1863 – 2,792 inhabitants. In the latter part of the 19th Century the inhabitants engaged in weaving and pottery. Market days were held twice a month. In 1890 the town numbered 5,414 inhabitants, and in 1910 – 10,127.

In 1921 (after World War I and Poland's return to political independence) there were 490 dwellings with 12,187 inhabitants, and in 1938 – 13,000. During the period between the two wars the city limits enclosed 8.64 square kilometers and contained many factories, work-shops, metal and chemical works, liquor distilleries and starch producers, as well as well developed commercial establishments. The market days were held every Thursday. The city lay along the railway lines connecting it to Dziedzice and Trzebina (from 1856) and to Cracow (from 1884) and to Katowice (from 1897).

Among the famous who stemmed from Oshpitzin were: Stanislaw Oswiecim (1606-1657) – a Polish diarist, Marshal in the courts of the Konciepolski [?] kings, traveler to many countries, took part in the Swedish war, left behind a “Diary” which was published in 1907 by W. Cermak and contains important information on the history and chronicles of the Polish republic. Another notable is Jana of Oshpitzin (1492 – 1512 [?]) also known as Sacranus, a professor of theology, Rector of the Cracow University, and court theologian of the kings Ulbricht, Alexander, and Zygmunt I; Simeon Sirenski (1541 – 1611), physician, from 1589 professor at the Academy of Cracow, a geographer who detailed his travels of 16 years. In the tales of Hyronimus Morstein entitled “Antipasti Malzenskia” (Cracow 1650) is a sketch of Pavel, Prince of Oshpitzin.


  1. The annals of the city are recorded in the “Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom”, in the general encyclopedia of the Orgelbrand [?] Brothers of Warsaw, in the “Gutberg Encyclopedia” published in Krakow, in the book “Poland” by Balinski and Lipinski. Yet more details can be found in Dr. J. Potak's book, published in Krakow in 1938 (in Polish), and it appears that Oshpitzin is first mentioned even before Krakow. Return
  2. Idrisi Abu Abdallah, of the royal family of the Arabic Idrisis, who conducted an extensive journey also in Europe and toiled for 15 years in the preparation of a world map on a large silver plate. Return

  3. The Wends – vestiges of Slavic tribes – also known as Sorbs or Lusatians, were pushed out of Upper Silesia towards Saxony on the Elbe and their capital was the city of Beutzen not far from Dresden, the capital of Saxony. Return

  4. The history of the struggles between the princes of the Piasts in Silesia points out the inability even from a psychological viewpoint of the princes to rule and their greed for each others territories, which led inevitably to their use of antisemitism as a tool against the Jews who lived among them. Return

  5. King Casimierz Jagiellonczyk's approach to the princes of Oshpitzin and Zator illustrates his great hesitation in interfering in matters relating to national-familial concerns, and only because of the high regard for the founder of the Piast dynasty did he tread with great caution. Return

  6. From the lengthy historic annals of Oshpitzin it can be seen that only for the purpose of overshadowing the glorious past of the ancient city was it chosen by the German Nazi government as a place of inferno and destruction of various peoples, among them six million Jews. Return

[Page 26]

Chapter 2

On the Chronicles
of the Oshpitzin Palace

The status of the palace on the banks of the Sola. – The Knights' castles in the area. – The refurbishing of the palace in the 14th Century. – Mikolaj Slup of Dubowice  [?] the first lord of the palace. – The roster of nobles who succeeded him. – The Palace destroyed by fire in 1503. – A description of the palace according to Dlugosz [?]. – Jan Jordan [?] rebuilds the palace in 1508. – The palace is protected by walls and tower. – The burning down of the palace in the beginning of the 17th Century. – Its rehabilitation by Komorowski [?], the Lord of the district. – The palace is destroyed during the Swedish War. – The Sejm decides to restore it in 1667. – The Palace under the Bari  [?] Confederation. – The Palace is captured by the Austrian Army after the partition of Poland. – Rosocki  [?] purchases the Palace from the Austrian Treasury. – The palace as the regional headquarters at the Austrian border in 1911. – Housing the offices of the independent Polish Government after WWI. –
A description of the citadel at Zator.

A palace or castle is thought of as a large and magnificent building containing many rooms and suitable for kings and ministers. Since such buildings were also built as fortresses they served as citadels against an enemy. Nearly every palace of this type was built near a river, and in Oshpitzin the palace stood on the banks of the River Sola. The Oshpitzin Palace was not the only one in the valley. There were castles in Grodzisko, in Zator, in Wolk [?], in Behrwald, in Lanzkoron [?], and in Grojec Zywicki [?]. There were fortresses in the region of Rzibrac [?], in Gronia Bukowski, in Malic and Lazi. There were noblemen's castles in Wieprz [?], Kobrinec [?], Osiek, Glebowice [?], Graboszyce [?], Przybradz [?], Slimien [?], and Ludogowice [?]. There were knights' castles in Zimbzice [?], Zagorz, and Marciformbia [?], and numerous others.

The Oshpitzin citadel was the most ancient in the Oshpitzin region. There is a conjecture that the city was founded by Boleslaw Chrobry, the Great, also known as the Brave (ruled from 992 to 1025). He disseminated Christianity throughout Poland, mounted extensive wars against Heinrich II of Germany and established an infrastructure in Poland after the manner of the western countries. Boleslaw Chrobry should not be confused with Boleslaw [II] the Bold who lived at the end of the 11th Century, * or with Boleslaw [III] the Wry-Mouthed [died] in 1138.

