First Encounters (960–1500)

Jews arriving in Poland received a warm welcome from local rulers, who saw them as a way to modernize the economy. The legal rights and status of Polish Jews were defined by the famous Statute of Kalisz, a ducal privilege that guaranteed Jews freedom of religion, protection against false charges and the right to trade. Although acts of violence and blood libels did occur, on the whole persecution against Jews was on a much lesser scale in Poland than in the rest of Europe.

According to legend, Kazimierz the Great fell in love with Esterka, a beautiful Jewess, and hence looked with favor on the Jews. At the beginning, Jewish settlers established small colonies in the vicinity of strongholds, over time gradually moving into cities. By 1506, Jews lived in over one hundred settlements, forming organized Jewish communities in about half of them. As early as 1503, Jakub Polak was granted a royal privilege officially making him Poland’s first rabbi. This clearly indicated that the center of the Ashkenazi world had shifted east towards Poland, with the Golden Age of Jewish culture rapidly approaching.

In the First Encounters gallery, visitors will meet Ibrahim Ibn Yakub, a Jewish diplomat from Cordoba, the author of a well-known memoir recording his travels around Europe. One of the gallery’s most interesting artifacts is the first complete sentence written in Yiddish, preserved on the pages of a prayer book from 1272. An original Jewish bracteate – a one-sided coin – bearing Hebrew letters, will be the centerpiece of an interactive exhibit devoted to Jewish minters and the role of Jews in the development of the economy and currency in Poland.

Lead Historian: prof. Hanna Zaremska (Institute of History Polish Academy of Sciences).

The design and execution of the core exhibition was financed and overseen by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, thanks to the support of donors from all over the world.