Introduction To Posen

The region of Posen, named after its largest city, Poznan in Polish, is the most western region in today’s Poland, bordering with the eastern border of today’s Germany in its Brandenburg region. The predominant aspect of the history of that region is that it changed hands between different configurations of Polish and German/Prussian regimes. It is therefore not surprising that its population was mixed until the end of World War II: Polish, German and Jewish. Nowadays, there are hardly any Jews living there and almost no Germans.

In the Middle Ages, the province was a part of the Kingdom of Poland. It was annexed by Prussia during Emperor Friedrich’s reign after the partition of Poland in 1772 and 1793. It had a German population along with the Slav, Polish population. The Germans, moving there already in the 13th century, had both economic and religious (fleeing religious persecution) reasons to do so. In the first half of the thirteenth century, when the Germans crossed the frontier and began to settle in the territory of Posen, a large number of Jews seem to have come with them. But even before that, Jewish migration to Posen started as early as the 11th century (and perhaps earlier), as Jews fled persecution by Crusaders in Germany. Later periods of migration followed anti-Semitic outbursts in Germany in the 12th through 15th centuries. During this time Poland was a haven for Jews, as the Polish crown granted Jews powers of self-government unheard of elsewhere in Europe (even in later years). Starting with the Statute of Kalisz in 1264, the power to settle disputes between Jews (both civil and criminal) was granted to Jewish elders. Poland was also one of the first countries to develop a parliamentary system of government, and a separate Jewish legislature, known as Va’ad Arba Aratzot (Council of Four Lands), founded in 1581. The “four lands” were Greater Poland (includes the Posen region), Little Poland, Podolia, and Galicia. The Va’ad Arba lasted until 1764, when it was dissolved by the Polish national parliament (Sejm). Alongside the Va’ad Arba was the Supreme Rabbinic Tribunal, which met while the Va’ad Arba was in session. The Rabbinic Tribunal heard appeals of disputes from the regional Rabbinic Tribunals.

In the course of centuries large numbers of German Jews fled to Poland from the hardships which they suffered in German territories; in 1474, emigrants went from Bamberg to Posen; in 1510 – from the electorate of Brandenburg to Meseritz; after 1670 – from Vienna to Schwersenz; and in 1700 – from Fulda to Schwerin-on-the-Warta.

When the southern part of Poland came under Prussian rule in 1793, one-twentieth of the population consisted of Jews. On the day on which homage was paid to the new ruler they recited a prayer in Hebrew and one in German. The status of the Jews was determined by the “General-Juden-Reglement” (1797), which aimed to make them, as mechanics and trades-men, useful members of the state. Still under the German rule they were not treated as equals: The monstrous kosher-meat tax was especially burdensome. After several years when Posen was under Polish rule (during Napoleon’s time), the Jews rejoiced in their reunion with Prussia in 1815 when Napoleon was defeated. However, they did not obtain their promised political equality until the enactment of the “Jews’ Law” (1833), which conferred citizenship upon the wealthy and educated classes, and that of 1847, which put the Jews on a par with their brethren of the older Prussian provinces. The population of Jews in the province (based on censuses) were as follows:

Jewish Population in Posen

The decrease in the number of Jews during the second part of the 19th century was due to emigration to the west of Europe and to foreign countries. Starting in the 1850’s Germans living in East and West Prussia as well as the provinces of Silesia and Posen emigrated in large numbers to the Rhine and Ruhr Valleys, which developed quickly during the Industrial Revolution. This was called the Ostflucht (flight from the East). With them many Jews left those regions as well. As a counter-measure and in order not to tip the balance between Germans and Poles in those regions, Bismarck started in the 1880’s a program of resettlement of Germans in those territories. The government bought land from owners of large estates and used those to settle Germans.

The region of Posen then was a border area between Germany and Poland and included populations of both peoples as well as Jews. It was predominantly an agricultural area. It was a region where friction and conflicts between (Protestant) Germans and (Catholic) Poles were frequent over domination and power. The Jews were a third small minority and although mostly Germans in orientation and culture, were sometimes able to hold the difficult puzzle together in many of the towns where they resided in the 19th century.

Finally, from the region of Posen some famous and important personalities originated. We already talked about Kurt Lewin. A major German World War I hero and later a Weimar Republic President, Paul von Hindenburg was born in Posen (1847). Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the great Talmudic scholar was Posen’s rabbi and died there (1837). One of his students was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), born in Lissa and later moved to Torun (Thorn) in the Posen province; he advocated to settle the land of Israel. The famous historian Heinrich (Zvi) Graetz (1817-1891), the author of the monumental work The History of the Jews (11 volumes), was born in Xions, Posen. Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943), an economist and sociologist who later became an important Zionist thinker and leader, was born in Rawicz, Posen. Finally, Rabbi Leo Baeck, a philosopher and leader of German Jewry was born in the town of Lissa in 1873.

How did the Lewin and Gottfeld families fit into that reality?

Notables From Posen