The following article was written by Gershon C. Bacon and reprinted from Danzig 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Community, an exhibition catalogue published by Wayne State University Press, copyright 1980 The Jewish Museum, New York
To the emotionally uninvolved observer, the history of Danzig Gdansk Jewry presents an anomalous picture of a community at times so average as to escape one's notice entirely and at other times so different in its make-up and historical fate as to give it a special place in the annals of European Jewry. This anomalous situation stems in large part from the unusual position of the city of Danzig itself, a city of mixed cultural, ethnic and political allegiances, which in its long history has lived under Polish and German rule. It was a city ever conscious of its dual position as an outpost of German culture on the borders of Slavic Eastern Europe and as an economic outlet for the products of the Polish interior.
The history of Danzig Jewry reflects these conditions. Unwelcome in Danzig for many centuries, Jews eventually created an active and vibrant community in the 19th century, similar to the scores of Liberal Jewish communities throughout Germany. Nevertheless, Danzig Jews had frequent contact with their Eastern European brethren and made their mark on the commerce of the city through their dealings with the Polish interior. Alongside the German Jews, a number of Russian and Polish Jews lived in Danzig, despite occasional harassment on the part of Prussian authorities. After World War 1, this small enclave within Danzig Jewry swelled to many times the size of the native community as would-be emigrants crowded into the newly constituted Free City on their way to foreign shores. Community leadership remained in the hands of the German Jews, who tried to deal with both the new political framework of Danzig and the new demographic make-up of the Jewish community. Even during the first Nazi years, the unique political status of Danzig gave the Jews special opportunities to secure their rights. Eventually, however, they found their position no different from that of Jews in Germany. But, as we shall see, even in the Nazi era, the fate of Danzig Jewry took an unusual turn: under some duress, the community dissolved itself and most of the local Jews left the city before the outbreak of war. A long and colorful history came to an end in the horrors of the Holocaust.
In the earliest period of its history, from about the 10th century to the 15th century, Danzig proper had no Jewish community and allowed no Jewish settlement whatsoever. The rulers of adjoining territories, however, did grant trading rights to foreign merchants, including Jews. In these areas, which became the suburbs of Altschottland and Hoppenbruch, Jews probably had some contact with Danzig merchants, although no documentary evidence of such contact exists. I
The local tradition of intolerance continued during the period of Polish rule over Danzig (1454-1793). Danzig received a semi-autonomous status which included, among other privileges, the authority to refuse citizenship rights and trading rights to foreigners, whether Nurembergers, Lombards, Englishmen, Flemings or Jews.2 Thus, although the kings of Poland granted extensive rights to Jews, these rights did not apply in Danzig. At best, Jews could enter the city for a few days to trade during the major fairs in August and November .3 Even this fairly standard break from the normally exclusivist economic policies of medieval cities was granted only grudgingly to Jewish merchants by the city fathers of Danzig; indeed, they made several attempts to curtail the entrance of Jews into the city. In the 16th century, under pressure from local storekeepers, Jews were forbidden to engage in retail trade within the city limits.4 When Jews began to remain in town after the fair and on occasion even carried on regular prayer services, the city council took action to expel all those who had stayed (1616).5 The Jews sought the intervention of the Polish king, who responded with an order to the city council to restore the trading rights of the Jews. When the council failed to respond, the Council of Four Lands, the consultative body for all Polish Jewry, sent a delegation to negotiate with the Danzig council, but the negotiations proved futile.6 Only after two or three years, did Jews receive permission for abbreviated visits during the August fair. As time passed, the city council, despite great public pressure to the contrary, allowed longer sojourns for Jewish merchants .7 Although the wealthier merchants might have preferred to be even more permissive, the representatives of merchants and artisans in the so-called Third Committee (Ordnung)8 maintained their stiff opposition. Thus the city council granted neither free trading privileges nor extended residence rights to Jews.
