Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VI

History of the Jews in the Districts (Voivodships)
of Poznan and Pomerania from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem Published in Jerusalem


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VI, pages 147-156,
Edited by Abraham Wein, Co-Editor: Rachel Grosbaum-Pasternak published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem


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[Pages 147-156]

History of the Jews in the Districts (Voivodships)
of Poznan and Pomerania (Introduction)

Abraham Wein

The present volume of The Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities covers the north-western region of Poland. It includes entries on sixty-seven Jewish communities in the voivodships (districts) of Poznan and Pomerania that were located within Polish borders on the eve of World War II. The community of Gdansk (Danzig), which had been granted the status of a free city by the League of Nations after World War I is also included.

In this volume, as distinct from earlier volumes of The Encyclopaedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, the editors have decided to include communities with fewer than one hundred Jews. The chief consideration was the region's characteristic trend of a widespread decline in Jewish populations between the second half of the 19th century and World War I. Communities that previously had boasted 2,000 or more Jews, suffered serious population losses as a result of encroaching urbanization and increasing emigration. In fact, quite a few of these communities disappeared altogether. At the same time, however, because of the importance of these communities in the more remote past, the editors felt that omitting them from the present volume would yield an incomplete picture of Polish Jewry in general, and of the Jews in the western part of the country in particular. The entry on Poznan is the first in this volume, because of the community's historical importance.

Geographically, the present volume encompasses an area that from the end of the 18th century up to 1918 had been part of Prussia, and was incorporated into Poland only after the establishment of the independent Polish state in 1919. With minor modifications, the district (voivodship) of Poznan within the interwar borders coincides with what in the previous centuries had been known historically as Great Poland (Wielkopolska) - the cradle of the Polish kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries. At the time of the feudal partition of the Polish Kingdom and unification of the country in the 12th and 13th centuries, the principality of Great Poland became a single kingdom. From the middle of the 14th century until the first partition of Poland in 1772, large sections of the Poznan voivodship were annexed to Prussia. Following the second partition in 1793 the remaining parts of the voivodship were incorporated into Prussia. In the years 1807-1815, this area formed part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw; from 1815 until 1850 it belonged to the Duchy of Poznan and was practically a Prussian province. From the abolition of the Duchy in 1850 and until 1918, Poznan existed as an independent administrative unit, part of the Prussian Kingdom; from 1870 onward it belonged to the German Empire.

Polish residents rose several times (during the Spring of Nations in 1846-48, for example) against incorporation of the area into Prussia. During World War I, in 1916, the Poles set up the Central Civil Committee aimed at furthering the independence of Poland. In 1918 Polish residents of the area rebelled against German rule and established the Central Polish National Committee. In the reborn Polish state the area became the district of Poznan.

On September 1, 1939, the first day of World War II, the Germans invaded Poland and within several days their troops overran the entire area. By Heydrich's decree, issued on October 20, 1939, the Poznan area, together with parts of Pomerania and the district of Lodz, were incorporated into the Reich as part of the so-called Warthegau, or Warta province, which takes its name from the river that flows through the region.

Under German occupation, Polish residents of the area suffered repression, confiscation of property and forced labor in Germany. The Polish educational system was liquidated. Poles were banned from attending the theater and concert halls, vacation spots or health resorts; they had to give right of way to any German, and suffered a great many other indignities.

As already mentioned, in addition to the Poznan region, the present volume includes also the Jewish communities of Pomerania (district of Bydgoszcz), which belonged in the 12th century to Mazovian and Pomeranian princes and was conquered in 1303 by the Teutonic Order. In the aftermath of wars waged by Poles against the Teutonic Order a peace treaty was signed in 1466 in Torun, and its terms provided for the return of the district to the rule of the Polish Kingdom as part of the Chelmno administrative district. Following the first partition of the country in 1772, the area was annexed to Prussia, and, in the second partition, the seaport city of Gdansk (Danzig) was also annexed.

