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[Page 276]

Jews in Bedzin {Cont.}

2. Jews in the Zaglembia area

Jews appeared in the Zaglembia area for the first time in 1226. They settled as farmers and paid their taxes, as did the other farmers.

It is interesting to note that the same year that Jews settled in Zaglembia, the count of Opole permitted a number of Jews to cross Silesia. We quote below a document written in 1226 that supported this statement. The document read as follows: “In accordance and in confirmation with the wishes of the prince of Opole and upon the consent of his advisers, decided that the bishop of Wroclaw, Wawrsziniec, will continue to collect the existing just tolls in Rozenberg and in Siewierz. These tolls consisted of one “shkoiec” (a portion of silver groschen coins) for selling women or farm hands at the market in Rozenberg. The Jewish residents had to pay this toll regardless of whether they used the market. Out-of-town riders and people on foot who carried merchandise to the market had to pay a toll of two Opoler groschen, regardless of sex, place of residence or religion: Christians or Jews. Local residents were exempt, as were residents of Siewierz.”

In a certificate dated 1227, we read that Jewish farmers who cultivated the land of the prince in the region of Bytom paid the bishop a tax per bale. A sizable number of Jews arrived in Bedzin towards the end of the 13th century. The Jewish settlers began to abandon farming at the beginning of the 14th century, and started business ventures. They opened small stores and also dealt in currency exchanges.

In the 17th century, the Jewish community of Bedzin is already mentioned in a book entitled “Beit Hadash”, which dealt with questions and answers in the Halacha.

The highest authority in each Jewish community was the kehila, which was elected by the most influential members of the community. At the head of the kehila was the local rabbi and a legal adviser called the “Sindik”. With time, we also find smaller kehilot (plural of kehila) in the smaller communities that were subservient to the big kehila in the area.

The Jewish kehila in Bedzin sent a representative to the general meeting of Jewish communities in 1666. The representative was Israel ben Shmuel (Samulewicz) who represented the kehila at the meeting of the “Vaad Arba Artzot” or “the Committee of the Four Lands”

The Jews in Poland were considered foreigners due to the fact that they belonged to the crown. The king was their direct master. He appointed the regional governors or województwo (province; district). The latter in turn appointed municipal officials or starostas. Bedzin had a starosta (district administrator). Municipal courts had no jurisdiction in Jewish matters. Jews had their own courts, and Jews could only start litigation in these courts. They could appeal a decision to the mayor or the governor, and finally to the king.

The Jewish court consisted of a rabbi, a sindik and a “lawnik” (or alderman), in actuality a witness to the proceedings that represented the kehila. All disputes involving Jews and Christians were adjudicated in the Jewish court. The governor or the mayor would be a member of the tribunal. The court would usually hold session in the local synagogue. The records were kept in the synagogue. The prison was maintained by the Jewish kehila. A court session without the presence of the “lawnik” was considered illegal. The articles pertaining to the court procedures were hung in the synagogue of Bedzin in 1591. There were 12 articles written in Hebrew and Polish. The governor of Bedzin was paid annually 100 guilders and 10 pounds of saffron and cinnamon for his participation in the legal proceedings. We do not know whether this was a tax or a voluntary contribution of the community.

Sos276.jpg [19 KB] - The castle in 1867
The castle in 1867

[Page 277]

In the early days, the Jews of Bedzin were severely limited in their rights. They could only live in certain areas of the city and could only trade certain days of the week. They were also limited to trading in certain items. Only with time did they feel secure enough to begin to press for easing of these restrictions. Together with the Jews of Krakow, they petitioned King Kazimierz Jagiello to grant them certain privileges. Their efforts were successful, and the king granted them these privileges in 1453.

One of the privileges was the ability to trade in foreign goods, but only on a wholesale basis. They were also permitted to trade in Polish goods, but the number of items was very limited. Jewish traders in foreign goods paid a higher tax than the Christian merchants.

Jewish merchants in Bedzin participated actively in foreign trade as we can see by the fact that a Jew named Mosze Bendiner from Bedzin was listed at the Leipzig fair in 1695.

Sos277.jpg [14 KB] - The castle in 1936
The castle in 1936

The first known privilege was the so-called “Kaliszer Privilege”, issued by Prince Boleslaw the Holy One in 1264.

According to this privilege, the Jews were the property of the prince (slaves of the royal treasury). They were obligated to pay to the prince taxes. The latter in turn protected them individually and collectively as well as protecting their property and that of their community. One of the more important segments of this resolution was based on a Papal decree, or bull, issued by Pope Ignatius III that rejected the blood libel accusations against Jews. Kazimierz the Great edited the privileges in a similar fashion to the Kaliszer Privileges that were issued at an earlier date. There was great opposition to the latter document amongst the Polish clergy who were determined to prevent contact between Jews and Christians.