Despite all these restrictions, Jews continued to travel to Danzig for the fairs. Community documents from Poznan (Posen) reveal intense economic activity revolving around Danzig trade. The kehilla * authorities ordered Jewish merchants to travel together for mutual defense on the way. For the preservation of chastity, they forbade Jewish women to go to the fairs. The same documents reveal that Danzig merchants lent money to Jewish communities and traded in notes issued by various kehillot. 10 On one occasion in 1664, we know that the leaders of Polish Jewry were assembled at the Danzig fair because a document records their resolution of a legal dispute between two Jewish communities in Germany. I I Thus Danzig, as a key Baltic port and export center for Polish goods, may have remained closed to Jewish settlement, but Jews used whatever opportunities they had to participate in its commercial activities.
From the late 17th century and on into the 18th, Danzig entered a period of decline due to the political decline of the Polish state and the interruptions of Baltic trade caused by the Swedish wars. 12 These economic reverses intensified the intolerant attitudes of Danzig Citizens towards religious dissenters and Jews, particularly since these groups often competed with local artisans' and merchants. This helps explain the increased restrictions against Jews in this period, as attested. by local ordinances of 1719, 1740, 1745, 1752, 1763 and others. Jews could stay for limited sojourns, and only with a special pass issued by the Danzig authorities at a price proportionate to the length of the stay and the stature of the individual.13 For example, the 1752 law stipulated a 12-florin tax for a month-Ion stay by a Jewish merchant, an 8-florin tax for an assistant, and a 4-florin tax for a servant. 14
Although Danzig remained closed to Jewish settlement, a modest number of Jewish families did settle in the surrounding suburbs. By the 1 8th century, there existed organized communities in Altschottland and Weinberg, which employed rabbis and other functionaries, built a hospital and ritual bath, and provided for the poor.15 These communities, along with the younger community in Langfuhr, provided the nucleus for the modern Danzig Jewish community. 16
The transition to the modern Danzig Jewish community came with the shift to Prussian rule. After the first partition of Poland (1772), Prussian troops entered the suburban areas, and there began a period of political and economic intimidation of Danzig which culminated in the annexation of the city by Prussia in 1793. 17 The Jews of the Danzig suburbs, though temporarily of use to the Prussian regime in Its struggle with Danzig, could not be sure of their status until they received a General-Privilege in August 1773 which regularized their legal status. Thus 240 families with 1257 souls-three kehillot-now became Prussian subjects.18 This was the beginning of the association of Danzig Jewry with Germany, the German economy and German culture which lasted until the dissolution of the community in the Nazi era.
Prussian Danzig was no longer the key Baltic port it had once been, although it continued its role as an outlet for Polish goods and the port remained central to the city's economy. And as the provincial capital of West Prussia, Danzig became the home of administration, customs and taxation officials. The development of civilian and naval shipbuilding added a further source of income. In addition, the climate and location of Danzig and the growing seaside resort of Zoppot attracted vacationers and pensioners alike. Throughout this period of growth and change, the city of Danzig retained its distinctive architecture, which bespoke its days of glory as the major Baltic port. In those days, the wealthy merchants brought in Flemish and Italian architects to design and decorate their homes. Nineteenth-century buildings imitated the style of the older homes. Prussian Danzig was an attractive, provincial city, overwhelmingly German in population, language and culture, involved in the political concerns of the German state.19
In this atmosphere of slow economic growth and German nationalism, the Jews of Danzig tried to build a community. Although their legal status as Prussian subjects had been recognized for some time, Jews still faced legalistic maneuvers by local officials which called their rights into question.20 They finally achieved full legal equality in 1869 along with the rest of the Jews of northern Germany. But even before the achievement of full equality, the improvement in their political situation and the potential for ultimate equality helped bring about significant changes in the attitudes of many Jews. Already in the first half of the 19th century Jews participated in the cultural life of the city and fulfilled various tasks in the city administration and the merchants' associations.21
