About Poland and Lithuania:
 How we got there and why we stayed

Migrations follow expulsions

Jews have always done a lot of migrating.  When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea in 117 A.D., they migrated to Europe, and there they flourished until the Middle Ages, mainly in Spain and in the Rhineland.  England's Edward I expelled its Jews in 1290, and they were not readmitted until 1600.

France kicked out its Jews in 1182, and then recalled and expelled them periodically thereafter until 1394.  At that time, French Jews were kicked out until the French Revolution in 1789. Portugal expelled its Jews in 1496, and Spain expelled its Jews the same year the possibly-Jewish Christopher Columbus got his royal sendoff to the New World: 1492. 

Kicked out AND robbed

In Spain, not only were Jews expelled, but their property was confiscated, too!  This previously little-considered detail came to light on finding the photo below in a recentExpelled and confiscated property antiques magazine advertisement. 

The subject of the document is "the confiscation of the property of the Jews," according to the caption of this "Letter signed by both Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, to Rodrigo de Mercado, Governor of Medina del Campo."

The magnitude of our horror -- in learning that not only were Jews expelled, but they were robbed as well -- is matched only by our astonishment in having come upon an apparent news 'scoop.'  

Eventually on view in NYC

How much did the dealer want for it?  Or, as it turned out, how much did he get for it? Irvin Ungar of Historicana wasn't talking. The Burlington, California-based dealer responded to my E-mail by cell phone from Philadelphia, only to say that a donor had been found to purchase the letter for the American Sephardi Federation.  That's one of the six organizations which comprise the new Center for Jewish History, in Manhattan. So, the document will be on view in New York City eventually. Remember, you read it here first [Nov. 24, 2002]. When the document came to Ungar's attention, it was in South America, he said, claiming that "nothing else like it is known to exist in the Western world." Now, back to our story.

On the move 

The Crusades, the plague of 1348, and the Inquisition, as well as expulsions and hate incidents, had all forced Jews to stay on the move in search of a place where Jews could lead better lives.  They found that place in Poland. 


Above: The map, from An Historical Atlas of the Jews in Poland, shows the eastward migration of Jews in the Middle Ages from western Europe into the area that now constitutes not only Poland but also Lithuania, Belarus, the Ukraine and part of Russia.

1264 - Charter of Jewish Liberties

Poland designated its Jews a protected 'estate' or class. "The General Charter of Jewish Liberties" was issued in 1264 in the town of Kalisz by Boleslav V, Duke of Krakow and Prince of Poland. 

Known as Boleslav the Pius [or the Chaste], he ruled from 1221 to 1279, or 1227 to 1279, depending on whose history you read. Either way, over 50 years is a long reign, and he was in power another 15 years after promulgating this important Charter.

Engraving below depicts Boleslav in 1264 at the signing of the Charter.  

Jews' rights were spelled out in great detail in The Charter, also called the Statute of Kalisz. Jews were regarded as different but not as inferiors. 

The Charter created a climate that enabled the Jews to set up their own autonomous nation, according to I.C. Pogonowski's engaging documentary history, Jews in Poland, in which the 1264 Charter is reprinted. Accompanying it are excerpts from later editions and confirmations.  A provision of the original Charter -- 36 -- reflects the high esteem in which the Jewish people were held:

36.  And we also ordain that any Jew who holds an hereditary estate through foreclosure shall not be required to ride to a campaign nor to give anything for the campaign, and this because our Jews are treasures  [italics added].

Spelling out trust

The first 'right' concerns the acceptance of a Jew's word, and the matter of the proper oath is considered in detail. A proper oath would be: "May God, who illuminates and observes, and the books of Moses, help us." The oath was to be carried out "according to the practice of the Jews." 

On great matters, the oath was taken on the scroll of the Ten Commandments, and on lesser matters, on the mezuzah "hanging in the door of the synagogue...."