During the years 1807-1815, much of the area formed part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and, after the Vienna Congress in 1815, it was incorporated into Western Prussia. With the establishment of the independent Polish state in 1918, Pomerania was designated part of the new state, becoming the district (voivodship) of Pomorze. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Poland was to maintain nominal administrative control of the newly created free city of Gdansk, but in practice the German majority there kept the city under strong German influence. Following the occupation of the country by Germany in early September 1939, Pomerania suffered the same fate as the Poznan district: annexation to the Reich and incorporation into the Warthegau. The treatment accorded Polish residents there was the same as that accorded their countrymen in Poznan.

The Jews until the end of World War I

Merchants and traders en route to Russia and Central Asia were the first Jews to arrive in the region: they came to north-western Poland as early as the 10th and 11th centuries. There is no evidence of permanent Jewish settlement in the region at that time. Jewish merchants passed through this part of the country, traveling from Byzantium or Italy along the so-called Amber Route which terminated at the Baltic Sea. They too left no record of settlement.

The first Jews known to have settled in the region arrived from Germany in the wake of persecutions and expulsions during the Crusade of 1096. They brought with them the German language which in time developed into Yiddish - the tongue of all Eastern European Jewries. More Jews came during the 13th and 14th centuries in the footsteps of German settlers. They fled from Germany in two waves: the first followed the anti-Jewish disturbances of 1248 (the so-called “shepherds” pogroms”), and, the second came in the aftermath of attacks on the Jews in 1348 (during the black plague). Jewish immigrants settled in a host of provincial towns around the capital city of the Poznan district, Poznan. Usually, they lived concentrated in one street, the Judengasse (“Jewish street”), and the adjoining alleys, forming an open ghetto of sorts, where they felt relatively safe and could develop communal life and institutions, as well as observe religious precepts, such as keeping the Sabbath. This pattern of residence was also to the liking of Christian residents, who did not look kindly on Jewish expansion to all parts of the city. Among other things, they feared competition from Jewish merchants, and even more so, from Jewish artisans.

The permission granted the Jews to settle in a town or a city was anchored in a set of statutes issued by Prince Boleslaw in 1264 (the so-called Kalisz Statute). In 1334, King Casimir the Great extended the Jewish right of residence to most Polish towns and cities, through a decree patterned after privileges bestowed upon them in the past in Austria and Bohemia. This permission included, among other things, the right to reside in a given location, to pursue a trade, to uphold religious observance and keep houses of prayer. The decree, however, did not help the Jews in wartime - during the wars fought by the Poles against the Teutonic Order in the 15th century, against the Swedes in the middle of the 17th century, and throughout the wars of the north early in the 18th century - and it failed to prevent army troops (including Polish ones) from attacking the Jews. Neither did it stop looting and even murder. In the middle of the 17th century, for example, the troops of Polish national hero, Hetman Stefan Czarniecki, liberated the area from Swedish rule, at the same time often slaughtering their Jewish inhabitants. In the town of Sandomierz (known to Jews as Tsuzmir), more than 500 Jews were killed.

In the course of the 15th century Jews were expelled from various areas throughout Germany and Austria. Many of these refugees arrived in the Poznan area, boosting the local Jewish population. Jews from Magdeburg, for example, came to Międzyrzec; Jewish refugees from Vienna settled in the city of Poznan, while those from Breslau came to Śrem and Rawicz. In the 17th century, emigrants settled in growing numbers in Swarzędz, Rawicz and Kępno. In the mid-seventeenth century, following anti-Jewish violence both on the part of the Swedes and the Poles, growing numbers of refugees fled westward from provincial towns of the Poznan district.

The crisis that engulfed Jewish communities in Poland in the wake of the Chmielnicki Massacres (1648-1649) and the Swedish invasion (1655-56) did not spare the area under discussion. Attacks on the Jews and cases of blood libel became more frequent also in the 18th century. It was not just individual Jews who fell victim to blood libel accusations: more often than not, these charges resulted in serious rioting by students of theological seminaries, ordinary folk, apprentices in trading houses and artisans. These riots often involved violence and looting.