In this hopeful new atmosphere, the five communities that now comprised Danzig Jewry went through some of the Liberal-versus-orthodox tensions that existed in many German-Jewish communities. Unlike other Jewish communities, however, Danzig is unique because not until well into the modern period did its Jewry unite. Instead, Danzig Jews continued to exist as five separate communities hardly different from the communities of many a small Prussian town. It appears, nevertheless, that matters of class and prestige rather than of ritual stood in the way of kehilla unification. Thus, well into the 19th century, the communities of Altschottland, Weinberg, Langfuhr, Danzig-Breitgasse and Danzig-Mattenbuden elected their own officers, built synagogues, ran charitable institutions and chose their own rabbis. In some cases, one rabbi served as spiritual leader for as many as three of the five kehillot, even though the kehillot, remained separate. Most notable among those was Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, rabbi of one or another of the five communities from 1837 to 1860. Lipschutz became renowned in all of Jewry for his commentary on the Mishna, known collectively as Tiferet Yisrael, parts of which were first published in Danzig.22 The first Liberal rabbi in Danzig was Dr. Abraham Stein, elected rabbi of the more modernist Altschottland community in 1850. In addition to introducing moderate reforms in the synagogue service, Stein authored the first history of Danzig Jewry.23
Despite a Prussian law of 1847 which mandated a single Jewish community in each city, the five-community set-up persisted. But the pressures of raising funds for charity and providing Jewish education eventually helped push the kehillot towards unity. The lack of a unified kehilla enabled some Jews to avoid paying community taxes, thereby increasing the economic burden on the rest of the Jews. The first steps towards unity came through the efforts of the leadership of the Altschottland community under Gustav Davidson and their newly elected rabbi Dr. Cossman Werner (1878). They convinced the leaders of the other communities to organize a committee to make plans to carry out unification (December 1880). In February 1883, elections were held for a unified kehilla board.
By this time, Danzig Jewry was in the main a Liberal community. The minority of orthodox Jews was concentrated in the Mattenbuden Synagogue. As a sign of unity, the leaders of the community resolved to close the synagogues of the old kehillot and build a modern house of worship for the entire community, which would be the headquarters of the newly constituted Synagogen-Gemeinde. The Danzig Synagogen-Gemeinde was a modern-style kehilla-a kind of community organization centered around the synagogue, which had already become common in German Jewish communities. Completed in 1887, the Danzig temple symbolized more than the unity of Danzig Jewry: it aimed to show the Jews as part of the life of the city. The very design of the temple was intended to fit into the architecture of Danzig yet retain the Arab-Byzantine lines characteristic of major German synagogues.24 This impressive house of worship became the center of Jewish communal activity in Danzig until the tragic end of the community. Community leaders did allow the Mattenbuden Synagogue to remain open for the mainly Eastern European orthodox minority, so long as a minimum of twenty tax-paying members worshiped there.
In many ways, Danzig was a typical German Jewish community which identified with what it perceived to be the universal, humanitarian aspects of German nationalism. Most Danzig Jews considered themselves "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion" and rejected political Zionism, which regarded the Jews as a nation. Not surprisingly, the first Zionist group in Danzig consisted of Russian Jews.25 In the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the panoply of religious, fraternal and defense organizations that characterized German Jewry also existed in Danzig. Leading Jews of Danzig played important roles in the development of the local economy in trade and banking. A local Jew, Paul Simson, wrote the standard history of Danzig.26
In the decade preceding World War 1, however, German nationalism and anti-Semitism grew apace, and the social isolation of Jews increased, but the liberal, Germanic orientation of Danzig Jews did not change. With the outbreak of World War 1, Danzig Jews, along with other German Jews, volunteered in large numbers for military service. Ever conscious of the anti-Semitic canard that Jews evaded army service, Jewish organizations compiled detailed statistics showing Jewish participation in the war effort. Of the 12,000 German Jewish war dead, perhaps as many as ninety-five were from Danzig.27 Their names were inscribed on a special memorial plaque displayed in a place of honor in the Danzig temple. Years later, the plaque was evidently considered of such importance that it too was shipped to America with the ritual objects of the community, a mute testimony to Jewish allegiance to Germany in bygone days.28
It should be noted in passing that until World War I, the Jewish community of Danzig remained small, and had even shrunk in both absolute and relative terms :29
1816 3,798 Jews
1880 2,736 2.4% of total population
1910 2,390 1.4% of total population
