The Jewish community of Ostrów from the 18th to the 20th century
The first Jews came to Ostrów in 1717 due to Jan Jerzy Przebendowski, the owner of the town. The Jewish community, however, was organized in 1724 on the basis of the privilege granted by J.J Przebendowski on the 26th September 1724. The privilege allowed 12 Jewish families to live and trade in Ostrów. They were appointed a separate town zone where they could build their houses, a synagogue, and a cemetery. The first synagogue in Ostrów was a small wooden building, built soon after the community was established. Next to the synagogue another building was erected; initially it housed a small hospital, later it became a rabbi”s house. The first Jewish cemetery of Ostrów was used in years 1724-1780. A new cemetery was located outside the town centre (today”s Aleje Słowackiego –Słowacki Avenue) in September 1780.
In the middle of the 18th century Ostrów was inhabited by a few dozens of Jews who in 1770 owned 23 houses in the area of the town. In 1779 the number of Jews increased to 158 people among whom there were mainly merchants, tailors, furriers as well as two doctors.
Jacob Ben Jicchak ha-Levi Lande, an expert of Talmud, was the first rabbi in Ostrów who served here in years 1773-1787. It is worth mentioning that among his followers there were Israel Meir Freimann (after whom one of Ostrów”s streets was named), Elias Plessner, as well as Leopold Neuhaus, engaged in Jewish associations of Ostrów.
When due to the Second Partition of Poland Ostrów was taken over by Prussians, the first Prussian census in 1794 showed that there were 381 Jews out of 2,541 inhabitants. The most numerous professional group among them were tailors. During the period of the Duchy of Warsaw Ostrów was inhabited by 40 families. The Jewish population of Ostrów was increasing rapidly to reach 1,205 people in 1848. There were mainly merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen. For some time the number of Jews in Ostrów decreased since a great number of them left the town because of Polish-German fights during the European Revolutions of 1848 (Spring of Nations). Then, the Jewish population was systematically increasing until 1861 when it reached its highest number of 1,919 people, which was one third of the total number of Ostrów”s population.
In 1835 a two-class Jewish elementary school was established and located in a two-storey brick building erected specially for its needs in 1841. On 7th April 1857 in Ostrów a foundation stone was laid for a new synagogue. Its builder was Moritz Lande, born in Ostrów, a descendant of the first rabbi of Ostrów Wielkopolski. Built in Moorish Revival style, the synagogue was finished in 1860 and became one of the most splendid buildings in the town. In 1872 the building witnessed a tragedy which happened on the day of Jom Kipur. Due to a shortage in supply of gas, which was used to light up the synagogue, there was a panic as a result of which 19 people were trampled to death.
In Ostrów the Jews got education at the Royal Catholic High School. In years 1849-1919 about 200 Jews graduated the school with school leaving certificates. Among the most prominent graduates of the high school there were:
- Professor Dr. Aron Freimann, a prominent historian and archivist, the author of the extensive collection of Hebraica and Judaica in the Municipal Library in Frankfurt upon Main, the author of the first Jewish bibliography, the author of the first Jewish bibliography „Geschichte der israelitischen Gemeinde Ostrowo”
- Hermann Galewski, the head of the Baghdad Railway,
- Aron Heppner, Th.D., a historian, a rabbi in Koźmin and Wrocław (Breslau), a prominent historian and archivist, the author of the extensive work „Aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Juden und der jüdischen Gemeinden in den
Posener Landen” devoted to the history of Jews from Greater Poland.
- Heimann Kottek, Th.D., a historian, a rabbi in Bad Homburg, the author of the extensive work „Geschichte der Juden” describing the history of Jews from post biblical times to the beginning of the 20th century
- Hugo Landé, a lawyer, an attorney, a prominent politician of German SPD, the president of Düsseldorf,
- Otto Landsberg, a lawyer and a German politician (SPD), elected to the Reichstag, the Minister of Justice, a negotiator of the Treaty of Versailles, a German MP in Brussels;
- Martin Peltasohn, a lawyer and a German politician, a fighter of German Jews” rights;
- Max Spiro, a head of the Voluntary Fire Brigade in Ostrów, a historian of firefighting in Ostrów.