In the beginning of the 14th Century the Palace was refurbished by Casimir I, Prince of Cieszyn. His brother, Prince Wladislaw had established permanent residence in Oshpitzin. Also resident permanently in the Oshpitzin Palace was the last holder of the title of the principality, Jan the Scholastic, his son, Jan II, a distant relative of Prince Casimir, and finally the sons of Casimir, Janosz, Waclaw, and Przemislaw, all lived in the Oshpitzin Palace. After the principality was acquired by Casimir Jagiellonczyk [IV] the Oshpitzin Palace was refurbished again and enlarged somewhat.

Generally, refurbishing implied shoring up the moats and the outer walls of the Palace and the city. For this purpose the King obtained a one-time contribution from the citizens of the Krakow and Oshpitzin region. Among them were also the peasants of the noblemen's villages and the monasteries, as well as the village chiefs. The king entrusted the administration of the Palace to Mikolaj Slup of Dubowice near Cieszyn, of the Kurnic [?] family, known otherwise as “Marszalek” (military chief), the masters of the Kuda [?] village in the Oshpitzin region. The Kurnic family, which evidenced much interest in the annexation of the Oshpitzin and Zator territories to the Polish Crown - was helpful in providing loans to Casimir Jagielloncyk. In return for 700 Hungarian gold pieces which were loaned to the king, Mikolaj Slup was granted the Oshpitzin Palace and Wolk as collateral. With the acquisition of the principality the title and office of the Lord of the Oshpitzin Palace once again came to the fore. They were bestowed on Mikolaj Slup. Subsequently he made Oshpitzin the administrative center of the district, and carried out the judicial and administrative functions in the estate of the Oshpitzin Palace. The first district governor appointed in Oshpitzin after its purchase was Jan Szydlowice, a member of the Kurnic family.

The Oshpitzin Palace Lords in the 15th and 16th Centuries after Mikolaj of Dubowice were: Pjotr and Jan Miszkowski from Przycziszow [?], Jan Bonar, and Krzysztof Miszkowski. It is likely that the reason behind the appointment to such a high office to Pjotr Miszkowski was that he was an illegitimate son of one of the Oshpitzin princes, and it is nearly certain that this was Prince Jan II, the brother-in-law of King Jagiello, and he was connected through marriage to Casimir Jagielloncyk. The post of Lord of the Palace then passed to the house of Komorowski of Zywiec, and the first Lord of this family was Krzysztof Komorowski, and after his nephew Jan, Pjotr Makorozwinek [?] filled the post, followed by Jan Syrenik [?] of Ratibor, Jan Jordan [?] from Wytowice, Seweryn Bonar, citizen of Krakow Mokolaj Myszkowski and Zygmunt Myszkowski.

After the purchase of the principality the assets of the Palace were transmitted through foreclosure to the king's creditors in lieu of the debts against the Palace, the city, the suburbs, and villages, and tolls for river usage, which had amounted to 8,223 Hungarian gold pieces. The Palace's villages: Bilani [?], Lenky [?], Brzeszcze with its pond, and Buda [?], belonged to Pjotr Myszkowski, Manowice - to Pjotr Pore[m]bski, Oseil [?] - to Leon Myszkowski, Lipnik - to Melchior Wilcziel [?] of Dobranowice and to Szaszowski, the Oshpitzin city income to a member of the Krakow City Council, and the income of Ke[n]ty to Pjotr Prikacz [?]. In 1494 the debts were repaid and the assets were recovered from the creditors. That same year the village of Brzezinka was bought from Zygmunt of Brzezinka for 1200 Hungarian gold pieces. In 1507, a trade took place with Melchior Kurenice [?] who received the Osiek village in exchange for the villages of Bojakow, Porombka [?], and Kubiernice [?].

Some time around 1503 a major fire broke out in Oshpitzin which consumed the town and the Palace. The Palace was gutted and only the foundations remained. This is evidence that the Palace had been constructed of wood, and only the tower was of stone. The Polish historian, Dlugosz [?] [1] dwells on this in his book, “Polish History” as follows: The Oshpitzin palace's tower was built of bricks, quite high and straight, overlooking the whole of it, and whoever ruled it, in effect ruled the city. The tower had four corners, i.e., it was on the model of the Wyawilli [?] Palace Tower. King Alexander ordered the regional governor, Jan Jordan, to rebuild the palace. The expenses ran to 2,400 Hungarian gold pieces. These expenses were paid by the Oshpitzin district governors, Jan Jordan and his deputy Pawel Czarny, and the income from the Oshpitzin principality was pledged to defray their outlay. There was a special tax in vogue for the purposes of construction called “Rogowy [?]”, and also for payment of bridges which were once again built over the Vistula: One near Oshpitzin, and the second near Tinca [?]. The bridge tax in Oshpitzin was divided into two parts, one going to the Oshpitzin palace and the other to the neighboring palace in Bubrik [?]. The palace was completed in 1508. It was surrounded by walls and had seven gates, a watchtower - Baszta [?] - with a clock, and was also designed to house an armory.

There was a courtyard behind one of the gates in which cannons and gun-crews were stationed. There were various rooms in the palace: A black room near the first gate, built of wood with an adjoining cell, a small chamber over the gate, a chapel, a kitchen and bakery, three pantries and two shops over the gate and next to the wicket leading to the smithy. At the end there were two stables and an area for wagons. According to the inventory of 1549 the armaments were in a dreary state. The palace contained 63 old-style muskets, four new and two old crossbows, six field-cannons, three outdated battering rams, 12 new and two old spears, two javelins, two old sledges whose runners were lined with iron, two containers of musket powder, three cannonballs, a half-barrel of gunshot, 60 metal lined wooden projectiles [for the crossbows]. The furnishings of the palace were quite modest. In the chamber over the gate was a table, a bench, and a candlestick; in the nearby cell was a bed, a table, and three muskets. In the chamber next to the tower was a table, a stool, and two benches. In the large wooden white room - two tables, two benches, and a lamp suspended on a chain, and in the side-chamber - two beds. In the hall there were three old coats of armor and a flag attached to a wooden spear. In the black room stood a long table, three round tables, a washbasin and two iron candlesticks. Lastly, in the main chamber, there were four tables, two benches, a copper candlestick, and in its side-chamber - a bed and a round table.