This rather small community, so typical in many respects, differed from other German Jewish communities in certain aspects of its historical experience. As a center of the German Liberal party which opposed anti-Semitism, Danzig offered Jews a ready political outlet for the fight against anti-Semitism. Many local Jews, including Rabbi Dr. Werner, played active roles in the Liberal Party. The party leader, Heinrich Rickert, was one of the founders of the Organization for Combatting Anti-Semitism (1891). At least until the turn of the century, Danzig Jewry refrained from joining the Centralverein, the major Jewish defense organization, and instead employed older methods of quiet intervention and apologetics against manifestations of anti-Semitism. Only when nationalistic and anti-Semitic sentiment grew in the early 1900s did Danzig Jews form a Centralverein chapter of their own.30
Many German Jewish communities made considerable efforts to aid and protect Eastern European Jews living in or passing through Germany. Because of its port and its close economic connections with Poland and Russia, Danzig always had a resident nucleus of Eastern European Jews. Danzig Jews had a distinguished record in protecting these Jews from the harassment of Prussian official.31 Particularly noteworthy are the actions of Rabbi Dr. Robert Kaelter in this regard. During World War 1, he personally secured the release of Russian Jewish prisoners of war. He also helped prevent the expulsion of civilian Russian Jews from Danzig. These Russians, mostly merchants, greatly aided the German war effort by helping to secure supplies from occupied areas of Russia.32 But although they aided their Eastern European brethren, Danzig Jews also wanted to maintain their German-Liberal style community. Because Eastern European Jews often sympathized with Zionism, the leadership of Danzig Jewry made several attempts to limit non-citizen participation in Synagogen-Gemeinde elections.33 These incidents left a residue of bitterness between the two groups that exacerbated the social and cultural differences which were never totally overcome even in the final days of the community.
We have noted several times how the special nature of Danzig had profound effects on the development of its Jewish community. At no time was this relationship more evident than during the period of the Free City (1920-39). During the peace conference after World War 1, Danzig became a major point of contention between defeated Germany and the newly independent Polish state. The Allies had declared as one of their war aims the establishment of an independent Poland with access to the sea. As Poland's traditional outlet to the sea, Danzig seemed destined to become part of Poland. Yet another principle clashed with the desire for an independent Poland, namely the principle of national self-determination. Danzig was overwhelmingly German, and the local citizenry, including the Jewish community, had publicly stated their opposition to inclusion of Danzig in the Polish state. The solution that the peace conference eventually came up with, the creation of a Free City of Danzig under the supervision of the League of Nations, satisfied none of the parties most directly concerned. Despite significant concessions to them regarding the operations of the port, the Poles felt that a city administration antagonistic to Poland could render these concessions worthless, The Germans regarded the Danzig settlement as another distasteful part of an imposed peace. The Danzigers had no desire for an independent "national" existence, even though in earlier eras Danzig had just such a semi-autonomous existence. However undesirable the new situation was to them, the Danzigers quickly took up the tasks of running the city and maintaining order, lest the Poles find some pretext for intervention.34 The Free City as constituted included Danzig proper, the resort of Zoppot and three rural districts with a total area of 1,951 square kilometers and 357,000 inhabitants.35
The Liberal German Jews of Danzig had many important adjustments to make. In the post-Versailles Free City, the right wing of German politics had great strength, much more than in Germany, and anti-Semitic incidents increased. Danzig Jews faced a dilemma. In Germany, Jews could at least justify their fight against anti-Semitism as a fight to secure democracy. But publicizing anti-Semitic activity in Danzig might serve the interest of Poland and hence was "unpatriotic." Similarly, at least until 1932, the German Jews in Danzig did not appeal to the League High Commissioners. To meet anti-Semitic threats, which even included blood libel accusations, Jewish leaders used traditional apologetics and quiet intervention, as well as their not inconsiderable economic clout. Often local police officials cooperated with Jewish leaders because they feared Polish intervention in the city's internal affairs.36
