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Hella and Harry Lederer with Family Members at their Wedding, Warsaw, Poland 30.12.1934
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Hella and Harry Lederer with Family Members at their Wedding, Warsaw, Poland 30.12.1934


Hella and Harry Lederer with family members at their wedding, Warsaw, Poland 30.12.1934. 
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU - Museum of the Jewish People, courtesy of Phyllis Treger, Israel.

Photo period:
30th of December, 1934
Photo period:
30th of December, 1934
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Polish: Warszawa
Yiddish: ווארשע (Varshe)

Warsaw was the capital of Poland between 1596 and 1794 and after 1918. It is located on the Vistula River.


Poland as a whole has experienced a Jewish revival and an unprecedented interest, both by those with and without Jewish heritage, in Jewish life. Nowhere is this renewed interest in Jews and Judaism more apparent than in Warsaw. A number of organizations serve the religious, cultural, and educational needs of Warsaw's Jewish community, and the Jewish Community of Warsaw is responsible for the administration of Jewish communities throughout Poland.

The Jewish Community of Warsaw, the official organizing body of Warsaw's Jewish community and also has branches in the affiliated communities of Lublin, Bialystok, and Bydgoszcz, is one of seven members of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. It is responsible for the administration and upkeep of heritage sites (including cemeteries and former synagogues), as well as coordinating a variety of social and cultural activities. The Jewish Community of Warsaw is run by a board of 7 members, who are elected by the community every four years; Anna Chipczynska served as the community's president in 2016. Anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, or who has undergone a Reform or Orthodox conversion, is eligible to become a member of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. As of 2014 the Community had 640 members, out of an estimated 3,500 Jews living in Warsaw.

In addition to the Jewish Community of Warsaw, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Warsaw hosts events and social activities for those interested in Jewish culture. Programs offered by the JCC include breakfasts, children's activities, family workshops, and lectures. Another cultural touchstone is the Ester Rachel Kaminska and Ida Kaminska State Jewish Theater, named in honor of two of the most famous Yiddish stage actresses, performs plays in Yiddish and Polish. It is the country's only remaining Jewish theater.

Polish Jews interested in news about the Jewish community of Poland, or in Jewish stories from around the world, can subscribe to Midrasz (pronounced "Midrash"), a monthly magazine based out of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. As a publication serving a minority community in Poland, Midrasz is subsidized by the government. Another publication serving the Jewish community is the Yiddish-Polish newsletter Slawozidowske/Dos Yiddishe Vort.

Religious life in Warsaw is small but vibrant. Before World War II there were over 400 synagogues in Warsaw alone; of these, the Nozyk Family Synagogue, which was originally built in 1902, is the only synagogue in Warsaw to have survived World War II. In addition to the Orthodox services held at the Nozyk Synagogue, progressive services are offered on Shabbat and Jewish holidays at Ec Chaim, located on 53 Aleje Jerozolimskie Street, and Beit Warszawa, located on 113 Wiertnicza Street.

The Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, which was originally opened in 1806, has remained open and functioning. The cemetery contains approximately 250,000 tombstones, making it the second-largest Jewish cemetery in Poland. Another Jewish cemetery in the Brodno district was founded in 1780 and is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. Though it was heavily damaged by the Nazis, it has undergone extensive renovations so that it can be reopened to the public.

The Lauder-Morasha school, which was originally established in 1989, offers a Jewish and secular education for students ages three to sixteen (another branch of the school is located in Wroclaw). Many of the school's students are not Jewish, but whose parents were drawn to the high-quality education. Additionally, the Polish Jewish Youth Organization offers activities for youth and young adults ages 16 through 35 who wish to explore and connect to Jewish history and traditions.

