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[Page 131]

An Attempt to Establish
the First Hebrew Printing House in Warsaw

by Meir Balaban

Translated by Janie Respitz

In the second half of the 18th century when the Hasidic movement began to spread rapidly in the eastern regions of the Republic, in Alexinietz, Poritzk, Slavte and others, small publishing houses emerged which had an impact for a short time and published many Hasidic and other religious books.

At the same time there was an attempt to establish a printing house in Warsaw. Still from the time of the Mozovietzke dukes, Warsaw had the privilege to not permit Jews to reside there. The citizens of the city of Warsaw strongly upheld this privilege. Only during the Sejm (meetings of the Polish parliament) when many of the nobility and foreign merchants came, Jews were also permitted to come to the capitol and do business. At the end of the session the Marshal's bugler would summon the Jews to leave the city. However the Jews always found a solution to get permission to do business. Behind the city gates – under the protection of the owners of the suburb “Yuridikes” – they founded the suburbs “New Jerusalem” and” New Potok”, and did business there between sessions of the Sejm.

* * *

Professor Dr. Meir Shmuel Balaban was born in Lemberg in 1877. He was perhaps the greatest scholar of the history of the Jews in Poland. He was less interested in dates and more interested in the people, the Jew behind these dates: the man, his family, his house, his daily life. Balaban settled in Warsaw in 1920 and died a natural death in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. His books in Polish, German, Yiddish and Hebrew are numerous, his historical articles, countless. He did not just write about Jewish history in Poland, he lived the retrospective. The article we have here is about an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Jewish publishing house in Warsaw at the end of the 18th century, the same Warsaw that one hundred years later was humming with the largest amount of Jewish publishing houses in Europe.

[Page 132]

However the Warsaw bourgeois did not want to tolerate this competition and attempted to drive the Jews out of the suburbs. This occurred in 1776. They chased the Jews out of the suburbs and leveled their stores.

During this time of “Jewish destruction” the attempt was made to establish a Jewish printing shop in Warsaw. The business commissioner of the King's court and the purveyor of the royal mint tribunal, Leyzer Izakovitch (Son of Yiztkhak) from Krotoshin, received from King Stanislav August the privilege to open a Hebrew printing house “in his inherited place Golendoynov in Praga near Warsaw”. This is because the King realized “Jewish printing houses were underway” and significant sums of money were “going out every year to foreign countries to import Jewish books for their prayers, calendars and other purposes and given that the Jews in Crown Poland and Lithuania are no small part of the population. to obtain books which are part of their prayers and prayer houses, synagogues and private homes…they are forced to buy abroad.”

The king gave over the right of authority and supervision of the printing house and the right to bring people, machines and materials to the same Leyzer Izakovitch and his son in law Yonas (Yonah) Yakubovich, and herby “repeal the privileges which were given by him or his predecessors to all other printing shops”. The two mentioned “privileged” men were also permitted to bring from abroad “Talmudic texts” in this manner: first of all, he should, in every city and town in Crown Poland and Lithuania distribute one volume of the above mentioned Talmud on subscription, that is to say, receive in advance one half, when the entire Talmud, which consists of 12 volumes, would be delivered. Secondly; in the larger cities they should sell larger Talmud texts – and in the small towns- the smaller Talmud texts and at the same time, just one copy…thirdly; in order for the synagogues and private people, who will give money for this Talmud, should be assured that for their money they will receive the entire Talmud, we appoint the above mentioned Jews: Leyzer and Yonah, and as general treasurer the citizen Adam Ziman, a merchant from the old city in Warsaw; among his employees we should find the proceeds of deposits and withdrawal and his employees will, under his name, distribute in each town a receipt of the paid subscription money and will ensure the entire Talmud is delivered.”

Having the royal privilege in pocket, Leyzer from Krotoshin began to look for partners. Although he was a commissioner in Breslau for 25 years, he did not make a fortune, and the foreign book dealers in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and others looked for a trusted customer like Leyzer.

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He consequently began to allow proclamations and the printing of advertisements at fairs and markets and added to them “points on partnership to whomever wanted to undertake the privilege to begin a printing business”. In this printing business he wanted to distribute religious books so he made an effort and came to an agreement with three well known rabbis and he also requested they announce this in the synagogues, during fairs in Yaroslav, Lublin, Krakow etc…

This agreement with the rabbis – a sort of moral certificate for “privileged Jews” – was written in the holy tongue, a language familiar among Jews, but the permit had a Polish translation which is characteristic and interesting. This is what it said:

“Let us give praise, to the majestic King on earth, as the highest King in heaven according to our belief! Listen Jews and take a look. Today our eyes have seen a wonder that God's justice has shown us for our goodness, that His hand is inclined to us always as the Lord of the Universe promised. Although we are in servitude, He will instill in the heart of the King, and we will receive from him mercy as we now see the merciful hand of the most majestic King of all of Crown Poland and Lithuania, the strong and good hearted. His chair should be lifted above all, and should shine like the sun forever, and his command should be above all beliefs, and the enemy should fall at his feet. There should be peace in his kingdom and his children should also have the kingdom with the secret ministers, his dear name should pity us Jews, and all of us under his wings, should live in peace and everything God will instill in his heart should be felt without changes! Here we are given a privilege from our majestic King to establish a Jewish printing house in order to print calendars, Talmud and various other holy books, which we use every year in our learning and were previously printed in Krakow and Lublin, but because of hard times these printing houses were destroyed, as if they had never existed, and no sign of them remains, but we must go to foreign lands and pay them for printing. And now we have seen, not just heard about, the privilege from the majestic King, our merciful Lord, in the hands of Eliezer Yitzkhak who for 25 years had a privilege from our majestic King for all merchandise from Breslau for which he has documents from all Polish merchants, may God help him in this activity: the printing house which will be established in Golendzinov, given on these points, which with documents and honesty appear, as it is said in the privilege. Therefore we must give praise to God for inclining the heart of our majestic King, our merciful master,
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who innovated our holy book return and the renewal he granted through his merciful command and we, the undersigned, confirm according to our faith and with an oath, that no one will dare print books in their name, no one will disturb what he wants printed…their printing house will see to it that no foreigners will come to do an injustice…to take it into consideration as our past rabbis did, and impose a curse on those who disturb, we also place a ban for ten years on such people who attempt to stop the establishment of our printing house for Jewish religious books. To this end, we offer praise and an oath and a blessing, so the kingdom can grow and shine like the brightest star in the sky, and some advice which he will devise, that God the master will help our majestic king with all things good, and his seat will be lifted like the rising of the sun.

July 15th, 1776
Heshul, Rabbi in Ritcheval
Yafet, Rabbi in Novo – Miasto
Levy (Levek) Rabbi from Zharki

These agreements from the rabbis as well as the resolutions rom the “points” of the privilege at the fairs and in the synagogues did not help much. They did not find a partner. The destruction of “New Jerusalem” and “New Potok” scared the capitalists. They did not want to invest money in such an unsure endeavour. The “privileged” name Leyzer Krotoshiner was thrown around and looked for various means and ideas, but futile. Three years after receiving the privilege he still could not begin the business, but looked for a partner and compared to protection from various ministers, in order to receive access to the King's court. The complicated printing house was not founded and the King's privilege remained a dead letter, an event for the archives, a certificate of good will, of which there were many at that time in Poland after the first partition.

Right after the third partition of Poland, and after Warsaw was captured by the Prussians, Hebrew holy books were printed by Pyotr Zavadsky, and after his death – his widow Madam Zavadska (1800), first in Novi Dvor and later in Warsaw.

From the book: Jews in Poland, Vilna, 1930


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