As a city under international protection and a free port without visa restrictions, Danzig became the goal of thousands of Jewish refugees from Russia and Poland. Suddenly, the small Danzig community found itself confronting the monumental task of temporary care for people awaiting visas for America or Canada. Danzig Jewry, at first on its own, under the leadership of Rabbi Kaelter, and later aided by the Joint Distribution Committee and Hias, cared for these refugees, many of whom arrived penniless. Refugees stayed in a special transit camp in Troyl, an island in the port area. In the period 1920-25, some sixty thousand Jews passed through Danzig. This immense task exacted a heavy toll on Rabbi Kaelter, who died in 1926 at the age of fifty-two, mourned by young and old, German and Eastern European Jews alike.37
The easy entry into Danzig brought about fundamental changes in the demographic make-up of Danzig Jewry. In the space of a few short years, the size of the community increased to three times and then four times the pre-World War I figure:"
December 1910 2,717
November 1923 7,282* (*2,500 Danzig nationals, 4,782 non-citizens)"
August 1924 9,239
August 1929 10,448
Some of these Jews had left smaller West Prussian communities which had come under Polish rule, but the majority of them came from Russia and Poland.39 The Liberal leadership of the community regarded this change with mixed emotions. A great social and cultural gap separated the two communities, and some German Jews believed the Ostjuden had to become "civilized" through the acquisition of German culture. Yet others took pride in the great variety of Jewish expression in the Free City, and, in some circles, there was a feeling that in this meeting place of East and West, some new synthesis of Jewish national and religious identity might arise.40
In the short run, the influx of Eastern European Jews brought about the development of a new satellite community in Zoppot and of many new Jewish youth and political organizations. It also meant a rebirth of orthodox Jewry in Danzig. For the first time since the death of Rabbi Lipschutz in 1860, the community elected an orthodox rabbi to care for the religious needs of the orthodox Mattenbuden Synagogue. Rabbi Jakob Sagalowitsch, who took office in 1923, provided Danzig Jewry with the unfamiliar spectacle of an Eastern European style rabbi in its midst. He reorganized kashrut supervision in the city, and thus gained new markets in Poland for Danzig food products. He worked to regularize the marital status of many women who, in a period of great emigration and wandering, had lost contact with their husbands. But he also aroused the ire of the very proper German Jews by performing marriages solely for the sake of circumventing entry restrictions to Palestine (he was associated with the Zionist Mizrahi movement) and by his involvement as an arbitrator in business disputes among Jewish merchants. By 1932, dissatisfaction with Sagalowitsch and political infighting in the community grew to the point that his contract was not renewed. A year later, he left Danzig and accepted a new post in Brussels.41
The struggle over renewing the contract of Rabbi Sagalowitsch reflected a larger, ongoing struggle within the community between the Liberal leadership and the Zionists. Even with a series of restrictions on voting designed to frustrate Zionist advancement, by 1928 the Zionists polled thirty-nine percent of the votes in the community elections and in 1931 forty seven percent. The debate between the two groups focused on a fundamental difference in viewpoints on the nature of Judaism, the proper structure and function of the Synagogen-Gemeinde, and the best way to combat anti-Semitism. At one point or another, both the Liberals and Zionists weighed the possibility of breaking away from the unified community and forming a separate kehilla The Liberals finally gave up on the idea when government officials determined that, in the event of a split, the property of the Synagogen-Gemeinde would go to the more numerous group. As for the Zionists, the dismissal of Rabbi Sagalowitsch seemed to them an overt political challenge and an affront to the orthodox segment of the community. After several unsuccessful attempts at a compromise with the Liberals, Dr. Isaac Landau, a Zionist member of the community council, announced the formation of Kehillat Yisrael, a religious-national organization which had the earmarks of a separate kehilla in the making. This group set up its own kashrut supervision under Rabbi Sagalowitsch (early 1933). The city authorities recognized the legitimacy of ritual slaughter supervised by the new group, thus lending further probability to a split. But the growing Nazi threat and the need to create a common front to meet that threat put an end to the secession attempt. In addition, the two leading figures in the struggle, Dr. Landau and Rabbi Sagalowitsch, left Danzig .42
The Nazi victory in the May 1933 elections signaled the beginning of the tragic final era of Danzig Jewry. Once again, the special nature of the Free City gave Nazi policies a slightly different direction from those in the Reich. At least at first, the Germans adhered on paper to the Danzig constitution and tried to minimize any offense to the League or to Poland. For the first few years of the Nazi era, the government in Danzig even had to play by the rules of democracy and allow the existence of opposition parties.43
