Jewish Neighborhoods: Warsaw

Jewish history in Poland stretches back 1,000 years, and in Warsaw, back to the Middle Ages with Yiddish cultural production reaching a peak in the early twentieth century. In the early fifteenth century, the first documented wave of Jews immigrated to Warsaw from Western Europe. Upon arrival, they encountered antisemitism from Christian bourgeoise, leading to their expulsion from Warsaw by the monarchy. Over the years, Jews gradually returned to the city intent on rebuilding their communities. Many lived in Warsaw's jurydyki, private neighborhoods outside of Polish authority. Soon they had grown into a thriving Jewish community with markets, restaurants, and factories along Nalewki street. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Warsaw Jewish community was the largest in Europe.  

Yiddish cultural production in Warsaw was especially active in the period between World War I and World War II when Jews reached nearly 30% of the total population. Warsaw-based newspapers like Haynt, Folks-tsaytung, and Yudishe togblat served Yiddish-speakers across the political spectrum. Writers such as Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Markish Peretz played an important role in the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists. I.L. Peretz transformed his home into a salon for Yiddish writers to gather. Theatrical ventures formed in the city— Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater, the New Warsaw Yiddish Theater, and Yung-theater—founded by internationally renowned performers Zygmunt Tyrkow, Ester-Rokhl, Ida Kaminska, and Michał Weichert.  

This generative period was cut short in the fall of 1940, when Nazi authorities confined the local Jewish population in the Warsaw Ghetto and sent hundreds of thousands to forced-labor camps and to their deaths at the nearby Treblinka extermination camp. The suppression of Jewish life during the Holocaust was not met without resistance. Religious Jews took part in services held in secret at Rabbi Szapiro’s house, and Emanuel Ringelblum organized the Oneg Shabbos archive to save Yiddish literature and document Jewish life in the ghetto. Others joined fighter groups like the Jewish Combat Organization and Jewish Military Union, culminating in the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. After the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943, those who survived were sent to forced labor and death camps. According to Yad VaShem, out of a population of 3.3 million Jews in Poland before the war, only 380,000 survived the Holocaust. 

After World War II, surviving Jews formed communal organizations to provide legal, educational, social, and cultural services.  Today, organizations—such as Centrum Kultury Jidysz and Fundacja Shalom—continue to cultivate Yiddish language and culture in Warsaw. Yiddish has a significant presence in the world-renowned POLIN museum.  Yiddish and is central to a growing community of activists, translators, scholars and artists in Poland. 

Enjoy the clips below, and for more stories like these, you can browse our YouTube playlist of Warsaw stories.

Historical Polish-Jewish Relations

Attorney and Warsaw native Emile Karafiol, z”l (1935–2019), explains how Jews historically interacted with non-Jews in Eastern Europe and Warsaw in particular.

Remembering a Poor Jewish Home

Chana Szlang Gonshor, z”l (1919–2021), describes her childhood home in Warsaw and the activities of Jewish youth organizations that were a haven to impoverished children.

My Favorite Teacher and the Ringelblum Archives

Moshe Shklar, z”l (1920–2014), Yiddish poet born in Poland, remembers the role his favorite teacher, Israel Lichtenstein, played in the Oneg Shabbos archive, an underground organization to save literature in the Warsaw Ghetto.

My Escape from the Warsaw Ghetto

Henryk Robak, a native Yiddish speaker, remembers his time living in the Warsaw Ghetto and how he escaped.

Postwar Yiddish Theater

Yiddish actress and activist Shura Grinhoyz-Turkow, z”l (1925–2020), describes the State Jewish Theater in postwar Warsaw, directed by the great Ida Kaminska.

Studying Jewish History in Poland

Anna Rozenfeld, Yiddish artist and activist based in Poland, explains how Poland’s Jewish community has grown and become more open over the last few decades.