Even in times of relative quiet, however, the Jews of the Poznan district and Pomerania, like their brethren elsewhere in Poland, were subjected to numerous and harsh restrictions. Until a relatively late period, Jews were banned from residing in a number of towns that belonged to the clergy, such as Grudziądz (Graudenz), or towns under the statute de non tolerandis Judaeis, such as Gdansk (Danzig). Other cities imposed restrictions on Jewish trade by limiting, for example, the number of locations where Jews could pursue their economic activities, or by restricting the quality of the merchandise they could sell. Furthermore, Jewish artisans were saddled with sometimes quite fanciful restrictions imposed following initiatives by guilds of Christian artisans, who succeeded in prevailing on the city fathers to ban Jewish artisans from settling in their city, or to impose on them special licensing fees.

But despite numerous difficulties, the Jews did manage to settle in the area, to prosper economically, to organize themselves into communities, and even to establish a comprehensive educational system and engage in intellectual pursuits. Spiritual activity in particular flourished; many Jews studied Talmud, ethical literature and Kabbala; rabbis and sages composed responsa; yeshivot were established which lasted dozens, even hundreds of years, and their graduates went on to assume posts as rabbis in Jewish communities not only throughout Poland but also in Germany, Bohemia, and other countries. Many of them rose to fame as great Torah scholars and religious leaders.

The Poznan rabbinate was one of the most important in Poland. Rabbis who held this major post had either served previously or went on to assume rabbinical responsibilities in large and important communities such as Cracow, Lublin and Lwow. They left their mark in innovations in Torah learning and scholarship, and numerous responsa that provided the groundwork for later rabbinical rulings throughout the Jewish world. Up until the 15th and 16th centuries, rabbis, maggidim and religious teachers came to the area from Germany, but after the middle of the 17th century the trend was reversed and religious scholars left the Poznan district to assume posts in Jewish communities in southern Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and other countries, at the invitation of local communities.

With the formation of the Va'adei ha-Gelilot (Provincial Councils) and Va'adei ha-Medinot (Land Councils), the Poznan district fell within the jurisdiction of the Country of Great Poland (Wielkopolska) Committee, and became one of the four “countries” of the Va 'ad Arba Aratzot (Council of the Four Lands). The Land Committee was initially located in the city of Poznan, and moved to Leszno later on.

After the so-called Flood period (the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-49 and the Swedish wars that followed), Jews of the region found themselves in the grip of an economic crisis; as in other regions of Poland, Jewish communities in the Poznan district and in Pomerania were saddled with heavy debts, and for many years afterward couldn't even meet interest payments. Security also deteriorated. In cities where theological seminaries existed (such as Poznan), anti-Jewish riots and disturbances grew in frequency and intensity, despite protection money paid by the communities to heads of these institutions. Now and then blood libel accusations erupted. In 1736 the preacher of the Poznan community, Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Yossef, was accused of using Christian blood for ritual purposes, and was burned at stake

During the rule of the Teutonic Order, Jews were banned from settling in Pomerania. With the reincorporation of the region into the Polish Kingdom, a handful of Jews settled on the private estates of Polish nobles (in Langfurt, near Gdansk, for example). In Gdansk itself the de non tolerandis Judaeis statute was still in effect at the time. In 1765, a total of 2,731 Jews were counted as residing in the whole region.

As mentioned earlier, following the third partition of Poland in 1795, the Poznan and Pomerania regions were incorporated into Prussia. In the years 1807-1815, when they formed part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the Jews were treated largely the same as their brethren in other parts of Prussia. In 1797, some 90,000 Jews lived in the whole of southern and western Prussia (formerly Polish lands). German rulers regarded Jewish merchants and artisans as beneficial to society, even politically indispensable as a counterbalance to the Poles. The civil status of the Jews was set forth in the so called Judenreglement (Jewish statute), drawn up in 1797. The German intention to bring about the repeal of particularistic privileges granted to various groups under the rule of the Polish Kingdom (including the right to impose restrictions on Jewish settlement and trade) failed to bring about Jewish emancipation. In some areas the old statute of de non tolerandis Judaeis still remained in effect.

One Judenreglement statute in particular, which prescribed the expulsion of Jewish beggars (Betteljuden), turned out to be a source of serious troubles for Jewish communities. Despite attempts to avoid the consequences of the decree, 8,000 Jews in this category were expelled. Financial pressure exerted by Prussian authorities also aggravated the situation.

