The placement of the majority of Nazi Germany’s most destructive death camps in Poland focuses the mindset of many people on a horrendous five-year period of Jewish history, Polish history, and Jewish history in Poland. The history of Jews in Poland extends much further than the period of the Holocaust, however, encompassing more than 900 years of relatively secure existence in hundreds of shtetls (small towns) and large cities across the country.
Although the Jewish population of Poland is quite small today, the history of Jews in Poland extends back to circa 1098, when Jewish settlement in Poland is first recorded. During the following 840 years, up until the Holocaust, Jewish communities and culture thrived in Poland and, at the beginning of World War II, more than 3 million Jews lived in Poland—roughly 10% of the total population.
Jewish settlement in Poland often followed expulsions from other nations in Europe, and Jews were frequently invited to settle by kings of Poland interested in the talents that Jews could add to their country. Jewish success in Poland, especially in commerce, often led to friction between Jews and ethnic Poles. This friction, combined with an unhealthy level of anti-Semitism (commonly found across Europe) led in some cases to violence.
Despite the challenges of anti-Semitism, Jews continued to arrive, settle, and stay in Poland over the centuries, reflecting the relative level of calm, acceptance and security Jews could find in Poland, in contrast to other European nations. The success of Jewish life and culture in Poland is attested to by the fact that, today, it is estimated that 70-80% of all Jews can trace their roots to Poland.
World War II, the Holocaust and 45 years of post-war domination by the Soviet Union created a chasm of lost lives, culture, connections and memory between Poles and Jews. In recent years, Poland has re-emerged on the world stage as a high-growth economy, a member of both NATO and the European Union and a strong ally of both the United States and Israel.
At the same time, Poland is experiencing a rebirth of interest and enthusiasm for Jewish culture, history and connections. Although anti-Semitism continues to be a challenge in many areas of the country, large numbers of Poles are seeking insight, understanding and connections to Jews and to Jewish history in Poland.
To facilitate such connections and build both tolerance and friendships, a large group of American Jews and Poles founded Friends of the Forum in 2007. Friends of the Forum works to build deeper connections to both history and the future for Polish and Jewish students and adults.