A Facebook post by K’amila Klausinska brought to my attention the anniversary of the Kalisz Statute of 1264, the first official law giving the Jews of that town and region explicit privileges to live and do commerce. This is of interest to me because my great-grand mother was born in Kalisz, other family members came from the towns of Zdunska Wola and Warta nearby, and because of my interest in Jewish history.
The statute, signed by Prince Bolesław the Pious was later endorsed by Casimir the Great and then confirmed by subsequent rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August being the last of them (Source). The Jews of Kalisz, many of whom had originally fled the Rhineland area, are said to have helped draft the Statute (Source.) This fact highlights the complexity of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, balancing a close-knit way of life with limited interactions with the Christian communities in the host country. Jewish leadership strongly controlled Jewish life, including the power to judge members of the community according to its own code of laws. At the same time, it was necessary to abide by the laws of the host society, the so-called “laws of the Realm” (A History of the Jewish People, p.490)
The Jewish Community generally accepted the King’s law in matters between the King and its subjects, but used Jewish law in matters pertaining to the Community. Not an easy balancing act… The Kings and noblemen relied on the Jews to procure foreign goods they wanted, using connections with other Jewish communities in the Diaspora. At the same time, these noblemen limited Jewish economic activities in order to protect local guilds. The Kalisz Statute enabled Jewish communities in Poland to find a relative level of stability that enabled them to flourish over the next 650 years, reaching 3 million souls before World War II.
By the way, the wonderful illustration in this post is from a collection of illuminations created by Artur Szyk (June 16, 1894 – September 13, 1951), a brilliant Jewish illustrator born in Łódź, Poland. You can see more on Szyk’s Judaica work here. You can see translated excerpts of the Kalisz Statute here.