In the districts of Poznan and Pomerania, as in the remaining regions of the former Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Jews lacked political rights and their civil rights continued to be restricted into the early 19th century. The authorities levied and collected special taxes on kosher meat and draft exemptions, residential restrictions remained in force, and Jews were still prevented from buying land. Re-annexation of the region by Prussia following the Vienna Congress (1815) and the abolition of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw did not bring in their wake improvements in the situation, at least not at first. The Judenreglement was applied as before.

In 1818, however, the Prussian government appointed an eight-member Commission for Jewish Affairs based in the town of Kórnik. The commission drew up the Jewish Reform Plan which granted civil rights to all Jewish residents of the region, as well as the right to choose one's place of residence without restrictions. The plan also provided for the repeal of restrictions on trade and crafts, the right to purchase real estate, and tax relieves. Fifteen years elapsed, however, before Prussian authorities adopted these recommendations. In 1833, the Provisional Guidelines for Solving the Jewish Question in the Duchy of Poznan were announced, following which many of the existing restrictions were rendered null and void.

However, the resulting improvements turned out to be rather selective. Only the most affluent and educated Jews were eligible for the status of citizen; furthermore, although the Jews were allowed to serve in the military, the tax on draft exemptions remained in force.

Several more years passed before Jews in Poznan and Pomerania enjoyed the same rights as their co-religionists in Prussia. The Spring of Nations revolution in 1848 brought in its wake emancipation of Jewish residents in the regions under discussion, even though the price turned out to be steep. The Polish rebels did not forgive the Jews their neutrality and committed acts of violence against them in numerous localities.

The Jews of the Poznan district found themselves between rock and a hard place, caught between native Polish residents, on the one hand, and German settlers possessed of deeply rooted nationalist sentiments and fierce enmity toward the Jews on the other. As emancipation gained momentum, the hostility expressed by German merchants and officials toward the Jews mounted. Meanwhile the Poles saw the Jews as collaborators with the German occupiers. Itinerant Jewish peddlers were seen by the peasants as representatives of the occupier, exploiters who profited at the expense of the common folk. Often the Jewish peddler, who received payments for merchandise in installments, was driven away from a village without receiving his dues.

By 1848, the Jewish population of the Poznan district and the Duchy of Pomerania had reached about 60,000. Later on, though, Jews began to leave the region, heading for Germany proper, and overseas (North and South America), and their numbers plummeted. By 1918-1921, only ten thousand Jews remained in the Poznan district and three thousand stayed in Pomerania; in other words, their numbers had dwindled to about 22 percent of the population seven decades before. The proportion of Jews to the general population fell to one-half percent. Birth-rates also suffered a continuous decline in comparison with an increase among the Germans, and, even more so, among the Poles.

In addition to dwindling numbers, emigration also changed the social composition of the communities. As late as 1882 a miniscule proportion (0.2 percent) of Jews in the Poznan district were farmers; almost one third (29.9 percent) made their living from trade; nearly one half (44.8 percent) worked mostly in cottage industries; the remainder (39.1 percent) were divided between the service sector (apprentices and domestics), and free professions (doctors, lawyers, teachers and scientists). By 1907 no Jewish farmers were in evidence; the number of wage earners involved in small industry declined by 5 percent (to 38.3 percent); the proportion of merchants and peddlers rose by 15 percent and reached 44 percent; the service sector (apprentices and domestics) and free professions registered a decline of 7 percent (31.2 percent). Similar processes also took place among the Jews of Pomerania.

Among Jews in the region there were also some affluent individuals, as indicated by the fact that although Jews as a whole made up a tiny percentage of the population, their share of the taxes was considerable. In 1910, for example, the Jews made up only 3.6 percent of the general population of the city of Poznan, but their share of taxes collected reached 25 percent. Quite a few “Germans of Mosaic persuasion” served on the city council.

The Jews of Gdansk did not share the fate of their co-religionists in the towns of Pomerania, just as the history of their settlement in the city took a different course. During Polish rule the statute de non tolerandis Judaeis was in effect in the city; the Jews chose therefore to settle on two nearby estates belonging to noble families: Langfurt and Altschotlland. In the second half of the 19th century, with a repeal of all restrictions on Jewish settlement also in Pomerania, Jews began settling in increasing numbers in the city and its suburbs. By 1910, the Jewish population reached 2,717. Some Jews who passed through the city on their way to other countries chose to stay and, in so doing, strengthened the local community.