The renovated palace once more fell victim to fire in the conflagration that consumed the city in the beginning of the 17th Century. It was rebuilt by the regional governor, Pjotr Komorowski. The decision of the Sejm in Warsaw in 1635 as listed in the book, “Volumina Legum” [?], indicates that inspectors had been appointed to supervise the expenditures in the restoration of the palace. “The Oshpitzin palace” - as decided by the Sejm - “which is situated almost on the border with Silesia, is absolutely devastated due to the depravations that took place during the tenures of the previous governors. Pjotr, a native of Komorow, our governor in Oshpitzin, has already made expenditures in the renovation by his own initiative, and he is of a mind to continue to invest his funds in thorough reconstruction of the walls and the palace. Moreover, the city walls require no small expenditure, and with respect to this the inspectors are bidden to examine whether the income from the salt warehouses and the tax derived from horse ownership will suffice to cover the renovation. Lastly, the inspectors are to look into the matter of indemnification in favor of Wojciech Gorecki [?], whose lands were inundated by the diversion of the River Sola so that it would not again undermine the palace hill.”

The palace was destroyed once more during the Swedish Wars. The Sejm, however, once again decided in 1667, adding the remark, “that as far as possible the resources of the monarchy should be concentrated on the border fortresses that were defensible, to assign the income from the tolls on the Vistula exacted at Broszkowice [?], at the rate of 10 groszy [?] per 60 fish imported from Silesia, and the duties collected on the lumber brought on barges from Silesia”. This tax was enacted to be in force for a 30 year period, i.e., until 1697. Nevertheless, the Oshpitzin governor, Lubowicki [?], instead of renovating the palace from the tax income, replenished his own purse, and as a result of the greed of his agents, the palace fell into increasing desuetude, until it turned into a ruin. The Sejm discussed the management of the governor's office and affirmed that Lubowicki had, indeed, collected the taxes for the renovation of the Oshpitzin palace for a period of thirty years, without having carried out any repairs to the palace itself, and had neglected his duties. In view of this dereliction on the part of the district governor, the Sejm empowered the new district governor Malchowski [?] to expropriate the taxes that had been collected, by the authority of an official court order. The Sejm also deliberated on ways and means to save the palace from ruin by issuing the following order: “Out of profound concern for the border fortress at Oshpitzin whose function is to protect the border, and which due to neglect has reached crisis proportions, and in order that it not turn into a total ruin, the Sejm authorizes the preservation and renovation of the Oshpitzin Palace through the collection of taxes on the River Vistula at Broszkowice to be levied on fish and lumber that merchants import from or export to Silesia, i.e., 10 groszy per 60 fish, and a tithe on the lumber imports and exports for a period of thirty years, as outlined in the previous order of 1667 which required the tax-collections to be remitted to the district offices, and which was formerly collected but exploited for other personal objectives. These monies have been expropriated from the tax collectors and returned for the purpose of renovating and repairing the palace”.

The palace also served as the district office of Oshpitzin in the 17th Century. The four-cornered “Baszta” which had existed all along until that time, formerly lofty and equipped with weapons, was now designated as a jail. The upper stories of the tower served for light sentences, while the lower section was set up for hardened criminals. The palace buildings had been used to store salt until the time that the city of Oshpitzin was granted the monopoly to warehouse salt and the exclusive right to the salt trade with neighboring Silesia. The census of 1765 describes the palace thus: “The approach to the palace is by way of a bridge paved with logs, a gateway with double entrances, and after it a wall on both sides leading to the courtyard, a chamber housing the city archives, a kitchen and pantry. On the other side there is a room, a hall and a cubicle, an unused chapel, a ruined roof, and in the corners of the tower are the upper and lower jails. The walls are weakened and here and there they are cracked”. During the days of the Bari Confederation the fortresses served - whether that of Oshpitzin or that of neighboring Bobrik - as support points for the military activities of the Bari Confederation, until such point as they were captured by the Russian forces under Suvorov. The palace stood on the “Palace Hill” on the northern end of the town. This was really not a hill, but only a slope, an area full of clefts from the right side of the River Sola, which had apparently raised the elevation of the ground somewhat by the deposits of the excavated earth from the foundations and trenches dug around the palace. This slope was bordered in a half-circle by the flowing River Sola, which was quite deep at these points. The slopes of the palace were fortified by two walls and triple [or triangular] ramparts. The city of Oshpitzin was also walled in, with trenches and ramparts. The palace itself contained a “Baszta” and two-storied buildings, formerly of wood, and later of one story masonry. The most dangerous enemy of the palace had proven to be the River Sola. The river flow undermined the palace hill and carried off the protective walls and even some smaller structures.

After the Polish Partition Rotocki acquired the palace from the Austrian treasury and he housed the “Justiciarius” [?] of the royal court there. Later on the palace was leased to the army for housing and army storage. The Jews of Oshpitzin also leased it for the storage of sundry merchandise. One lessee of food products set up an inn there. In 1928, the national authorities granted regional authority rights to the Oshpitzin district. The district authority bought the palace from the individuals who owned it and renovated it once more at the cost of some 150,000 gold coins, with the intent of using the palace for the housing of government offices. This arrangement turned out to be a disaster for the district. The plan was aborted, on the presumption that the district was not and would not be able to financially maintain itself as a separate district authority. The government had rescued the palace from oblivion, but now the palace had lost its benefactor.


