Piotrków Trybunalski before the Holocaust
The History of the Jewish Community in Piotrków Trybunalski until the 20th Century
Piotrków Trybunalski, an administrative capital in the province of Łódź, was most likely established in the 13th century. The Jewish community in the city was founded later, and can be dated to the 16th century.
During the first few hundred years of the city’s existence, Jews were not allowed to live within the city walls. They entered Piotrków Trybunalski in order to trade, when the city hosted a session of the Polish Sejm (the lower house of parliament), or when a special tribunal of the court (hence the name ‘Trybunalski’) was held. However, a few Polish noblemen built houses which they rented to Jews, within the city walls; these noblemen advanced the right of their tenants to live in within the city. In this manner a small Jewish community was initially established within Piotrków Trybunalski.
The Jewish community in the city was severely damaged during the blood libels and pogroms, carried out both by the local population and by invading forces. In the 17th century, the Khmelnitsky Pogrom saw the Jewish community all but totally destroyed. However, by the end of the century Jews were again allowed to return to the city, taking up residence within the walls, and establishing community institutions as well as businesses. During the 18th century the city was damaged in a series of cataclysmic events, including a major earthquake and a series of fires. In addition to the damage incurred by these events, the Jewish community was also wracked by recurring pogroms. In 1740, during one of these pogroms, the synagogue was destroyed. The synagogue building was renovated at the turn of the century, and the renovation works provided an opportunity for expansion: a beit midrash (study hall) was as well as an additional prayer hall were added to the existing structure.
With the onset of the Prussian occupation, at the end of the 18th century, Jews were obliged to pay higher taxes than non-Jewish residents of the city. At this time a day school for Jewish children was established, in keeping with the principles of the Enlightenment. The school taught German and mathematics, yet was active for only ten years before it closed.
During the 19th century, now under the control of the Russian Empire, the Jewish community established institutions for social aid and welfare – among them a Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), a Bikur Cholim society to aid Jews who had fallen ill, a fund to support those who had been hospitalized, and a general charity fund. Most of the members of the Jewish community dealt in commerce and manufacture. The community had a diverse membership – including affluent assimilated Jews, Hassidim and Mitnagdim (opponents of the Hasidic movement). Piotrków Trybunalski was home to famous rabbis and religious scholars who wrote Jewish legal texts; among them were Rabbi Dov Berish Edelstein, a descendant of the Rama (Rabbi Moses Isserles); Rabbi Hayim Eliezer Waks, who preached support for the Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, which he even went so far as to visit, and the Hassidic Rabbi Simcha Yair Rosenfeld. A number of other Hassidic leaders were also residents of the city, among them Rabbi Meir Menachem Finkler (d. 1912), who spoke Hebrew and used the donations collected by his followers to support Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel.
In the middle of the 19th century, Piotrków Trybunalski became the capital of the province of Łódź, and several administrative and government structures were built in the city, including a high court, government offices, a royal bank, and a military base. Subsequently, the number of residents increased and the city flourished. During this period the first Jewish school to pursue the Enlightenment educational program was opened. The school was headed by Adolf Leiberg, a graduate of the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary.
At the end of the 19th century, the first industrial factories were built in the city. Most of the factories were owned by Jews, as were most of the city’s stores. During this period the Jewish community constructed a second large synagogue, where they prayed according to the German Jewish rite, and established a number of new charitable institutions, among them the Dobroczynność charity company, a mutual aid fund, the Bikur Cholim and Leinat Tzedek institutions which aided sick Jews, the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), an old age home and more.
At the end of the 19th century, a branch of the Hibat Tzionmovement was established in Piotrków Trybunalski; a branch of the Bund was established in the early years of the 20th century. Jews from Piotrków Trybunalski were among the first members of the Polish Socialist party.