Another organization promoting Jewish culture and heritage is the Shalom Foundation, which focuses on Yiddish language and culture. The Shalom Foundation administers the Center of Yiddish Culture in Warsaw's Muranow District, as well as the Jewish Open University and the Third Age University. It also organizes the Singer's Warsaw Jewish Culture Festival, dedicated to Isaac Bashevis Singer and featuring the works of major Yiddish literary and cultural figures. Meanwhile, Hebraicists can learn Hebrew at the Professor Moses Schorr Foundation, the largest Hebrew language school in Poland.

In addition to offering activities and programming for the contemporary Jewish community, Warsaw has a number of institutions and monuments testifying to its place in Jewish history, and the destruction of its vibrant Jewish community during the Holocaust. Important archives can be found at the Jewish Historical Institute, located on 3 Tlomackie Street (including some of the Ringelblum Archives) as well as a Department of Geneology. The Institute hosts temporary exhibitions, and includes a library and reading rooms where visitors can conduct their own research. Another historical institution is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews-POLIN, located on 6 Anielewicz Street. The Museum opened on April 19, 2013, making it one of the newer places of Jewish interest in Warsaw. In addition to the exhibits detailing the history and richness of Jewish life in Poland, the museum also hosts educational and cultural events.

When the Warsaw Ghetto stood during World War II, a bridge ran over Chlodna Street (which was not part of the ghetto) that connected two sections of the Ghetto, in order to maintain a strict separation between the Ghetto and the Aryan part of the city. The site is marked by a memorial, "Footbridge of Memory." Additionally, a fragment of the Warsaw Ghetto wall can be found on 55 Sienna Street. The Umschlagplatz, where Jews were sent to wait before being deported to concentration and death camps, is also marked with a memorial. It is located on 10 Stawki Street.

Other Holocaust memorials in Warsaw include a memorial marking the location where the members of the Jewish Combat Organization, led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, were killed at the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The memorial was erected in 1946 and is located on what was originally 18 Mila Street, now 3 Mila Street. Another monument to those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is located on 10 Ludwik Zamenhof Street. The Path of Remembrance includes 15 monuments that memorialize many of the major figures from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Both the Association of Children of the Holocaust and Second Generation-Children of the Holocaust Survivors work to connect those who were affected by the Holocaust to their heritage; the Association also cares for Polish Righteous Among the Nations. The Association of Children of the Holocaust works with people who survived the Holocaust as children, many of whom have never met their biological parents (who were killed during the war), and may be continuing to hide their Jewish identity, even from friends and family. Second Generation works with the children of these survivors, many of whom grew up never knowing about their Jewish heritage and who otherwise had to deal with the trauma their parents lived through. Meanwhile, the Association of Jewish Veterans and World War II Survivors, which was established in 1991, works on behalf of veterans and victims of the Second World War, and hosts yearly commemorations of the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODZ) works to preserve remnants of Jewish life throughout Poland, with a focus on communities that are difficult to reach, or that are far from any existing Jewish communities. The FODZ focuses its efforts on marking, rehabilitating, and preserving cemeteries, but also works to refurbish former synagogue buildings and runs a variety of educational programs and conferences.

Many of the aforementioned organizations are supported by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an American organization that was founded in 1914 and has operated almost continuously in Poland since 1918.


The first documented evidence of a Jewish presence in Warsaw dates to 1414, though it is highly likely that they had been there long before. They were expelled, however, in 1455, 1483, and 1498, and in 1527 King Sigismund granted Warsaw a royal privilege that permitted the city to bar Jewish residence. Jews were permitted to return to Warsaw temporarily, and to stay in the city while the Sejm (Parliament) was in session. Jewish representatives (shtadlanim) of the Councils of the Four Lands, who were empowered to negotiate with royalty and the nobility, were also allowed to visit Warsaw, while a number of other Jews without official positions were also able to obtain authorization to enter the city temporarily even when the Sejm was not meeting.

Clearly the residence restrictions were largely ineffective, though it did serve to keep Warsaw's Jewish population relatively low. In 1792 there were 6,750 Jews living in Warsaw (9.7% of the total population).