For centuries Poznan kept her status as a major center of Torah studies (especially when the region was a part of Great Poland). Up to the beginning of the 20th century, the Poznan Jewish community produced renowned rabbis, prominent scholars in Jewish studies, the sciences, literature and the arts. These included rabbis Itzhak Levin Auerbach, Dr. Leo Baeck, Abraham Tiktin, Dr. Shlomo Tiktin, Akiba Eiger, Rabbi Shlomo Eiger, historians Marcus Braun, Heinrich Graetz, and David Yoel (historian and biblical scholar), as well as composers, pedagogues, merchants, industrialists and entrepreneurs such as Rudolf Mosse, the Schocken brothers and Oscar Tietz.

A number of Jewish printing houses operated in the Poznan district, including that of Ber Leib Monash in Krotoszyn and the printing house in Leszno.

During the second half of the 19th century compulsory primary schooling was extended to Jews. In elementary schools Jewish children studied secular subjects and the history of the Jewish people, as well as the traditional Jewish subjects. Many Jewish children also attended secondary schools and some went on to study in German universities.

Jewish residents of the region usually belonged to the German cultural sphere of influence and the traditional charitable and philanthropic societies characteristic of German communities operated there as well. The Jewish Women Society, for instance, maintained branches in most communities. In 1898 a federation of the Poznan district communities was established, and included 18 communities. Its main task was to cope with the surging wave of emigration that thinned the ranks of most communities and eliminated some completely. At about that time the Great Synagogue was built in Poznan.

During World War I many Jews of the region enlisted in the German army; some were decorated for valor in combat and excellence in the execution of military duties, and some were even promoted to the rank of officer - a most difficult feat for a Jew to accomplish. The proportion of injured and the dead among Jewish servicemen was high.

The Jews between the two World Wars

During the years just after World War I, anti-Semitism among the Poles of the region grew in intensity, and from there it spread to other parts of the country. Troops of the Polish general Haller stationed in the area (in advance of their journey eastward to fight the invading Bolshevik army), committed acts of brutality against the Jews, tormented and humiliated them by cutting off side-locks and beards, and often engaged in plunder, beatings, even murder.

Toward the end of the war, especially during the period of the establishment of the independent Polish state, Jewish emigration to Germany accelerated even further. By 1921, only 10,397 Jews remained in the Poznan district, and 2,927 stayed in Pomerania (0.5 percent and 0.36 percent of the general population, respectively). In the 1920s and the 1930s these numbers remained more or less unchanged. A significant exception to this trend was the Gdansk community, whose membership rose from 2,717 in 1910 to twelve thousand in 1937. As mentioned earlier, Gdansk served as a transit point for many Jews en route to other destinations abroad; some of the would-be émigrés chose to stay. Even Jewish communists who sought a way to flee to the Soviet Union settled in the city.

The interwar period saw a thriving cultural, social and political-Zionist life in the communities of the Poznan district in general, and in the city of Poznan in particular. Branches of most Zionist political parties and of Agudat Israel were also active in the city.

The number of the affluent, the intelligentsia and those in free professions among the Jews declined during the period under discussion, whereas the number of merchants and peddlers rose. In the same period communities of one thousand and more dwindled to often as little as fifty to sixty Jews. Such tiny communities could not support a Jewish doctor or a lawyer, while Jewish public and government officials who were dismissed from their posts by the Polish authorities had to search for alternative sources of income.

In the early 1930s, with Hitler's rise to power in Germany, the local Germans became the standard-bearers of Nazi-style anti-Semitism. German youth, members of local organizations patterned after the Hitler Jugend, were particularly violent. Local Poles, with a tradition of anti-Semitism, turned Poznan into the distribution center for anti-Semitic pamphlets and books. From there these publications made their way to other regions of Poland.

In the fall of 1938, with the deportation of seventeen thousand Jews of Polish extraction from Germany to the border town of Zbąszyń, the Poznan community rallied to help the hapless refugees - with food, clothing and other urgent needs. Poznan Jews helped 12,000 of these people move to other cities and small towns in Poland where they had relatives who would assist them in finding places to live and jobs.