In 1527, King Zigmunt I, issued a decree that equalized taxes and tolls for all merchants. 15 years later, we already notice Jews as “arendars” (holders of rights to collect taxes owed to the nobility) or lease holders of inns, breweries, butcher stores and mills, and tax collectors for the royal treasury. During the reign of Stephan Batory I, the Jews of Bedzin received the right to live in the center of the city and to trade in the market on an equal footing with the non-Jewish traders. In 1592, King Zigmunt III ordered the mayor of Bedzin to protect the local Jews from various attacks and to defend their legal rights. The Jews of Poland received most of their liberties under the reign of Wladyslaw I. He granted them equality with the other residents of his kingdom.

One of the great Jewish achievements in the field of legal rights was the abolishment of the “Kaduk Law” during the reign of Jan Kazimierz. Whenever a new king was crowned, the Jewish community of Bedzin immediately sent a delegation to plead that the existing Jewish legal rights be maintained. This was repeated with the crowning of Jan Sobieski as king of Poland. However the delegation returned empty-handed, for the king was preoccupied with other matters and decided to postpone the matter. The Jewish community of Bedzin did not abandon the struggle and eleven years later they received the parchment with their rights.

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This document is still preserved in the city hall. It is locked in a vault that is sealed with a special lacquer seal. With the crowning of Stanislaw August Poniatowski as king of Poland, a Jewish delegation took the parchment to Warsaw for the king to endorse the rights of the Jews. The delegation returned in July of 1766 with a new parchment that contained many new and old privileges. The parchment is 80 centimeters long and 35 centimeters wide with a banderole signed by the King. The band is slightly damaged. The document is presently preserved in the archives of the city of Bedzin. The King and the royal vice-notary, Augustin Koritowski, signed the document.

The reason for the active efforts of the Jewish community in behalf of their past and present legal rights is very simple. If we look at the laws that the Jews were forced to live and work under, we can understand their concerns. Jews were forced to live in certain areas, they could not visit the market or the nearby streets, they were limited to particular items in commerce, and they could not peddle their wares in the villages or suburbs of the cities. If they finally managed to obtain a license, they had to pay all kinds of local and royal taxes that were much higher than those paid by the non-Jewish merchants. These restrictions forced the Jews of Bedzin to fight to ameliorate their situation by obtaining privileges that made their lives easier to bear.

The Jews of Bedzin and Krakow led the fight to cancel the infamous “Kaduk Law”. The law stipulated that when a Jew died, his estate belonged to the king since the Jew was a foreigner in Poland. When a Jew committed a crime, the court also had the right to confiscate his estate. The law also applied to non-Jewish foreigners, but only if they had no living relatives to the eighth degree. The Jews fought these discriminatory laws with every means at their disposal. Some of the devices were highly original and innovative. Sometimes they managed to avoid the harsh laws aimed at their existence.

We know that once there existed a law in Poland that taxed chimneys and it was called the “chimney tax”. Jews had to pay 30 groschen per chimney while non-Jews paid 6 groschen. Necessity being the mother of invention, forced the poor Jews to devise a system whereby they could avoid or reduce the tax; namely, several fire places were hooked up to one visible chimney on the roof. This chimney paid the tax that was then subdivided between the users. Unfortunately, the scheme was soon discovered and the guilty parties were chased out of the city and their property confiscated in accordance with the “Kaduk Law”. The Jews of Bedzin fought to preserve their given rights and always struggled to improve them even if it meant discords with other Jewish communities or organizations. Thus, the revolt of the Jews of Bedzin in 1666 against the stand of the “Committee of the Four Lands”. The Jews of Bedzin considered the position of this body to be contrary to the interests of the local Jewish community. The struggle reached a boiling point and the local garrison had to restore order.

Here is the background of the development. Following the Swedish wars, Poland taxed its citizens with a special tax to pay the soldiers for their lengthy service. The royal treasury did not have enough cash to pay for all the obligations, so it issued redeemable bonds. These bonds were supposed to be redeemed by Jewish taxes. Some of these notes were given to the military units. Certain units decided to take matters in their own hands and forced the Jews to redeem the bonds. Needless to say, the action was brutally implemented. The Committee of the Four Lands became alarmed at the situation and decided to buy all the outstanding notes on behalf of the Jewish communities. They took a loan of 25,000 Polish guilders from the royal secretary, Kazimierz Kawalkowski, and cashed the notes.

Sos278.jpg [15 KB] - The castle in 1916
The castle in 1916

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