Pre-war Jewish Community

As early as 1445, there is a mention of Kalef, a Tarnów Jew, who originally had come from Lwów and was a silk trader. Tarnów gradually became home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the southern part of Poland.

Growth of the Jewish community was evident as trade and communal functions were developed. A Jewish cemetery was established in the early 1580s in the village of Pogdwizdów, adjacent to Tarnow and is one of the oldest and largest in Poland. Towns in Poland had owners who granted privileges to the population. In 1581, the town’s owner, Konstanty Ostrogski, granted the Jews a privilege enabling them to engage in trade inside buildings in the town, at stalls and on the market square, as well as to distill and sell alcohol. In the sixteenth century, Jews were permitted to purchase several houses within the town walls, but on a clearly separated street. This was how a Jewish quarter was created and gradually began to expand.

The Old (Stara) Synagogue was first built in 1582 in the Jewish quarter, between ul. Żydowska (Jewish Street) and Plac Rybny (Fish Square). It was the victim of a fire and its wooden structure was finally replaced with a brick synagogue in 1670 (left picture). Given the privileges being granted to Jews and the presence of the synagogue, the Jewish population grew rapidly, and in the eighteenth century exceeded 30% of the town’s population.

The Jewish community’s significance also grew, as shown by the fact that the Tarnów Jews had several representatives in the Council of Four Lands. Administrative documents guaranteed protection for the synagogue and cemetery, for they stipulated harsh punishments for anyone who might desecrate them. Jews strove to come to agreements with the town’s burghers as well, demonstrated for example by the agreement signed in 1631 regarding rents Jews were to pay for having a cemetery.

In 1667, Stanisław Koniecpolski, the town’s owner at that time, reaffirmed the privileges of the Jewish population that had been granted earlier (such as those related to the synagogue and cemetery). In 1723, as the result of marriages, family connections and historical circumstances, Tarnów became part of the princely Sanguszko family holdings. As new owners, they yielded their power over the Jewish community. They, too, were favorably inclined towards the Jewish population, seeing in them an opportunity to develop the town after the destruction experience in the seventeenth century. The general situation in the country and the partitions of Poland hampered their efforts.

In the late 1700s, new religious and cultural movements appeared – Chasidism (under the influence of the Halberstam and Horowitz dynasties) and the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). The Jewish district continued to be restricted to the Jewish quarter in the northeastern part of the downtown area and Grabówka, which was the poorer and Chasidic quarter outside the city walls.

In 1772, as the result of the first partition of Poland, Tarnów fell under Austrian rule, and was known as Galicia. When the Community asked the Austrian authorities for permission to expand the area in which Jews were allowed to settle in the town center, the answer was negative. Austrian rule was oppressive not only for the Poles, but also for the Jews, who were subjected to Germanization just as the Poles were.  Beginning in 1788, every Jew had to be registered under a German surname. In September 1792, a fire broke out that devastated the town. The Jewish quarter was destroyed, as well as the market square where Jews did business and the town hall.

New rules were being set into place by local authorities. The power of the kahal (Jewish community) was limited exclusively to religious matters. Jews were also banned from moving into the cities, which stifled economic development of businesses and meant that there was little attraction for the Jewish population. Taxes were increased constantly (including “kosher” and “candle” taxes), and a marriage tax was introduced. The aim of the latter was to limit natural growth among Jews. To avoid the marriage tax, Jews underwent religious but not civil marriages. This resulted in future generations retaining maternal rather than paternal last name in civil records.

Despite these regulations, Jews seemed to thrive and their businesses developed. The city expanded to the east to accommodate its growth. The Jewish housing occupied the entire eastern part of the city, called Grabówka, as well as the market square (Rynek) and a few adjacent narrow streets with densely packed houses (left picture). The families that lived near the market square were very religious and often had many children, making for a high density of residents. The Old Synagogue was close by and attended by a large number of very religious residents. Those in the Grabowka neighborhood had many shteibels and small prayer halls for worship.