In Gdansk, the condition of the Jews was not as difficult at first, due to the fact that the League of Nations representative and a commissar of the Polish state resided in the city. Their presence had a deterrent effect on local Nazis who were forced to confine their activities to propaganda alone. Although in 1937 a pogrom took place in Gdansk, it was limited in scope. The German mayor (known as Head of the Senate), Herman Rauschning, intervened forcefully, ending the pogrom. During the tenure of his successor, Forster, an anti-Semite, the Gdansk Jews could secure exit visas without any difficulty; within two years their numbers dropped from about two thousand to 1,666.

Jews of the Poznan district were apprehensive of what lay in store for them with the outbreak of the war and the German invasion of Poland. This was expressed, for example, in the Poznan community's sending two crates of silver ritual objects to Warsaw community for safekeeping prior to the arrival of the Germans in the city. The Rabbi of Poznan, Dr. D.S. Sander, arrived in Warsaw, his beard cut off, bringing harrowing tales of Nazi brutality toward the Jews.

Under Nazi Occupation: The Holocaust

Following the German occupation of Poland, the whole Poznan and Pomerania region was annexed to the Reich. Gauleiter Arthur Greiser was appointed head of the local administration. As part of their “Germanization” drive the Germans initiated an ethnic cleansing policy, expelling Polish residents, confiscating their property, closing down educational institutions, and placing Polish organizations under ban. In many localities annexed to the German Reich, Jews were targets for acts of terror, murder and looting by individuals or small groups. The distinction drawn by the Germans between Poles and Jews remained in effect throughout the first stage of their rule in the region, until the Jews were deported to the Generalgouvernement (during November and December 1939).

The German army too took part in brutalities against the Jews. Soldiers abducted Jews for forced labor, tormented those with beards and side-locks, staged humiliating spectacles in full sight of non-Jewish residents, and often beat Jews to death. Special levies (“contributions”) of tens of thousands of zloty were imposed on the Jews; to ensure that they would be paid, the Germans took hostages. Jews were forced to dance and engage in calisthenics as Germans took photographs of the spectacle; some of these photos were printed in their periodicals as part of vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. Jews were also loaded onto trucks and driven across Germany, holding signs declaring that the Jews were to blame for the war.

The 1939 decrees promulgated by Heydrich on October 21 and 30 dealt with Jewish matters in the Warthegau province and addressed three issues: Jews were to be deported eastward, concentrated in ghettoes, and subjected to further measures whose exact nature was left undefined. The Jews of Warthegau were placed under the same decrees as the Jews of the Generalgouvernement, and ordered to wear the Star of David armband, prohibited from religious worship, subjected to confiscation of property, banned from using public transportation, and condemned to forced labor.

In November 1939, the Germans began deporting Jewish residents of the region to labor camps and towns in the Generalgouvernement (mostly to Warsaw and the Lublin district). Deportation continued into 1940.

Later the deportees shared the fate of other Polish Jews: they would be assembled in a fenced and guarded location, under conditions of extreme congestion, and transported to one of the death camps established on Polish soil (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka). In early December 1941, a death camp was opened in Chelmno, some 60 kilometers from Lodz. The surviving remnant of the Poznan and Pomerania communities perished there. Only a handful survived in hiding, protected by righteous Gentiles among the Poles.

The Germans laid waste to the relics of the Jewish community, mainly synagogues and cemeteries. The Great Synagogue in Poznan was converted into a swimming pool still in use today.

* * *

After the liberation of the region by the Soviets in 1944, a small Jewish community existed in Poznan. The survivors established a committee to aid Jews who returned to the country from exile in the Soviet Union, from camps and hiding places. Most local survivors, however, did not return to their native city, preferring to settle in other localities. In 1946 there were only seven hundred Jews in the Poznan district, many of whom left later on as part of the great wave of emigration that swept Polish Jews. Some scattered to various countries, others arrived in Israel in the 1950s and in 1967-68. The number of those leaving increased dramatically after the Kielce pogrom (July 1946), and following anti-Jewish riots in Krakow and other localities. Today only a handful of Jewish families remain in Poznan.


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