Regarding the Jews, the new Nazi administration kept a publicly restrained posture which fit into its general policy of moderation. The document on Polish rights signed in August 1933 included a stipulation that Polish Jewish merchants in Danzig could freely carry on their business.44 In a meeting with Jewish community leaders, Arthur Greiser, the Nazi vice-president of the Danzig Senate, declared that no Aryanization laws or boycott actions would take place in Danzig. All inhabitants of Danzig would be treated equally, without regard to religion or nationality.45 The new Senate president, Hermann Rauschning, both before and after his election, declared that anti-Jewish policies would harm Danzig. He even maintained that Nazi anti-Semitism was not really racial in nature-one example of many attempts by Rauschning to put a more moderate face on Nazi policies and ideology.46 Nazi party officials in Danzig, however, used public pressure and executive actions to remove Jews from public office and from professional associations, even in the absence of anti-Jewish legislation.47 Physical assaults against Jews and Poles also occurred, which party officials piously denounced as "breaches of party discipline.48 The departure of Rauschning from office in 1934 removed an important restraining influence on local Nazi policy. Officially, the new president Greiser promised to uphold the constitution, but in practice the government permitted the continuation of boycott actions, public display of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer and the public singing of songs calling for the spilling of Jewish blood.49
Danzig Jewry used both traditional and innovative methods to meet the pressures of the new era. First and foremost, the factionalism among German Jewish leaders of the Synagogen-Gemeinde came to an end. Several years before similar actions in Germany, the Danzig Jews decided to set up the executive body of the Synagogen-Gemeinde with an equal representation of Liberals and Zionists.50 Danzig Jewry also pioneered in setting up an independent Jewish winter relief effort, since the general relief campaign offered no aid to non-citizens and thus excluded the majority of local Jews most in need of help.51 To represent the interests of Jewish professionals, merchants and artisans excluded from the Nazified unions and professional associations, local Jews set up a series of Jewish professional groups.52 Perhaps the most significant change for the old-line Liberal Jews of Danzig was the decision to open a private Jewish school to spare Jewish students the increasingly hostile atmosphere of the public schools. The elementary school headed by Samuel Echt and the high school headed by Dr. Ruth Rosenbaum compared favorably with the best of the public schools.53 In addition to the schools, the community developed a whole series of Jewish and general cultural programs, which provided work for Jewish performers and helped raise the spirits of the community as a whole.54A sign of the new spirit in the community was a more positive attitude toward the Yiddish theater and the Yiddish language.55
As their situation worsened, the Jews of Danzig used various means of defense to protect their rights. They used the local courts as long as these showed some signs of independence. Along with other citizen groups, they appealed to the League of Nations (May 1935) when further intervention with local authorities appeared useless. The League did indeed find that the increasingly totalitarian regime in Danzig violated the constitution, and reminded the Senate of its obligations. But Greiser had no intention of carrying out the recommendations of the League.56 Ironically, it took pressure from within the Nazi party to put a stop to public harassment of Jewish tourists in 1935-36. A large drop in tourism would hurt an already suffering Danzig economy.57
By 1937, however, economic considerations began to play a secondary role in determining the Danzig regime's policy towards Jews. The only moderating force was a German desire to avoid any direct confrontation with Poland over Danzig. Thus the party officially disassociated itself from a mob assault on Jewish businesses and homes (October 23, 1937) and even imposed prison terms on some of the rioters.58 Yet the anti-Semitic agitation continued and the regime introduced new anti-Jewish measures. By 1937, some three thousand of the more than ten thousand resident Jews had already left Danzig, and for the first time some community leaders began considering an at least partial evacuation of Jews from the city.59 Administrative pressure for the Aryanization of businesses coupled with stormtrooper-enforced boycott activity made things harder and harder for Jews. From November 1937 to the summer of 1938, another two thousand Jews left the city.60