Oshpitzin and Zator are historically mentioned in one breath, as if they were twin cities, and for that very reason I want to mention briefly some details about Zator and its palace in this context.

The defending fortress was situated on the right bank of the River Skawa, not very far from the southern side of Zator, in a community named Grodzisko. Were it not for the Polish historian Jan Dlugosz (1415-1480) and his remarks about this palace in his books, no trace of it would have remained. [2]

[Mr. Geschuri details on several additional pages the history of Zator during medieval times and the major figures active there during that period. They have little, if any, bearing on the primary concerns of this translation for readers interested in Oshpitzin's past, and are, therefore, omitted].


  1. Much is written about the Oshpitzin Palace in Polish history books, and the historian Dlugosz describes it in detail in his book. Full details are found in the book by Dr. J. Potak in Chapter 5 (pp. 139-160) entitled “Castles, Fortresses, and Palaces of the Medieval Period”. The palace stood its ground in spite of the many conflagrations, and after being refurbished from time to time the palace towered proudly over the city until the Second World War. Return
  2. The Zator palace was considered a subsidiary of the one in Oshpitzin, and it housed an archive of documents and affidavits which historians found highly useful, and provides evidence regarding the Jews who lived in Zator and surrounding areas. Return

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Chapter 3

The beginnings of Jewish settlement in Oshpitzin

The ancient settlement of Jews in Oshpitzin. – Among the first Jewish communities in Poland. – The legend of Abraham Prochownik [?], the Jew who crowned Piast. – Antisemitic Piast Princes in Oshpitzin. The Jewish townsmen as wards of the Polish Prince Laszak [?]. – Oshpitzin as transit point for Jewish travelers. – Jews as temporary and permanent residents of Oshpitzin. – The border town and its role in the development of Poland. – Jews prepared to pay tribute are welcomed in the city. – Jews of the town as keystones of the Polish economy. – The contacts between Jews and peasants in the town. – Increase of the Jewish community after the riots in Germany at the end of the 13th Century. – The city as the "repository of Jewish tears". – The Jews of the city in the pincers of political events.

Chapter 4

Oshpitzin as buffer between the Polish and Silesian states

The Jews in Oshpitzin are among the first Jewish settlements in Slavic countries. – Jewish refugees transit through Silesian Oshpitzin. -Jewish communities in Silesia and Oshpitzin. – The oppressor Capistrano instigates riots against Jews. – Capistrano in Oshpitzin on his journeys to Cracow. – Antisemitsm in Oshpitzin continues after its annexation to Poland. – The Catholic Church preaches antisemitism 1453-1455. – Preparing the ground for transformation of Jewish Oshpitzin to Nazi Auschwitz.

Chapter 5

Oshpitzin in the “Council of the Four Lands”

The Jews in the city in the 12th Century. – Jewish travelers ignore Oshpitzin. – The city as reflected in the annals of the “Council of the Four Lands”. – The Oshpitzin community on the map of the “Council”. – On the “Pinkas Hakehilla” [Jewish Community Ledger] of Oshpitzin. – Disorder in Oshpitzin in 5387 [1625]. – The Oshpitzin Libel in the Polish Sjemik [?]. – Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik Landa as town's representative in the “Council of the Four Lands”. – Jewish residence forbidden in the area of Oshpitzin and Zator. – Tax collections from Jews in transit. – Jewish townsmen in the 1564 census. – King Zygmund August restricts the enlargement of the town. – The city's Jews on the roster of “Roads and Granaries” of 1581. – Jews in Zator in 1564. – The efforts to enlarge the Jewish presence in the Oshpitzian and Zator region.

Chapter 6

Oshpitzin in the Cycle of Restrictive Decrees and Pogroms

The Jews of Oshpitzin in the "Tat veTach" years (1648-1649). – The city and environs as a transit point for refugees. – Oshpitzin as a way station for gathering contributions. The letter from the Cracow leadership of Oshpitzin of 5402 (1652) to the Viennese community. – Where did the Jews flee after Oshpitzin was destroyed by the Swedes in 1655. – Riots against the Jews by General Czernicki [?]. – No mention of Jews in the 1662 census of Oshpitzin. – The Jew Joachim buys an inn in Berwald [?] in 1707. – Osieka [?] "The Jewish city". – Riots aginst Jews in Ponikwa [?] in 1755. – Jews in Biala in 1723. – The expansion of Jewish settlement in towns and villages of the area, Wadowice, Kenty, Ziwiec [?] and others.

Chapter 7

The Frankist influence in the Oshpitzin region

Impressions of Frankist influence in the Oshpitzin region. – The Catholic clergy and the government look with favor on the Frankists in agricultural settlement in the region. – Jacob Frank's travels via Oshpitzin to Germany. – Josef Furmawski [?] the Frankist in Chotznia [?] in 1755. – The Christian baptism of "The unbelieving Jew" in Chotzin [?] in 1756. The purchase of an estate in Gorzhyn Gorny [?] by the Jew Jacob Litman Huppert in 1792. The Jew Joachim Ochner among the wardens on the estate. – The Frankist families Padlewski [?] and Piasecki [?] near the city. – The Jewish family Schanzer [?] in Skawice [?]. – The Jewish family Horn settles in Gorzhyn [?]. – The Jewish family Ringer settles in Jaszczorow [?]. – Nobles of the region sell their villages to Jews. – The Jewish architect Korn from Biala builds a church.

Chapter 8

Oshpitzin in the pinch of the partitions of Poland

The Bari [?] Confederates in Oshpitzin. – The city's dwindling number of Jews. – The poll tax levied on the city's Jews. – The city's nobles loan monies from Jews. – The results of the 1764 census of Jews in Oshpitzin. – 470 Jews in the city and surrounding area. – 123 Jews in Oshpitzin. – 449 Jews in villages nearby. – The entry of the Confederation Army close to Oshpitzin. – The conquest of Oshpitzin by the Russian General Suvorov [?]. – Oshpitzin in the first Polish Partition of 1772. – Its status in Western Galicia under Austrian protection.

