Paradisus Iudaeorum (1569–1648)

The year 1569 saw the emergence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, made up of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Within this powerful and ethnically and religiously diverse state, the Jewish community grew strong in numbers, and its culture flourished. It was a Golden Age in the history of Polish Jews, lasting from the sixteenth to the first half of the seventeenth century.

During this period Jews enjoyed a high degree of autonomy: they had their own self-government, including the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratsot) – a phenomenon unique in Europe. Unlike in other countries, they experienced no mass religious persecution. On the contrary – they could develop their learning, print books, and sometimes even debate with Christian intellectuals. It is precisely at this time that prominent authorities on Jewish religious law lived and wrote. In the town of Kazimierz near Krakow, at the very heart of an influential Jewish community, the famous rabbi and thinker Moses Isserles, known as Remuh, wrote the Mappah, a collection of customs and religious precepts for Ashkenazi Jews. The second half of the sixteenth century brought yet another change: encouraged by the nobility, Jews began to settle on vast noble estates (latifundia) in the east of the country. They engaged in new activities: leasing inns, mills and breweries, trading in grain and cattle.

In the Paradisus Iudaeorum gallery, visitors will be able to view an interactive scale model of Krakow and nearby Kazimierz, presenting the rich culture of the local Jewish community. They will have the opportunity to browse through a Virtual Library, containing masterpieces of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in digital form, including the Talmud and other religious, philosophical and traditional works. They will also be able to print by hand the title page of a sixteenth-century volume, and peek into a chest containing the most important items for a Jewish community. They will explore a large map of Jewish settlement in the Commonwealth, and will find out what religious tolerance meant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and why Poland came to be known as “Paradisus Iudaeorum” – a Jewish paradise.

Lead Historian: prof. Adam Teller (Brown University) – until March 2010, dr. hab. Igor Kąkolewski (University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn)

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.