The culmination of all this pressure came in the pogroms of Kristallnacht on November 12-13, 1938 (November 9 in the Reich). Besides mass arrests and destruction of Jewish property, stormtroopers razed the synagogues in Langfuhr and Zoppot. Only timely intervention by community leaders with the police saved the Great Synagogue from a similar fate. A group of Jewish war veterans mounted a guard around the synagogue. In the course of these nights of terror, and over the next few days, some fifteen hundred Jews fled over the Polish border.61 From then on, the Jews of Danzig regarded emigration as a matter of highest priority. Further pressure on the Jews came with the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws into Danzig, making Nazi race theories the law of the land (November 1938).62
Community officials invited back to Danzig Zvi Hermann Segall, a local Revisionist Zionist figure who one year earlier had first broached to them an evacuation plan for Danzig Jewry. Segall also had good connections with the local police. There began a series of meetings with local officials to develop an "orderly" plan for Jewish emigration. Some six thousand Jews left in Danzig needed places to go, and only about half could easily find places of refuge (these latter being the two thousand Jews who were Polish citizens and the one thousand with wealth or personal connections). In these desperate times, Segall's plans no longer seemed outlandish .63
The local Danzig authorities wanted the Jews to leave, but still insisted on the legalistic formality of having the Jews "agree" to leave. For this purpose, a community-wide meeting was convened in the Great Synagogue on December 17, 1938. Two 'thousand people filled the synagogue, where they heard Segall and others speak of the painful decision they had to make. Those assembled rose from their seats to show their agreement with the emigration plan and their willingness to allow the community leaders to make all necessary arrangements. The Danzig officials further insisted that each Jew sign a document in which he promised to follow the directives of the Jewish community officials. According to the plan proposed by Segall, Polish Jews in Danzig would return to Poland, other Jews who could get visas to various countries would do so, and the remainder (the majority) would go in illegal transports to Palestine. The Danzig Senate gave the Jews until May 1939 (later extended until the fall of 1939) to evacuate all but the elderly and infirm Jews. In fact, even the elderly tried to leave 64
To finance their emigration, Danzig Jews needed large sums in foreign currency. Little aid came from Western Jewry. Some organizations opposed any project run by the right-wing Revisionists, while British Jews considered -aiding illegal immigration to Palestine a "disloyal" act. Finally, the American joint Distribution Committee provided aid in a roundabout way: it sent dollars to Danzig as the "purchase price" for the collection of ritual objects belonging to the community.65 (These are the objects sent to The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York that constitute the present exhibition.) The community also sold off all the real estate it owned, including the Great Synagogue, for a fraction of its actual value. A tragic scene unfolded when Danzig Jewry gathered for the last time in the Great Synagogue on April 15, 1939. The event symbolized for all the beginning of the end of their community. They consoled themselves with the thought that the sale of their beloved synagogue would help finance the emigration of some community members, so that Danzig Jewry might live on somewhere else .66
The exodus of Danzig Jewry continued until October-November 1941, when the Nazis stopped all emigration. Before that time, some Jewish children found refuge in England. Several hundred Jews went on various illegal transports to Palestine. Some were successful. Others were on the Patria, a ship the British were using to deport illegal immigrants, which was blown up in Haifa harbor on November 25, 1940. Those Danzig Jews who survived the Patria disaster were the only ones allowed to stay in Palestine. Danzig refugees who had not yet been transferred to the Patria were sent to distant exile in Mauritius. Jews still in Danzig received "special treatment" by the Nazis. Whereas the mass deportation of Jews in the Reich only began in the fall of 1941.67 the deportation of Danzig Jews began the previous February to the Polish ghettos and to Theresienstadt, from where they were sent to their extermination.68 By the end of the war, only a handful of people the Nazis defined as Jews remained alive in Danzig.
For all practical purposes, the Danzig Jewish community was no more. But Danzig Jewry lives on in the memories of survivors scattered across the globe, several of whom have written about their community. Danzig Jewry lives on in the community archives, which the community leaders decided to entrust to the Jewish community of Jerusalem.69 Present and future Jewish historians can examine in minute detail the inner workings, ideals and frustrations of this community as it faced the challenges of modernity and ultimately the horrors of this century. Finally, Danzig Jewry lives on in the collection of ritual objects from its Judaica museum and its houses of worship. They are a silent reminder of a living, vibrant community and a silent cry of anguish lamenting the tragic end of that community.
Sources: Reprinted with permission of The
Jewish Museum, New York and Rabbi Bacon.