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Chapter 9

Oshpitzin During the Initial Period of Austrian Galicia

Oshpitzin in the Galician metamorphosis. - Oshpitzin as compensation to Austria for its loss of Silesia. - The Principality of Oshpitzin in its new Austrian role. - Oshpitzin in the German Union of 1815. - Returns to Galicia in 1850. - Josef II and his visits to Oshpitzin. - His conversations with the Jews as told by the people of Oshpitzin. - The first Jewish census in Oshpitzin in 1773. - Jews constitute 0.7% of the total population. - As of 1773 Jewish marriages by license. - The decree concerning Jewish “beggars.” - The burdening of Jews by decrees. - The Jews of the city persevere.

Of all the transformations that Oshpitzin experienced through the many years of its existence, during which time it bounced like a ball from hand to hand, from one country to another, and from one reign to the next, the last reincarnation – the Galician – was the most difficult for the general population, and all the more so for the Jewish population. Indeed, the lot was comparable for all the Jewish settlements in Galicia, east and west, beginning with Oshpitzin, lying almost on the Silesian-Prussian border, and extending as far as the Ukrainian border and Podolia beyond. While afflictions were applied specifically in Oshpitzin and its surroundings, the proximity of the borders eased them in some ways, and the Jews in Oshpitzin regarded them as a particular omen, exemplified by the traditional saying, “This, too, is for the best.” [1]

The House of Habsburg also inherited the Bohemian kingdom (Czechia), which had previously included Silesia, and the cities of Oshpitzin and Zator, west of Krakow, which had previously been the capitals of the minor Silesian principalities. With that, Vienna retook these principalities. The full title of the new Austrian “Crown Lands,” Galicia, remained until the end: The Kingdom of Galicia and Ludomira with the great principalities Oshpitzin and Zator. [2] It is evident that Vienna relied on the proprietary claims of the Hungarian monarchy over Galicia and Ludomira and on similar claims of the Czech kingdom over Oshpitzin and Zator. After the Austrian annexation, the Hungarians demanded that the conquered territories of Galicia and Ludomira be included as part of Hungary. The opinion that Oshpitzin and Zator should become part of Silesia (Austrian) was also bandied about. Kaiser Josef II, however, paid no attention to these demands, and the conquered territories became Austrian crown lands. Between 1772 and 1848, the Galician borders changed several times. It was only in 1848 that the situation stabilized and continued to exist until 1918. Until that year, the destinies of Galician Jewry (including Oshpitzin) were tied to the history of the Austrian empire. In the first week of October 1772, a civil administration was instituted in the conquered territories, and the country, weary of the hardships brought on since 1768 by the attacks of the Confederates and the Russians, was tranquil. All the inhabitants, especially the Jews, desired a strong and stable regime. Soon, however, they were to realize the accuracy of the maxim that “one should not pray for a different king.”

What then was the fate of Oshpitzin in the first Polish partition? This apparently has been hard to determine, and for that reason the matter has been treated with some caution; to this day opinions remain divided as to Oshpitzin's unique status. According to one version of events, Oshpitzin was captured in 1772 by the Austrian army, which declared it a special crown territory. The decisions of the Vienna Congress of 1815 indicate that Oshpitzin was linked to the German Union. In 1850 it was attached to Galicia and remained that way until 1918, when it returned to independent Poland. According to a second version of events, Oshpitzin was conquered in 1800 by Austria and was conveyed, together with {the church of 1787} [?] to Joachim Potocki as a partial grant in exchange for the Bolochowskia [?] estate. In 1818, the Oshpitzin and Zator principalities, without the outlying areas, were declared restored and included in the German republic as a part of Czechia. This status was annulled once more according to a Prussian peace treaty in 1866. A third version maintains that after the annexation of Oshpitzin by the Polish crown, Oshpitzin together with Zator constituted the Third District of the Krakowian Wojwoda. Between 1818 and 1866, however, the Oshpitzin and Zator principalities were officially part of the German Kingdom (Czechia). The palace at Oshpitzin was said to have been acquired by Rosocki from the Austrian treasury after the partition of Poland, and he installed a legal advisor as a resident of the palace. In subsequent periods the palace came to be used as an army residence. The Jews of Oshpitzin also used it for storage of merchandise. In 1919 [? probably 1819], when the Austrian government established a regional office for the border area, it was housed in the palace. Nearby Krakow was not annexed by Austria in the first partition and remained as part of Poland. Only after the Third Polish Partition, in 1795, was Krakow temporarily attached to the Austrian Empire and made the capital of West Galicia. [3]

Who were the new rulers of Oshpitzin and Galicia? First in line was the Empress Maria Theresa, an ultra-zealous Catholic due to her clerical upbringing. In any event, she was infected with the malady of anti-Semitism, as revealed by her cruel ordinances against the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. Now, with the addition of new territory with a large Jewish population of nearly a quarter of a million people, she had many concerns and uncertainties as to how to deal with them. The outstanding feature of her ordinances and regulations was her determination that the number of Jews should not increase further and that the Catholic sanctity that reigned in the empire should not, God forbid, be profaned by the Jews. Accordingly, she enacted a series of restrictions and legal sanctions, a virtual iron fence, designed to close off in the Galician cage those dangerous animals, and she simultaneously employed the screw of taxation to extract more and more taxes from the Jews, raising them to an impossible level. [4]