Apart from the abovementioned graduates of the high school, from Ostrów also came:
- Professor Dr. Adolf Gerstmann, an expert in the field of theatre, a writer and a translator in Berlin and Stuttgart
- Joseph Krauskopf, a rabbi, a social and political activist in the USA, an advisor of American presidents,
- Dawid Landé, a merchant and entrepreneur in Łódź, a forerunner of industry in Poland,
- Moritz Landé, an architect, a builder of the synagogue in Ostrów Wielkopolski and the Jewish cemetery in Berlin,
- Thekla Landé, a German politician, a social activist, a fighter of women”s rights, a councillor in the town of Elberfeld
- Felix Priebatsch, a historian, a bookseller and a publisher in Wrocław (Breslau), a researcher of the history of Silesia
- Leopold Priebatsch, a founder of a publishing house in Wrocław (Breslau),
- Hermine Schildberger, a German writer and poet, engaged in defending the good name of inhabitants of Ostrów,
- Elfriede Spiro, the wife of Professor Emilo Segré – a co-originator of the atomic bomb, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1959).
Apart from trading, Jews living in Ostrów were also active in local social and political initiatives. At the turn of the 20th century Jewish population had its representatives among local authorities. In Ostrów there were also many Jewish associations and organizations aimed at helping the poor and developing cultural life. Moreover, there was „Egerloge” („Eger” lodge) operating in the town.
At the end of the 19th century in Ostrów the number of Jewish population was decreasing slowly due to emigrations to western Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish population was less than 10% of the total number of Ostrów”s inhabitants. After WWI most Jews moved to Germany, mainly to big cities (Breslau, Berlin). Some of them became activist in „Verein Heimattreuer Ostrowoer”, an organization which brought together Germans and Jews that used to live in Ostrów. A magazine „Ostrowoer Heimat-Zeitung” was published then, as well.
During the interwar period only a few dozens of Jews stayed in Ostrów and had no permanent rabbi. They were chandlers and craftsmen. When WWII started, there were only 66 Jews living in Ostrów.
After Ostrów Wielkopolski was taken over by the German army in September 1939, the synagogue was converted into a warehouse. In the spring of 1940 the Jews from Ostrów were deported to a ghetto in Łódź. Most of them were murdered there and in an extermination camp in Chełmno upon the Ner River. During the occupation Nazis completely destroyed an old Jewish quarter in Ostrów Wielkopolski (so-called Zielony Rynek – Green Market), including the remains of the first Jewish cemetery. The extensive Jewish cemetery in Słowacki Avenue was also destroyed and in its place Germans started to cultivate plants. Pieces of broken matzevas were used for building a small wall surrounding a park at Zielony Rynek.
After WWII the synagogue served as a furniture warehouse for a number of years. Later on it was deteriorating systematically. It was not until 2006 when the town of Ostrów Wielkopolski could buy the synagogue from the Jewish community in Wrocław (Breslau). As a result of the agreement, local authorities agreed to renovate the synagogue and to build two lapidaria in the sites where Jewish cemeteries used to be located.
In 2007 the Association of Friends of Ostrów Synagogue was established and its aim is not only to research the history of Jews from Ostrów, but also to contact their descendants as well as to create a lobby for renovating the synagogue. The association has already published two volumes of Studia Iudaica Ostroviensia – Studia Judaica of Ostrów – which include a number of articles devoted to the history of Jews in Ostrów (the first volume was published in 2007, the second one in 2009).
For a few recent years Ostrów has been visited by Bettina Landé-Tergeist, a descendant of the first Ostrów”s rabbi (Jacob ben Jicchak ha-Levi Lande) and of the constructor of the synagogue (Moritz Lande). Bettina Landé-Tergeist was also one of the originators and founders of the Association of Friends of Ostrów Synagogue.
On 6th October 2011 the restored synagogue of Ostrów Wielkopolski was officially opened. The ceremony was attended by Bettina Landé-Tergeist and James Landé, the descendants of the constructor of the synagogue, and by Dr. Edward Luft.