Jewish merchants from Western Europe surely visited Polish lands even before the Polish state was founded. They traversed Poland along the trade routes leading from German and Czech lands to medieval Rus. They started to settle the region permanently in the 11th or 12th century. After the unification of the Polish kingdom, King Kazimierz the Great issued protective privileges to the entire Jewish population. All later kings of Poland, following his example, confirmed the privileges of the Jews, deeming the Jewish presence valuable for both king and country.

When settling in a new territory, Jewish populations formed tight communities –or neighborhoods– generally in a part of the city away from the main church. At the center of the Jewish district, a synagogue would be built and, nearby, a ritual bath, a religious school, kosher butcher shop and bakeries. At the edge of community, a cemetery would be established.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Poland became the most important country of the Jewish Diaspora. The growing Jewish community spread out primarily towards the eastern borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Poland became the center of the Diaspora not only due to its Jewish population numbers, but also owing to its role as an important center of Ashkenazic Jewry’s cultural and religious life, the influence of which was felt throughout all of Europe.Despite anti-Semitic attitudes so prevalent at the time, Polish Jews gained broad opportunities for autonomous development.

As a result of the partitions of Poland beginning in the late 18th century, Polish Jewry was also divided amongst three empires: Russia, Austria and Prussia. The majority, roughly 500,000 found themselves under the rule of Russia, which, until that time, had not permitted Jews to settle on its territory for religious reasons.

The economic and social changes that took place on Polish lands in the 19th century to some degree resulted in the change of the occupational structure of the Jewish population. Many Jews could be found among those making up the bourgeoisie, among bankers and business people. Jewish workers too found employment in the industrial plants that were rising. During the latter half of the 19th century, Jewish involvement in occupations requiring higher education increased. An ever-growing number of Jewish doctors, lawyers and journalists began to be seen.

Polish public perception often seen Jews as indifferent to Polish national cause and in extreme cases Jews are seen as acting against Polish interests. However, history shows us many examples of Jews heroically fighting to defend Poland. Jews took part in each of the Polish national uprisings.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Jewish culture in Poland developed primarily on the basis of religion. Only with the advent of the Haskalah did the process of enlightenment of Jewish culture begin, opening it up more widely to the influence of European cultures and leading to the development of areas of activity previously unexplored, namely theater or painting.

The interwar period (1918-1939) concludes the almost a thousand-year-long history of Jews in Poland. During the twenty years until 1939, the number of Jews in Poland grew to about 3.3 million. The majority lived in the cities and towns of the central, southern and eastern provinces of Poland.

When looking at Polish-Jewish relations of the interwar period, one should realize that the two ethnic groups were not symmetrical in political, economic, social and cultural aspects. The Polish nation regained its statehood after over 120 years of foreign domination. For Polish state the Jews were only one of the several sizable national minorities and not the most numerous and politically important between them. In political and administrative terms Polish authorities were seriously concerned with the Ukrainians and Germans. The latter were openly hostile to Polish statehood and propagated secession from Poland. The Jews, on the contrary, were eager to cooperate with Polish state as long as Jewish social and economic conditions are taken care of and their civil rights are not infringed.  Polish state could disregard Jewish socio-political claims for the Jews as a non-territorial minority did not pose any substantial threat to Polish statehood, while both, the Ukrainian and German nationalist movements were the significantly threatening destabilizing factors.  In this regard a “Polish-Jewish Concord” (Ugoda) between the Sejm’s (Polish lower house of parliament) Jewish Fraction and the government of Prime Minister Wladyslaw Grabski in July 1925 did not live up to Jewish expectations, and had never materialized in all its provisions sought by the Jews.

In the second half of the 1930s due to the domestic and international situation anti-Jewish animosities intensified. Attacks on the street and university campuses together with the enactment of the anti-Jewish legislation marked Jewish life in Poland.

All these factors created a feeling among Polish Jews of humiliation and imminent threat. One could see that the situation was becoming ever more difficult and that Poland was clearly preparing to expel the Jews from its territory. Perhaps many people would have opted to emigrate; the problem was that the Jews had nowhere to go to and most also lacked the financial means to do so.

All in all, Poland thus appears as a place where Jewish culture could flourish, it was one of the countries in which an entire spectrum of Jewish political parties was active and Jewish deputies served in the parliament. And it was also a place of intolerance, increasing antagonism towards Jews and even acts of persecutions.

Notwithstanding when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Jews rose against the invaders as Polish citizens. Members of one of the Jewish communities wrote in August 1939 that:

The welfare-or absence of thereof-of Polish Jewry is linked to the existence and strength of the Polish state; it is our paramount responsibility at this time, especially at such a decisive moment as this one, to give all our effort and contributions for the good of our common Homeland.