Maria Theresa shared her crown with her son, Josef II, who took up the reins of administration of the New Austria. His form of rule was Enlightened Absolutism, i.e., an unlimited autocracy, liberal in its views, with concern for the welfare of the people – everything for the people, but not by the people. Immediately after the signing of the Polish Partition Treaty with the courts of Petersburg and Berlin, Josef II had decided to eradicate all traces of Polish Republican freedom in Galicia and to educate the land and its inhabitants in the spirit of enlightenment and educational advances of the time, which in his view were unquestionably superior to all others. He proposed to his mother, Theresa, a detailed plan for governing the conquered territory. The memorandum contained great ideas for improving the society and economy. He ordered the removal from Jewish hands of post offices (which at that time supplied horses to travelers up to the next station, where they were exchanged), inns, taverns and all types of concessions, and stated that after a certain period all of these would, by public announcement, be made available to Christians, foreigners, or Poles. The results of these notions of the Kaiser and his officials were grievous for Jews while yet under the rule of his mother, who somewhat restrained her son's enthusiasm for radical changes, and all the more so after her demise in 1780. The Kaiser could in no way be thought of as a philo-Semite. He considered the Jews a “bad thing” which had to be cured of its deficiencies. Because of his overall ideology he tolerated the Jews, but he implemented measures designed to limit Jewish growth.

These two rulers, Maria Theresa and her son Josef, began with great energy and without delay to examine the added territory and its people and property. Both found it necessary to get to know the lands of their empire in person and in detail. They also placed this responsibility on ministers and officials in each of their departments. Josef often made the rounds of the bureaus and institutions, even appearing suddenly in disguise. These appearances of Kaiser Josef were legendary in Galicia, and witty sayings were attributed to him and often retold until the end of the Austrian Empire. Theresa did everything possible not to see Jews, and she attempted to avoid passing through streets populated by Jews on her visits to the communities. Kaiser Josef, on his visits to Oshpitzin, loved to linger near the Prussian border and observe the Silesian valleys beyond. It seems a special interest held his attention, perhaps envious feelings concerning Silesia, which had previously belonged to Austria and had been taken from him in the war with the Prussians. Perhaps the Kaiser was interested in learning about methods of Silesian public administration and how Jewish affairs were handled; this information could serve as a model for Jewish matters in Galicia. Among the Jewish elders of Oshpitzin there were tales of having met the Kaiser and there was boasting about the unique privilege of having exchanged some pleasantries with him. [5]

When Kaiser Josef died in 1790, his more moderate brother, Leopold II, succeeded him. Leopold's reign, however, lasted for only two years. He was succeeded by Franz I, a clericalist, rigid and limited in social interests, who reigned from 1792 until 1835, some 43 uninterrupted years. Franz's absolute tyranny, in contrast to the policy of the more enlightened Josef, sealed the fate of the two generations who were to be ruled in reactionary brutality. In all, the period of absolutist reign persisted for nearly a hundred years. Throughout this time, the repression of religion and ethnic nationalism did not abate, and the hostile attitude of the Kaisers, the government, and provincial authorities towards the Jews harmed them severely through the discrimination of various decrees and brutal fiscal exploitation.

At the very beginning of the new regime, a police-state system was instituted, an absolutist regime employing fiscal measures that sucked dry the very bone marrow of the population. Neither the piously Catholic Maria Theresa nor her son Josef was fond of the Jews. The hostile attitude of the rulers towards the Jews was also nurtured by the economic theories that underpinned their policies. The entire German bureaucratic framework installed in Galicia was suffused with hatred of Jews, from the governor and his advisors in Lwow down to district officials and minor clerks, who viewed the Jews as a necessary evil, as destroyers of the land, and as leeches that fed on the blood of the inhabitants.

The first regulations regarding the Jews of Galicia demonstrate that the government had decided to impose severe sanctions on Jews in the province in order to block the growth of the Jewish population, to cause the “unproductive” to emigrate, and to exploit the rest as a special source of income for the treasury. The Austrian conquerors of Galicia paid particular attention to determining the number of inhabitants; to that end frequent censuses were taken and efforts were made to know the demographic status at any given time. The first census was conducted in 1773, primarily for levying a poll tax. Jews were counted separately, since they were levied at a higher rate than their neighbors. This census showed that there were 224,981 Jews in Galicia and that the smallest percentage of Jews, 0.7% of the population, was in the Oshpitzin-Zator principalities. The attitude of the Jews towards the census was not encouraging to the authorities. The first census was carried out by actual canvassing, and population ledgers were made based on its results; additions and those missing were also recorded. Census-takers ran into resistance on the part of the Jews, whose burden of taxation was heavy. Jews preferred not to have the eyes of the regime cast upon them, and they sought to be omitted from the roster. The Jews, experienced as they were with decrees, preferred that the clerk be ignorant, as it were, of details. Although it is true that the census of Jews in 1773 was more accurate than others, it must be admitted that Jews tried to avoid the census as far as possible, as long as they did not enjoy equal rights.

On December 6, 1772, a public order was issued requiring all kehilla heads and rabbis to submit a detailed report on the [financial] status of the kehilla, its property, income, expenses, and debts, the number of the rabbis and community leaders and settlements under its supervision, and to list the names of the heads of families, their ages, their household and their ages, and their source of income. Such a detailed census was unprecedented at the time anywhere, and it was not due to the government's great affection for the Jews that it wanted to know these details. Every Jew that had not been registered in 1772 was later considered a foreigner. In the first census, Jews comprised 9.6% of the total population, which was thought to be very large by those who saw the Jews as human material harmful to Christians and the state. This tally is surprising, as in subsequent tallies during the next 60 years such large numbers were not recorded.

