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
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
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
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
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
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
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
1910 2,390 1.4% of total
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
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
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:"
7,282* (*2,500 Danzig nationals, 4,782 non-citizens)"
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
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
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
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.
1. Samuel Echt, Die Geschichte der Juden in
Danzig, Leer and Ostfriesland, 1972, pp. 13-14.
2. Echt, p. 14.
3. Israel Halpern, ed., Pinkas Vaad Arba
Aratzot, Jerusalem, 1945, p.543.
4. Edmund Cieslak and Czeslaw Biernat, Dzieje
Gdanska, Gdansk, 1969, p. 1974.
5. Echt, p. 15.
6. Halpern, pp. 30-31.
7. Echt, p. 16.
8. See Simon Askenazy, Dantzig and Poland, London,
1921, p. 16.
9. Echt, p. 16.
10. Bernard Weinryb, Texts and Studies in the
Communal History of Polish Jewry, New York, 1950, pp. 23, 34,
100, 145 (Hebrew pagination).
11. Halpern, pp. 99-101.
12. Herbert S. Levine, Hitler's Free City-A
History of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-39, Chicago, 1973, p.
13. Cieslak and Biernat, p. 300.
14. Text in Echt, pp. 32-33.
15. Echt, pp. 17-19.
16. There is, however, some evidence that a few
Jews stayed in Danzig proper under various pretexts; see Echt, p. 27.
17. Askenazy, pp. 32-54.
18. Echt, pp. 21-25.
19. Christoph M. Kimmich, The Free City-Danzig
and German Foreign Policy 1919-34, New Haven, 1968, pp. 1-3.
20. Echt, pp. 42-44.
21. Elijahu Stern, Korotehem shel Yehudei
Danzig me'az haemantsipatsiya vead ha'gerush be'yemei ha'shilton
ha'Nazi, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Hebrew University,
Jerusalem, 1978, p. 3.
22. Echt, p. 251.23. "Die Geschichte der Juden zu Danzig,"
Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 6
(1857); see Echt, p. 49.
24. Stern, pp. 6-10.
25. Stern, p. 33.
26. Echt, p. 58.
27. Stern, pp. 69-70.
28. Echt, p. 203.
29. Echt, p. 60.
30. Stern, pp. 11-12.
31. Stern, pp. 20-21.
32. Stern, pp. 44, 67, 71.
33. Stern, pp. 60-62.
34. Kimmich, pp. 4-22; Levine, pp. 10-11.
35. Kimmich, p. 3.
36. Stern, pp. 96ff. and 208.
37. Erwin Lichtenstein, Die Juden der Freien
Stadt Danzig unter der Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus, Tubingen,
1973, p. 9.
38. Lichtenstein, p. 10; Echt, p. 99.
39. Echt, p. 94.
40. Stern, pp. 218, 230, 148-49.
41. Echt, p. 102; Stern, pp. 298-304.
42. Stern, pp. 318-22.
43. Levine, pp. 54-56.
44. Levine, p. 62.
45. Lichtenstein, p. 13.
46. Levine, pp. 51-52.
47. Lichtenstein, pp. 15-16.
48. Levine, p. 65.
49. Lichtenstein, pp. 34-35; Stern, pp. 350-52.
50. Lichtenstein, pp. 18-19; Stern, p. 342.
51. Stern, p. 356.
52. Echt, pp. 146-48.
53. Lichtenstein, pp. 22-25; Echt, pp. 149-53.
54. Echt, pp. 148-49.
55. Stern, p. 404.
56. Stern, p. 354.
57. Levine, p. 129.
58. Levine, pp. 131-32; Lichtenstein, pp. 56-58.
59. Levine, p. 130; Stern, p. 424.
60. Stern, p. 440.
61. Lichtenstein, pp. 76-77.
62. Levine, p. 134.
63. Levine, p. 135.
64. Stern, pp. 450-52.
65. Stern, p. 456; Echt, pp. 201-3.
66. Echt, p. 212; Stern, p. 457.
67. Lichtenstein, pp. 232-34.
68. Stern, p. 469.
69. Stern, p. 459.