Jews from Poznań region in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) in the light of the magazine "Homeland newsletter" - an attempt at a summary

Małgorzata Grzywacz

At the beginning of 1914, most of the area of Wielkopolska, with its capital in Poznań, was still within the Wilhelm's Reich. The society, shaped by over 120 years of Prussian rule, continued in its diversity even though it was most often described from the perspective of the continuously inflamed national conflicts between Poles and Germans[1]. Many years of contact between Germans, Poles and Jews led on the one hand to the isolation of individual ethnic groups. On the other hand, the conditions of everyday life, supported by a typically common neighbourhood, verified this reality, which was often more complicated than the lines of ethnic or religious divisions.

The 19th century brought a general improvement in the situation of Jews in Prussia, which directly translated into the position of this group in the area of the Grand Duchy of Poznań (which was incorporated into the Hohenzollern monarchy after Napoleon's defeat in 1815). A legal provision introduced in 1833, enabling Jews to settle in Prussia freely and to choose a place of residence triggered significant migration movements which included mainly the eastern provinces of the Prussian kingdom[2]. Since then, a gradual outflow of Jewish inhabitants from Wielkopolska and the transfer of this population to other more attractive regions of Germany was observed. Another factor influencing the strengthening of internal migration processes was the Polish-German antagonism mentioned in the introduction which intensified after the establishment of the first German national state in 1871[3].

The area of ​​Wielkopolska divided into two districts, Poznań and Bydgoszcz, was inhabited in 1910 by about 50% of Poles, 47.3% of Germans and 1.3% of Jews[4]. The proportions were similar in other administrative areas of the Reich, with a large percentage of the Polish population (e.g. the Gdańsk and Kwidzyn Regions for West Prussia). At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish population of Wielkopolska was mainly, as they often called themselves, Germans of the Mosaic faith. It was a small but a relatively well-to-do group, gathering merchants, industrialists and academics. Most of them lived in Poznań, although Jewish people could be encountered in all the larger towns of both districts (Bydgoszcz, Inowrocław and others). The New Synagogue in Poznań, erected in the years 1906-1907, is considered the visible evidence of the resilience of this community[5]. Not everywhere could the Jewish population afford such magnificent religious buildings. The beautiful synagogue in Ostrów Wielkopolski, on the border with the Russian partition, was built in the years 1857-1860 with the participation of the Prussian state authorities and representatives of the local gentry, such as Aleksander Nasierowski, an heir from Wysock Wielki[6].

In the national conflict between Poles and Germans, the Jewish inhabitants of Wielkopolska sided with the latter. This attitude can be defined, following the findings of Krzysztof Makowski, as a defensive reaction to the anti-Semitism existing in society. Excessive shows of loyalty and full integration with German society in Wielkopolska did not help the relations with the Polish population striving for autonomy and, in a long-term, independence[7]. Such pro-Germany attitude appeared in the 1840s and lasted continuously until the end of World War I, the results of which proved unacceptable to many[8].

Jews, including those from the Poznań region, fighting in the German army as faithful subjects of Wilhelm II felt connected to the country to which they owed a lot[9]. Some of them, for example Ernst H. Kantorowicz (1895-1963) who was an outstanding historian and medievalist as an experienced front soldier, joined the struggle to maintain the Poznań province within the German state[10].

On January 1, 1919, Poznań became a free city. Polish population finally fulfilled its aspirations for independence by capturing the airport in Ławica, Poznań. At that time, the process of leaving Poznań and Wielkopolska by the German population began and it reached a mass scale. When the Germans left these areas, they did so in response to an entirely new political situation. German officials were leaving Wielkopolska; and gradually other social groups ledby various motives, emigrated from the lands of the former Prussian partition deep into the territory of the Reich which was undergoing systemic transformation at the time. The wave of departures started in 1919, and reached its peak in 1921-22[11].

Most of the Jewish inhabitants of Wielkopolska, culturally belonging to the German-speaking community, decided to leave these areas looking for their place outside the newly emerging Polish state. The number of Jews was rapidly decreasing within Wielkopolska. In the Poznań region, the percentage of the Jewish population in 1919 was 0.5%, and for the capital of Wielkopolska it was about 0.8% (before the war it was 1.8%)[12].

The emigrants mostly went to Germany, the political reality of which was developing dynamically. The republican system adopted in 1919, the abolition of the monarchy, severe territorial changes were the factors which significantly influenced the new, as of yet unknown shape of state known as the Weimar Republic. Social changes related to the democratisation of political life and the empowerment of women opened up new perspectives for newcomers[13]. By the end of 1922, few Jews remained in Wielkopolska. In the interwar period, there were far fewer of them here than in other regions of the Second Polish Republic. The inhabitants of the territory of the former Prussian partition were not friendly towards the newcomers of Jewish origin from other partitions. However, it is essential not to reduce it to merely anti-Semitic prejudices while trying to create a balanced picture of the reality of that time[14].

The Jews leaving for Germany sold their property (e.g. trust funds were established) and settled in various places. In the years 1922-1926, fifteen organisations of Jews from Poznań were established in the territory of the German Reich. These included former residents of Bydgoszcz, Inowrocław, Chodzież, Pniewy, Poznań, Rogoźno, Ostrzeszów, Wolsztyn, Wągrowiec[15].