Following is the table of the military census of 1772 for the Oshpitzin and Zator region: [6]

Krakow District
Roman Catholic Communities
Total Population
Percent of Jews
Oshpitzin and Zator

The large number of Jews in Galicia so alarmed the Austrian bureaucracy in Galicia that they designed cruel decrees, the likes of which had not been seen even in the Middle Ages, in order to cure this national plague. These were decrees reminiscent of Pharaoh in his time, a type of “Let us deal wisely with them lest they multiply” (Exodus 1:10). As early as March 1773, the royal order was given in the form of two cruel decrees: The Marriage Decree and the Expulsion of Beggars decree.

According to the ordinance of 1773, Jews were forbidden to marry without a special license issued by the Gubernium (the Galician authority) in Lwow, backed by a penalty of confiscation of all their property and corporal punishment, as feasible. The license was available for a fee. The ostensible reason for this policy was that the large number of Jewish marriages and early marriages was responsible for their economic difficulties. As of 1776, a candidate for marriage was required to prove his earning capacity. The fee for the marriage license was assessed according to the candidate's property, a sum ranging from 40 Austrian gulden to 300 ducats. Besides providing income for the royal treasury, the decree had the stated purpose of decreasing the number of Jews in the country. “The will of Her Majesty is to restrict as much as possible the growth of Galician Jewry which is estimated to now stand at 10% of the population” – so claimed the Governor in his explanation of his proposal of 1774 to forbid altogether the marriages of anyone whose property was less than 500 gulden. The severity of the law in enforcing the inhuman decree grew during that period, until 1789. The bitter decree brought the Jewish population to a condition of depression and constant fear.

We can understand how difficult it was to adhere to this decree on obtaining a marriage license from the authorities if we consider the distance from Oshpitzin on the border of Prussian Upper Silesia to Lwow, the seat of the Gubernium, a distance that required a journey of several days. [7] Anyone attempting to obtain a marriage license was obliged to travel to Lwow or wait months or years for a written response. Bureaucratic “red tape” was a popular catch phrase at the time and later on as well. In this case, there was a particular reason that responses were slow in coming: the increased supervision [of the authorities] was not too efficient. Most of the marriages of Jews were not “legal” under Austrian law. In that sense, many Jewish marriages were illegal until the 20th century. For the strictly pious, the legal age for marriage according to the laws of the state was too high, even in 1914. Many married off their sons and daughters below the legal age, and the children they bore carried the surname of the mother. When the father reached legal maturity he would conduct a legal marriage ceremony and declare that the “illegal children” were his, and thus his family name would be given them. There were cases where the father did not make the declaration and the children went by the mother's name, hence such double family names as Cohen-Kahana and Levi-Levin, where those bearing the names are not Kohanim or Levites. After the 1848 Revolution, punishment for marriages outside the law ceased. Not so during the reign of Josef II, when those who married secretly lived in constant fear and depended on the good graces of petty clerks, who would ignore the “criminals” in return for bribes. However, when an order was issued in Lwow or Vienna, they were forced to investigate and find the perpetrators, since it was an open secret that there were a great number of them. The government promised the informers a portion of the fine it exacted from the offenders, and there were Jews or apostates who brought down disaster on their brethren by turning them in to the authorities.

Another painful affair, which rendered an additional blow to the Jewish people, was the publication of a law tied to the marriage law, which decreed expulsion for all Betteljuden (Jewish beggars). This category included, aside from vagrants, nearly all Jews in Galicia who had not paid the poll tax on time for a period of three years, as well as their households. The expulsion decree also encompassed all the Jews who had come to Galicia from Poland, with the exception of those who had property worth 5,000 gulden. The kehillot, charged by the government with responsibility for preparing lists of the beggars to be deported, would protect these unfortunates as far as possible with all sorts of stratagems: they would enter fictitious names, the names of deceased people, or the names of those who were already beyond the border. Despite the solidarity of the Jewish population, there were repeated acts of cruel expulsion as early as the days of Maria Theresa and these continued in the days of her son, Josef. Finally, Poland placed guards on the border with Galicia with orders to shoot these undesirable guests, and the deportees were shunted between the two sides of the border. The effects of the decrees were felt quite openly in Oshpitzin, so close to the borders of Prussia and Poland, and caravans of those “condemned” to be deported moved through the town, keeping the men of the kehilla busy attempting to ameliorate their distress.

The poll tax, formerly collected from the Jews by Poland and set at the rate of two zloty per person, was now termed the Toleration Tax by the Austrian regime and raised to one Austrian gulden per person. [8] In addition, a Profession and Property tax was levied on all Jews. In addition to all these taxes, Jews were subjected to taxes collected in the villages for housing the army. It is apparent that the appointed tax officials stayed up late at night dreaming up new taxes in order to empty the Jews' pockets and turn them into indigents and, thus, candidates for expulsion. This was not yet all. The kehilla leaders were expected to inform on those Jews who were unable to pay the poll tax and to bring them to the regional administration bureau to be deported beyond the borders. Non-compliance with this decree made one liable for corporal punishment, which meant arrest and a beating. The tax system was maliciously designed not only to diminish the influence of Jews in the land but also to encourage their emigration, especially of the poorer classes who were unable to pay their taxes. As a result of the pressures of the special taxes, which exceeded all bounds, poverty became rampant among the Jews.