In spite of the relatively small number of Jews living in Warsaw, the city's Christian residents were not happy about their presence; organized anti-Jewish riots took place in 1775 and 1790. At one point, on May 16, 1790 a major riot broke out when the Jews were accused of killing an anti-Semitic tailor named Fux; though the tailor was found shortly after his disappearance and the Jewish community paraded him through the streets to demonstrate that he was unharmed, it did not quell the violence and destruction. Generally speaking, anti-Semitism was rife during this period and Jews who lived in Warsaw, whether legally or illegally, were subject to anti-Jewish violence and restrictions.


After the First Partition of Poland in 1772 the Jews of Warsaw, particularly those from the lower socioeconomic classes, fought in the Polish struggle against the Russians and many joined the Jewish legion led by Berek Joselewicz. In retaliation, Russian troops massacred the Jewish civilian population. It was only after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795 and the establishment of Prussian rule that the Jews of Warsaw experienced significant improvements to their quality of life. Though the Jews were still subject to a number of economic and residence restrictions, the Prussians recognized the authority of the Jewish community and granted it legal status in 1796. Beginning in 1802, residence restrictions against the Jews were repealed, and they could live in Warsaw freely and legally. This was met with resistance by the city's Christians; in response, Prussian authorities sought to implement an edict that would restrict where Jews could live in Warsaw for two years. However, Napoleon's defeat of Prussia shortly after this edict was proposed, and his establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw, rendered any proposed changes to the Jews' legal status moot.

DUCHY OF WARSAW (1807-1813)

A legal issue arose after the formation of the Duchy of Warsaw. While the duchy's constitution, which was based on the ideals of the French Revolution, should have granted the Jews equal citizenship rights, such a result would have been unacceptable to the Poles. As a result, in 1808 the "infamous decree" was issued, which postponed granting the Jews civil rights for ten years. In the meantime, the Jews of Warsaw were subject to paying heavy taxes. A Jewish Quarter was established, with restrictions on which Jews were permitted to reside there. Conditions for residence included wearing European-style clothing, the ability to read and write Polish, German, or French, and sending any children to general schools. Jews who were permitted to live in the Jewish Quarter also had to be of a certain economic class, and to be employed in one of a list of specific occupations. As a result of these restrictions the Jewish population of Warsaw declined, and in 1813 there were 8,000 Jews living in the city, mostly in the north, down from 14,600 in 1810.

In spite of these restrictions, the Warsaw kehilla (governing body of the official Jewish community) was able to expand its authority. From the time of Prussian rule until the establishment of the duchy the kehilla appointed a parnas to direct the administration f taxes, established prayer houses, and organized charitable association. During the period when it operated within the Duchy, the kehilla extended its power, becoming not just a local institution but a powerful and far-reaching organization.

It was during this period that a number of Jewish families were able to make significant economic advances and became major players in the world of banking. Prominent baking families included the Frankls, Epsteins, Laskis, and Kronenbergs.


Beginning in 1815 Warsaw became the capital of the Kingdom of Poland (informally known as the Congress of Poland), which was led by the Russian czar. Warsaw became a major political and cultural center, and both the Jewish and general population ballooned; the Jewish population rose from 15,600 in 1816 (12.2% of the total population) to 72,800 in 1864 (32.7%). In fact, during the period of the Kingdom of Poland the Jewish community of Warsaw became the largest Jewish community in Europe.

In addition to growing larger, during this period the Jewish community also became increasingly diverse. Chasidism spread to Warsaw during the second half of the 18th century, though many Jews remained opposed to the movement. Though the Misnagdim (those opposed to Chasidism) were in control of the kehilla at the beginning of the 19th century, the balance of power shifted to the Chasidim in 1847, and by 1880 the vast majority of Warsaw's 300 synagogues were Chasidic. The Chasidim, however, were balanced by the influx of Litvak Jews (Jews from greater historical Lithuania), many of whom were Misnagdim, who arrived in Warsaw from the Pale of Settlement after 1868.

