Updated: Nov 12, 2019
(Culled from statements by Tomasz: from Gabrielle).
The Jews arrived in Poland over 900 years ago, fleeing persecution, primarily from Prague. As they were skilled in commerce and trade, they served as envoys to the Byzantine empire, importing and exporting a range of goods, including slaves :-(.
Poland was divided into many principalities and the Jews, finding a tolerant and diverse society, settled throughout Poland. Even after Catholicism became the dominant religion in Poland, the Jews and other minorities were welcomed by the local rulers, mainly to balance the power of the Church. The country was tolerant, supporting laws that protected migrants and granting them privileges.
Jews were educated to read and write from a young age; this led to them securing important positions with the local rulers. In the 1400s, King Casimir invested in economic growth and education, building a new university in Krakow in 1364. The King was a great friend of the Jews (it was believed he had a Jewish girlfriend) and his reign is regarded to have been a particularly prosperous and secure period for the Jews in Poland.
Poland became a rich country and a super power by staying out of the religious wars raging throughout Europe and by supplying food to the warring countries.
Around 1700, Poland was producing so much grain, its surplus was used to produce vodka. The two communities awarded vodka production privileges were the Catholic monasteries and the Jews.
Gabrielle: Tomasz described how the borders between Russia and Poland were constantly changing, which explains why it was unclear if our families lived in Poland or Russia in the 1900s. This answers a big question I had about my ancestors and also, why it had been confusing when we asked Grandma Debbie.
In the 1800s, Lodz was a small village that became a big city by 1900 as a consequence of the industrial revolution and a center for the shmata trade. As the Polish economy continued to deteriorate, attacks against Jews increased, leading to the immigration of many Jews to the USA and the UK. Which accounts for why we and my husband's family, the Pollecoffs, are here in the UK.
Patricia: Tomasz said, "Warsaw Jews had no connection with their Jewishness other than viewed through the prism of communism." That sentence came to mind today when I read this article in this morning's Jerusalem Post.