Until 1776 there was little change in the kehilla system. Kehillot were free to select their rabbis and community leaders, and no [government] official intervened in the conduct of the cheder, the hospice, and other kehilla institutions. The regime obligated them only to collect taxes and make sure that Jews observed the law of the land, specifically the marriage and beggar laws; other kehilla matters were left under their control, as in the Polish period. In 1776, however, the Judenordnung [Ordinance on Jews] brought about a drastic change. The regime instituted the same rule in Galicia that existed in Czechia and Moravia, so that the kehillot in Galicia were reorganized on the Moravian pattern. All the scattered kehillot were now forcibly united into a national organization. The new body was a machine that sucked and bled the Jews to enrich the government coffers. It was headed by a Jewish administration in Lwow and six regional leaders, one per region. The organization in Lwow included the chief rabbi of the state, one leader per region who resided permanently in Lwow, a treasurer and several secretaries, among them two Christians. In each region there were two assistants to the regional head, one Jewish and one Christian. The function of the administration was to allocate the tax levied on the Galician Jews among the individual kehillot. The six administration heads, together with local leaders who were summoned to Lwow for council meetings when important matters were pending, made this allocation. Within the kehillot the tax was allocated to individuals by the kehilla leadership, their number ranging from six to twelve, depending on the sums that the kehilla was assessed to collect for the royal treasury. The right to elect the kehilla leaders was given to all Jews, since all were obligated to pay the poll tax, or Toleration Tax, but the right to be elected was limited to those paying larger amounts (in the towns it was 80 florins annually, and in the cities it stood at 100 florins per year). The circle of people who could stand for election was very small, and these few were not elected directly. Rather, arbitrators were elected first. These arbitrators, few in number, would select triple the number of candidates who would eventually be seated, and from that pool the government chose those most suitable for its purposes as council members. Naturally, the election was a farce, and the government appointment was the deciding factor, since the officials supported informers and their ilk, who were amenable to authority and, thus, the dregs of the people. The leaders of the region were selected in a similar fashion, as were the rabbis, including the chief rabbi. The power of the chief rabbi was enormous, as was that of the rabbi of the kehilla. The kehilla rabbi was the master of all the shochtim, chazanim, melamdim, shamashim, and undertakers in his town. The Jewish besdin remained in place as during the Polish reign.

The Jewish community was not pleased with the new system. The Jewish tax collectors and their bailiffs came down hard, and there was much unjust exploitation. Slanders and complaints against the state-selected leadership and rabbis and against the regional leaders and their rabbis came in tremendous numbers to the government. Conflict and strife multiplied. Hatred increased and led to chillul HaShem. The days of this organization were numbered, and the numerous complaints heard day after day in the Imperial Court hastened its dissolution.

The Jews, whose numbers in relation to the total population were greater in Galicia than in any other land in the world at that time, were unusual not only in their religious observance and way of life, but also socially and economically. It may be true that those who termed it a “Kingdom within a Kingdom” were not exaggerating. While legally Jews did not have the same rights as their Christian neighbors, in practice they enjoyed similar rights in most places. The limitations, humiliations, and special heavy taxes that Christian laws applied to Jews since Christianity was adopted by the Roman Emperors, especially those applied in the latter half of the Middle Ages, might have brought them to the point of extinction had they been enforced totally. In the harsh struggle for existence, Jews acquired the talents of intercession and utilized the greed of rulers and their relatives and associates. The art of efficiently bribing higher officials and those in leadership positions is one of the branches of secret diplomacy. Diplomacy is difficult for a people living under normal conditions, and it is ultimately more difficult for a small minority hated and despised by its environment. Negotiations with government ministers and the church on behalf of the Jews cost a fortune, and many kehillot became immersed in debts owed primarily to bishops and rich monasteries. They were generally helpful in neutralizing the plots of city-dwellers, the accusations of the priesthood, and in softening animosity.

The Jews of Oshpitzin held on for hundreds of years, through all of the changes that occurred, and they knew how to avoid the new afflictions that came with government changes in the Galician era and to bide their time, waiting confidently for a better future.

  1. The episode of the Austrian conquest of Galicia is conspicuous in Jewish literature. Dr. A. J. Braver published his book Galicia and its Jews (Bialik Institute Press, Jerusalem); Meir Balaban devoted a book on this period, in Polish, On the History of the Jews in Galicia (Lwow, 1914); Dr. Yosef Tennenbaum published his book, in Yiddish, Galicia, my Homeland (Buenos Aires, 1952), and similarly, Dr. N. M. Gelber, among others. They all practically ignored Oshpitzin Jewry and its political status in the first stage after its conquest, since it was not immediately annexed to Galicia and remained between a rock and a hard place, as did its neighbor, the city of Krakow, which was an independent republic for a certain period. Return
  2. The honorific status of the Oshpitzin and Zator principalities within the Austrian Crown Lands apparently granted several political and economic benefits to the inhabitants of the region, and perhaps, inadvertently, to the Jews as well. Later, however, they were equalized in all respects to those of the Jews throughout Galicia. Return
  3. A very important book by the historian Meir Balaban was devoted to Jewish Krakow (The History of the Jews in Krakow and Kazimierz) in two thick volumes, but he did not allocate even one line to its neighbor Oshpitzin. It is likely that it was to be included in a proposed later work on the Jewish settlements. Return
  4. Maria Theresa, a German empress of the Habsburg Dynasty (1717-1780), was the daughter of Karl VI. She shared her power with her husband, Franz I. She was also the archduchess of Austria and the queen of Hungary and Bohemia. Despite her Catholic hypocrisy she was beloved by her people. Return
  5. Kaiser Josef II issued severe decrees against the Jews (1785-1789), which were intended to cause them to assimilate and make them more useful to the state economy. This policy, however, was unsuccessful due to the opposition of the Jewish masses. Return
  6. It would seem that the census results for Jews in Oshpitzin were more satisfying to the regime than those of other regions. One reason for this situation was the location of Oshpitzin in West Galicia, which had always been an area populated by Polish Catholics whose attitude towards Jews was hostile. Return
  7. This was before the more rapid railroad in Galicia connected east and west. Return
  8. The very name of the poll tax illustrates the barbarous attitude of those who dubbed it. Income tax, property tax, inheritance taxes, and the like were familiar, but the most hypocritical aspect was its Austrian designation as the Toleration Tax, which was a form of abuse of those Jews who could not afford to pay it. Return

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