Additionally, maskilim (proponents of the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment) were a small but visible presence within Warsaw's Jewish community. Many of these maskilim attended services in the synagogue on Danilowiczowska Street (which was given the—not quite affectionate—nickname of "Di Daytshe Shul," "The German Synagogue"), which was established in 1802 by Isaac Flatau, a Jewish immigrant from Berlin. The synagogue distinguished itself in that the rabbi delivered his sermons in German (and, beginning in the 1850s, in Polish). The maskilim also established the Warsaw Rabbinic Seminary in 1826, which was led by the maskil Anton Eisenbaum and which sought to ordain maskilic rabbis who would spread the ideals and values of the Haskalah throughout the country. The seminary was affiliated with another progressive synagogue located on Nalewski Street (founded in 1852), was affiliated with the school. The Great Synagogue joined the group of maskilic synagogues when it was consecrated in 1878.

In addition to the Chasidim, Misnagdim, Polish Jews, Litvaks, and maskilim, other Jews, particularly those from the highest socioeconomic classes, were in favor of assimilation, and some even converted. Ultimately, however, the vast majority of Jews living in Warsaw, were religiously observant and spoke Yiddish; at the turn of the 20th century 87.3% of Warsaw's Jews spoke Yiddish.

Warsaw's Jewish schools attested both to the community's traditionalism, as well as its diversity. In the middle of the 19th century 90% of school-age Jewish children of school age attended a traditional cheder. Individuals associated with the Chovevei Zion movement established Warsaw's first cheder metukkan in 1885. There were three state schools for Jewish children that were running 1820, but this educational format ran into Orthodox opposition, which curbed its further development.

A number of religious, cultural, and social organizations were established in Warsaw during this period, also reflecting the diversity of the city's Jewish population. Zionism began to become popular, and many of the organizations that were active in Warsaw became instrumental in establishing what would later become major cities in the State of Israel. A number of socialist and workers' organizations were also active, and many merged at the end of the 19th century to become the Bund movement.

Jews continued to play an important role in the financial, commercial, and industrial sectors of the city. Seventeen of the 20 bankers in Warsaw in 1847 were Jews. Jewish bankers helped develop various industries, and worked on important national projects such as the construction of railroads; they also held the monopoly on the sale of salt and alcohol. Jews were also major players in the textile, clothing, and tobacco industries, and made up the majority of Warsaw's artisans.

Culturally, Warsaw became a publishing hub, and following are only a few examples of the numerous daily and weekly newspapers published in various languages and representing the wide variety of religious and ideological viewpoints. The first Yiddish-Polish weekly was Der Beobakhter an der Weykhsel, which was published from 1823 to 1824 by Anton Eisenbaum. The weekly Izraelita, an assimilationist paper, was published from 1866 until 1915. Another population niche was served by the cantor Jona Simces, who edited the Yiddish newspaper The World of Hazanim, in addition to working as a Hebrew teacher, school principal, and the vice chairman of the Association of Cantors and Conductors. Another notable literary development was the establishment of a circle of Yiddish writers in the 1890s, led by the writer Y.L Peretz.


Thousands of refugees arrived in Warsaw during World War I; as a result, by 1917 there were 343,000 Jews living in the city (41% of the total population). Though the influx of refugees and the chaos unleashed by the war strained the local population, the German occupation of Warsaw from August 1915 until November 1918 actually improved the social and political conditions of the city's Jews.

During the German occupation a Jewish private school system was created that would later form the foundation of the Zionist, Bundist, and Orthodox school networks that sprung up after the First World War. A number of Jewish newspapers that had previously been banned were reestablished. Poles and Jews proved more willing than they had previously to work together politically.

After the war, during the period of renewed Polish independence (1918-39) the Jewish population of Warsaw continued to grow. Warsaw was once again appointed as the state capital, and attracted people from around the country seeking various opportunities, particularly in the wake of the economic depression that set in after the end of the war. In 1921 the Jewish population of Warsaw was 310,000. Ten years later that number had grown to 352,000. On the eve of World War II there were 375,000 Jews living in Warsaw.

