As the Jews began moving out of Spain to many countries in western Europe, the more fortunate ones discovered Poland and Lithuania and enjoyed a tolerance unknown by the Jews in other parts of medieval Europe. In 1264, Boleslaw the Pious (the Duke of Greater Poland) issued the Statute of Kalisz, thereby allowing Jews to:
- settle in Poland
- freely practice Judaism
- enjoy governmental protection from harm
- engage and prosper in various occupations
Later rulers such as Casimir the Great in Poland (1334) and Vytautas in Lithuania (1388-1389), issued similar decrees. In 1385, Poland and Lithuania formed a de-facto union and in 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was officially established. According to present-day borders, this included not only all of Poland and Lithuania, but also all of Belarus, Moldova, most of Ukraine and portions of Latvia, Estonia and the western border of Russia. Poland’s political and cultural prominence resulted in the in the commonwealth eventually being simply referred to as Poland.
Life for the Jews in western Europe at this time, however, was one of persecution and expulsion. The Jews were expelled from country after country:
- 1290 England
- 1306 France
- 1349 Hungary
- 1420 Austria
- 1492 Spain (the Inquisition)
Other European countries expelled their Jewish populations as well and most fled to Poland and Lithuania. Although the Jews in Germany were not expelled, persecution caused them to flee Germany from the 11th – 14th centuries. Many Sephardic Jews from Italy and Turkey flocked to Poland in the 16th century. By the 16th century, Poland had come to be known as the “paradise of the Jews.” Despite the growing Jewish population in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was very little antisemitism during this time period. The 1764 census reveals that 750,000 of the estimated 1.2 million Jews in the world were living in Poland. Poland was truly used by God to preserve the Jewish people for at least five centuries.
Next: Phase 4 (Part 1): Life in the Russian Empire (1772—1881)