Most of these organisations, with the formula typical for the German-speaking countries – hometown societies (Landsmannschaft or Heimatverein) – were concentrated in central and northern Germany[16]. Apart from Berlin, which for many decades had been the main centre of intra-German Jewish migration, the former inhabitants of Poznań eagerly chose Hamburg, Hanover and the Rhineland[17]. In December 1926, 2,034 registered members belonged to the societies. The most numerous groups were Poznań in Hamburg (330 people) and Inowrocław in Berlin (260 people) circles[18].



[1] On that matter cf. William W. Hagen, German Poles and Jews. The nationality conflict in the Prussian East 1772-1914 Chicago, London 1980.

[2]  On that matter cf. Sophia Kemlein, Żydzi w Wielkim Księstwie Poznańskim (1815-1848): Przeobrażenia w łonie żydostwa polskiego pod panowaniem pruskim. Ed. K. Makowski. Translated by Zenona Chołderna-Loew, Poznań 2001, First published: Sophia Kemlein Die Posener Juden 1815-1848 : Entwicklungsprozesse einer polnischen Judenheit unter preussischer Herrschaft, Dölling und Galitz, Hamburg 1997.

[3] Piotr Wróbel, Żydzi wielkopolscy przed I wojną światową", Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 157 (1991), pg. 55.

[4] Statistical data from Statistisches Jahrbuch für den preußischen Staat 1913 (Berlin: Landesamt 1914), pg. 21, table no 10, and Witold Sienkiewicz (ed.),  Atlas Historii Żydów Polskich, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Demart 2010), pp. 236-237.

[5] Ewa Stęszewska-Leszczyńska, „Poznańskie synagogi”, Kronika Miasta Poznania 1-2 (1992), pp. 103-118.  

[6] See the monographic issue on the history and the present day of this building and its social and cultural background: Jarosław Bieniaczyk, Wojciech Suszycki (ed,) Ostrowskie Studia Judaistyczne, 1(2007).

[7] Krzysztof A. Makowski, “Die jüdische Bevölkerung im Posener Land in der Teilungszeit", [in:]  Ernst Kantorowicz 1895-1963,  Soziales Milieu du wissenschaftliche Relevanz, hrsg. von Jerzy Strzelczyk, 2.Durchgesehene Auflage, Poznań,  2010,  pg. 40.

[8] Cf. Lech Trzeciakowski, „Społeczne i polityczne przemiany wśród Żydów Poznania w początkach XIX wieku” Kronika Miasta Poznania 1-2 (1992), pg. 79.  Anna Skupień, Ludność żydowska w województwie poznańskim w latach 1919-1938 Poznań, 2007.

[9] In this context, it is worth recalling the collection of letters of Jewish soldiers who died on the fronts of World War I, published in 1935 by the Association of Jewish Front Soldiers in the Reich (Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten), with illustrations by Max Liebermann. Republished in Stuttgart in 1961, it featured an introduction by Bavarian Prime Minister Franz J. Strauß. Among the texts presented, there is a letter by Gothold Kronheim from Szamocin, a resident of Wielkopolska, Kriegsbriefe gefallener deutsche Juden. Neuauflage. Mit einem Geleitwort von Franz Joseph Strauß (Stuttgart: Degerloch 1961), pp. 74-75. The letter will be published in the next edition of „Miasteczko Poznań“.

[10] The war episode in the biography of this outstanding researcher included, among others, participation in the fights at Verdun, the Asian Corps in Turkey. After the end of the war, in a rank of ensign, Kantorowicz fought, as a member of the Freikorps, against the communist Spartacist uprising in Berlin, and against the Poles in Poznań. Biography of E.H. Kantorowicz, cf. Peter, Th. Walter und Wolfgang Ernst, „Ernst.H.Kantorowicz, Eine archäo-biographische Skizze" in: Wolfgang Ernst und Cornelia Vismann (ed.), Geschichtskörper (München:  Fink 1998), pp. 207-234.

[11] Zbigniew Dworecki, ”Mniejszość niemiecka w Poznaniu w latach II Rzeczpospolitej” , "Kronika Miasta Poznania" 1-2 (1992), pg. 46. 

[12] Statistical data: Anna Skupień, Ludność żydowska w województwie poznańskim w latach 1919-1939, pg. 70.

[13] Ursula Büttner, Weimar. Die überforderte Republik 1918-1933, (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2008), pp. 287-288.

[14] Hanna Kozińska-Witt, „W stolicy ‘sfery nieosiedlenia’ – poznańska prasa o stosunku samorządu miasta Poznania do Żydów w latach 1918-39”, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów Polskich 2(2012), pg. 162.

[15] For data cf. „Vereinstafel 3”, Posener Heimatblätter 3(1926), pg. 7.

[16] Most of the associations were established in and around Berlin. The capital of Germany, at that time, experiencing an impressive cultural boom, acted as a magnet, attracting, just like today, with its openness. The number of Jewish organisations of hometown society variety originating from the Poznań region, registered in Berlin was relatively high for such a community.

[17] „Vereinstafel 3“, Posener Heimatblätter 3(1926), pg. 7.

[18]  „Vereinstafel 3“, Posener Heimatblätter 3(1926), pg. 7.

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