During the interwar period Yiddish and Polish writing flourished, and Warsaw became home to prominent writers, including Israel Joshua Singer (the older brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who also began his literary career in Warsaw), Sholem Asch, and Julian Tuwim. The Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists was established in 1916, a year after the death of Y.L Peretz. It functioned as a trade union and offered the city's Yiddish writers a place to meet and engage in literary discussions.

Jewish arts also flourished. Ida Kaminska, the daughter of the famous Yiddish actress Esther Rokhl Kaminska, founded the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater with Zygmunt Turkow, and Michal Weichert founded the Yung-teater (Young Theater). Both theaters staged Yiddish plays, as well as works by playwrights such as Shakespeare, Moliere, and Eugene O'Neill in Yiddish translation. A number of Jewish actors also worked in the Polish theater, and Jews participated in both the Polish and Yiddish cabaret culture.

Nonetheless, life became increasingly difficult for the Jews of Warsaw after the death of Josef Pilsudski in 1935. Official and informal anti-Semitism rose significantly. Jewish shops were boycotted, and anti-Jewish riots broke out. Poland was suffering economically during this period, and with rampant anti-Semitism, the number of economic opportunities open to Polish Jews was small; indeed, the number of Jewish unemployed reached 34.4% in 1931. Sensing they had no future in Poland, many Jews began immigrating.


When German forces entered the city on September 29, 1939, there were 393,950 Jews living in Warsaw, comprising about one-third of the city's population. Between October 1939 and January 1940 the German authorities issued a series of anti-Jewish measures against the Jewish population, culminating in the establishment of a ghetto in 1940 to segregate the Jews of Warsaw as well as those from the surrounding areas.

Approximately 500,000 Jews lived in the Ghetto, sealed off from the rest of the city by a wall. A Judenrat, led by Adam Czerniakow, was established to coordinate the Ghetto's activities. The Jewish Self-Help Organization was another administrative organization that was established in the Ghetto; it was loosely affiliated with the Judenrat, but was mostly able to function independently. The Self-Help Organization was funded in large part by the JDC, and aided those segments of the population (such as refugees and children) were considered to be less desirable by the Nazis, and so could not be helped by the organizations that worked more closely with the Nazis. The Self-Help Organization also helped fund the activities of Oyneg Shabes, an underground archive led by Emanuel Ringelblum that gathered materials and conducted interviews for the purpose of chronicling life in the Ghetto. The archive ultimately collected and buried their materials in tin containers and milk cans in various locations; after the war all but one of these caches were found.
It is estimated that by the summer of 1942 over 100,000 Jews died in the Ghetto as a result of overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Nonetheless, the Ghetto's residents attempted to retain a sense of normalcy. A network of schools, both religious and secular, as well as trade schools functioned in the Ghetto; yeshivas tended to operate secretly as a result of the prohibition against public worship. Religious Jews met for underground religious services and cultural activities such as reading groups, lectures, and musical performances were organized.

Cultural organizations could also function as resistance groups. The activities of Oyneg Shabes and the secret archive they established was a form of quiet resistance to the Nazi attempt to destroy Jewish life. Zionist and socialist organizations were often more direct in the forms of their resistance. Groups such as Po'alei Zion, Ha-Shomer ha-Tza'ir, Dror, Betar, Gordonia, as well as the Bund and the communist-inspired Spartakus organization formed much of the ghetto's political underground. They engaged in activities such as disseminating information, collecting documents that evidenced German crimes, sabotaging German factories, and preparing for armed resistance. The first Jewish military underground organization, Swit, was formed in December 1939 by Jewish veterans of the Polish Army, many of whom identified as Revisionist Zionists. A series of illegal newspapers were published in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish.