With more and more Jewish residents moving to Tarnow and a population growth from the larger religious families, Jews grew to represent 40% of the total population. As the community enlarged, religious institutions like synagogues, learning centers and shteibels were established.

An infrastructure of Jewish communal institutions developed. In 1842, a Jewish hospital was opened in Tarnów. Later, it was replaced with a new larger building constructed next door (left picture courtesy of Yad Vashem) and the original building was used as an old age home. The finest physicians worked in the Jewish Hospital and ministered to both Jewish and non-Jewish residents.

In 1890, the Baron Hirsch Foundation established a second Jewish school in Tarnów. In the years between 1891-1893, Tarnów became a center for the Zionist movement and Zionist associations grew, and were especially popular among the young.

In 1904, a new three-story municipal bath which also contained a mikveh (ritual bath) designed by architects Franciszek Hackbail and Michał Mikoś, was built (right). A smaller mikveh was later built in the New Synagogue. In 1906, the orthodox faction of the Mizrachi organization was revived, which had already operated in Tarnów prior to 1884.

A grand new synagogue was built designed by Franciszek Dundaszek and Władysław Ekielski. The synagogue was called the New Synagogue or Franz Josef Synagogue, because it officially opened on the emperor’s birthday, in August, 1908. It was the most imposing Jewish building in the town and its cupola could be seen from a distance (left and attached image).

The growth of the Jewish population brought with it many changes. The gap between the two extremes, very observant Jews and those who were experiencing an intellectual awakening known as Haskalah, widened during this period. In the late nineteenth century, the idea of emigration to Palestine was very much alive in Tarnów, especially among the younger generations. The Jewish community was ideologically diverse and included large numbers of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The economic differences between the Jewish population were great and were reflected in the neighborhoods where they lived. The western part of town included well-appointed stores and modern apartments on Krakowska Street. Well-to-do Jewish and Polish citizens lived side by side. In the central part of town, including Walowa Street, stores owned by Jews living nearby predominated. In the eastern part of the city, was the Grabowka neighborhood, including Lwowska Street, where poorer and more religious Jews lived on adjacent narrow streets and alleys.

A more comprehensive educational system for Jewish children was developed after the turn of the century. Jewish schools were established so that children did not have to attend public school. Religious students had challenges attending secular schools because of classes on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Anti-Semitism from the teachers and students remained an issue for all Jewish students.

In 1910, the Safa Berura Association was created which founded a Zionistic co-ed school that emphasized Hebrew, Polish language, Polish history, literature and mathematics (left building). The head of the school was also president of the Jewish orphanage and some of the orphans attended the school on scholarship. In the same building was a community library with a collection of 20,000 books in Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish and German. Religious boys were educated in Yeshivas. There was no formalized Jewish education system for religious girls until 1922, when a Beis Yaacov school was established.

Tarnów’s dynamic development as an industrial center during the interwar period contributed to a significant growth in the town’s Jewish population. Significant number of the Jewish population were among the town's cultural and intellectual elite. They were members of local municipal committees, lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers and entrepreneurs. However, most Jews were poor. At this time, Tarnów had grown to the fourth largest Jewish community in Galicia. There is no doubt that antipathy and an anti-Semitic mood continued to exist among the non-Jewish lower classes.

During the interwar period, Tarnów was famous for its industries and many factories thrived. The hat-making industry was well established, with companies owned by Zylbersztejn, Klajn and Kinberg and Wajs. These firms exported their products to countries as far away as the Balkans. Clothing manufacturing was also very developed. Many Jewish residents were involved in the sale of clothing through commercial establishments or more humble carts set up in urban spaces in Tarnow.

The marketplace around the Rynek (central square) was used for local commerce and carts and stalls were set up by Jewish businessmen for trade (left picture). Tarnow served as an economic center since many rural residents from surrounding small towns and farms used its stores and marketplaces to buy goods and clothing.

Jews continued to thrive and by 1938, they made up half of Tarnów’s population. Jewish religious and cultural life was robust and included more than thirty synagogues and houses of prayer, religious schools, social clubs and sports clubs. All of that was soon to change with the events of 1939 and the German occupation.