Deportations began on July 22, 1942; three days later Adam Czerniakow, committed suicide rather than cooperate with the Nazis in the deportations. For the next seven weeks between 2,000 and 10,000 Jews were rounded up daily and taken from the Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. Some reported voluntarily to the Umschlagplatz for deportation, lured by the sight of food which the Germans offered to the volunteers, and the hope that their transfer "east" meant that they could regain some semblance of a normal life. In total, nearly 350,000 Jews died in the three deportation waves of July-September 1942, January 1943, and April-May 1943. Additionally, more than 10,000 were shot or otherwise killed during the roundups, 12,000 were sent to work as slave laborers, and 20,000 escaped to the Aryan side of the city.

In response to the first round of deportations, the leaders of the underground movements created the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ZOB) and managed to secure some weapons from the Polish underground; the Revisionist Zionists, meanwhile, created the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, ZZW). On January 18, 1943, when the second round of deportations began, the ZOB began a campaign of armed resistance against the Nazis, which turned into four days of street fighting. Deportations were halted until April 1943.

In the meantime, the underground organizations regrouped and prepared for armed resistance in response to any further attempts to liquidate the ghetto. Mordecai Anielewicz became the leader of the ZOB. On April 19, 1943 a German force, equipped with tanks and artillery, entered the ghetto in order to resume the deportations and met with stiff resistance from the Jewish fighters. Despite overwhelmingly superior forces, the Germans were forced to retreat and suffered heavy losses. The street fighting lasted for several days, at which point the Germans began systematically burning down the houses. The Jewish fighting groups continued their attacks until May 8, 1943, when the ZOB headquarters fell to the Germans. Over a hundred fighters, including Anielewicz, died during this final battle. On May 16, 1943 the Nazis reported the complete liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. To mark this victory the Nazis blew up the synagogue on Tlomacka Street. Over the following months, the Germans came into the empty Ghetto and hunted down those who remained hiding in the ruins, often using fire to overcome the sporadic resistance that continued until August 1943. After the Ghetto's liquidation, the surviving members of the resistance continued their underground work on the Aryan side of Warsaw, mostly assisting Jews living on the Aryan side, either by helping them live in hiding, or providing them with forged documents.

When the Polish Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944 over 1,000 Jews in hiding immediately volunteered to fight against the Germans. Later, about 6,000 Jewish soldiers participated in the battle for the liberation of Warsaw. Warsaw's eastern suburb, Praga, was liberated in September 1944, and the main part of the city was liberated on January 17, 1945.


After the war, by the end of 1945 there were about 5,000 Jews living in Warsaw, a number that more than doubled when Polish Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union returned to the city. Many attempted to reestablish Jewish life; among the institutions and organizations that were reestablished right after the war were a Yiddish communist newspaper, Folks-shtime, the Kaminska Theater, the Jewish Historical Institute, and the Jewish Social and Cultural Society. However, many Jews began leaving Poland after a series of anti-Semitic pogroms and events, including the pogrom in Kielce in 1946, the pogroms of 1956, and after 1968 when the Polish government launched an official campaign of anti-Semitism. The vast majority of Jewish institutions ceased functioning, and by 1969 there were an estimated 5,000 Jews remaining in Warsaw.

On April 19, 1948, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a monument was unveiled commemorating those who fought in the uprising. Years later, in 1988 a memorial was unveiled in the Umschlagplatz, where the Jews were taken to wait before being put on cattle cars to concentration and death camps.

Beginning in 1989 Jewish life began to experience a revival. A Sunday School was organized at the Jewish Theater to provide Jewish children with a formal supplementary Jewish education. Programs and activities were also organized during the summers in order to introduce Polish Jewish children to Jewish life and culture, as well as to Jews from around the world. As time went on, Polish society began to become more open to, and interested in, Jews and Judaism, and Jews who remained in Poland sometimes became more willing to admit to their Jewishness.

In 1997 there were 8,000 Jews living in Poland, most of them in Warsaw. The Jewish Community of Warsaw was reestablished that year.