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Faith and Art

The Italian Architects who Built Poland’s Most Exquisite Shuls

Wawel Royal Castle

The year is 1537, and a murder has just occurred in the city of Krakow, Poland.  The unfortunate victim is an Italian architect by the name of Bartolommeo Berrecci, and his alleged killer is a fellow Italian architect.1Web Gallery of Art. The motive? Simple jealousy; Berrecci had become wildly popular and quite wealthy, with many upper-class Poles commissioning his services, including the Polish King Sigismund I (1506-1548) who retained him to rebuild the royal castle at Wawel.2Web Gallery of Art.

How did Poland – so far from the Italian Peninsula – become a dueling ground for ambitious Italian architects?  To understand this, we must take a closer look at Poland of the 16th century — a booming center of trade, culture and architecture, which indeed made it an ideal location for architects and purveyors of culture to ply their trade with great success.  It was particularly attractive to skilled Italian Catholic craftsmen who could feel somewhat at home in this staunchly Catholic country; some of them would even go on to marry locals and settle there permanently.

Zamość: An Italian Renaissance-style City in the Heart of Poland

Desc.: Bernardo Morando
Date: 16th century
Author Austrian National Library

Bernardo Morando, also known as Bernardino or Morandi (1540-1600), was a native of Padua or Venice who moved to Poland in 1569.

In 1578, he was commissioned by a fabulously wealthy Polish nobleman named Jan Zamoyski, to design a Renaissance-style “ideal city” on the lands of his vast estates.  Zamoyski, who also served later as the hetman of Poland, was a scion of a family of Polish magnates whose estates stretched out over a large territory, almost a state within a state.

In 1571, he inherited a large estate and decided to establish a new sort of capital named for his family, Zamość (it came to be known in Yiddish as “Zamoshtsh”). It would become a sort of economic and spiritual capital of Poland.  Zamoyski had received a thorough education in France and in Italy, where he was influenced by the Enlightenment humanism of the time. While in Padua, he became aware of the great scholars of the local university and also came into contact with people of many different nationalities, including Jews.  Upon his return to Poland, he wanted to transplant that cosmopolitan sophistication to his native land and make Zamość a “Polish Padua,” including its unique architecture and humanistic values.

In 1580 he officially established the city of Zamość, and in its center, he established a private university.  He staffed it with scholars from Italy and other countries in order to spread to Poland the new wisdom and humanistic values of Western Europe.  Zamość also played an economic role as a center of trade. The Polish King Stephen Báthory granted Zamość the privilege of holding a fair three times a year.  In order to attract trade to the city, Zamoyski offered incentives for investors, including the rights of monopoly in certain fields, the rights to establish exclusive communities and also granted them properties for residential and business purposes.

And indeed, these incentives brought to the city a heterogeneous mix of different ethnicities and religions, which lent the city a cosmopolitan air.  In addition to the Polish population, there were also Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Armenians, Greeks, Germans, Italians, English, Scots, Sephardic Jews and others.

Title: Portrait of King Stephen Báthory
Artist: Anonymous
Date: 1583
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1586, a group of  Spanish and Portuguese Jewish merchants who had already settled in Lviv (Lemberg) sought permission to move to Zamość.  Zamoyski wrote a letter to the Lviv city council asking it to ease the transition of this group to his city.

The first Jew on record as settling in Zamość was Moses de Mosso Cohen, son of Abraham de Mosso.  Abraham had served as one of the agents of the renowned Don Yosef Nasi, the Duke of Naxos, who was one of the most powerful Jews in the court of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Nasi had initiated a peace deal between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland, which brought a flurry of trade and contact between two countries, so far apart, both geographically and culturally.

Don Yosef Nasi installed Sephardic Jewish agents, including Abraham de Mosso, to handle his mercantile activities in Poland. After his death in 1579, Polish King Stephen Báthory renewed the rights and privileges granted to Don Yosef Nassi’s agents.  Abraham de Mosso’s rights were later inherited by his sons, Moses and Mordechai de Mosso Cohen.  Abraham also served as a liaison between the Polish diplomats, who occasionally arrived in Istanbul, and the Sultan.  The Turkish Jews played an important role in maintaining the peaceful relations between the two countries and in return received many rights and privileges bestowed by the Polish kings.

In the period between the death of Stephen Báthory and Sigismund III’s ascent to the throne in 1586, the financial situation of the de Mosso brothers gradually worsened.  They became mired in debt, unable to pay their creditors.  Moses de Mosso opted to settle in Zamość and seek protection under Jan Zamoyski.  But when he returned from a trip, to either Constantinople or Zamość, he was seized in Lviv and brought to court where he was ordered to pay his debts.  De Mosso claimed immunity from the local courts since he was a citizen of Zamość and under the jurisdiction of Zamoyski, but the latter’s intervention on his behalf was of no help.

The court ordered Moses to be imprisoned for four days, after which he was forced to sign new documents and as collateral, he was forced to forfeit all his assets.  Upon his release from prison, Moses left Poland and returned to Turkey, but in1596, he settled permanently in Zamość.

Graf Zamoyski Publishes a Charter of Rights for the Local Sephardic Jews

Title: Sigismund III Vasa, Early in his Reign
Artist: Martin Kober (1550–1598)
Date: 1590
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1588, Jan Zamoyski publicized his charter of rights for the Jews of Zamość which is still extant in the Latin original (in the archives of Krasnystaw) and its Polish translation. This document stated, however, that the privileges and rights enumerated within it only applied to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews and not to the general Jewish population.  The Sephardic Jews, unlike other Jewish residents, were seen as a valuable asset to the city. They would help trade and culture flourish.

In the opening lines of the charter, Zamoyski informs that “he was asked by one of the Jews of the ‘Spanish Portuguese nation’ to allow him to settle in his city Zamość in which there has been settled already many people from east and west.”  He adds that he consulted with his city council and concluded that in order to increase the population of the city and to develop its commerce, the Spanish Portuguese, both those arriving from Turkey and those with Ottoman citizenship, should be allowed to settle in the city. They were given the right to come and go as they pleased, and it forbade persecuting them on the basis of their religion and to engage in inquisition. They were given the right to keep their traditions and customs and live according to their beliefs, and they were to enjoy the same rights and privileges as the rest of the underlings of the senators and noblemen.  The charter contained a listing of streets (in the center of the city) in which the Jews were allowed to build their houses, and were allowed to gather wood for that purpose from the surrounding forests as well as stones and mortar.  They could bequeath these homes to their children, and sell or exchange them.  In the event that the Jewish population would outgrow its present location, Jews would be allowed to live outside the designated area.

In regard to the Jews’ religious needs, they were given permission to build a house of worship made of stone, and until it was built they were permitted to conduct religious services in a private house and were allowed to have religious tracts for the purpose of prayer and education. They were also permitted to build a mikvah as long as it would not hurt the business of the local bathhouse.  Zamoyski also pledged to assign space for a Jewish cemetery.

They were permitted to wear any type of clothing of any color, and it was declared forbidden to force them to wear specific clothing or other features that would identify them as Jews. They were also permitted to carry arms for self-defense, like all other citizens.

The Sephardic Jews were given the right to engage in all kinds of commerce, both in the city and outside of it.  Those who were skilled in the art of healing, would be allowed to practice medicine in the city after taking an examination at the Academy in Zamość.

Several limitations on commerce were imposed, however, in order not to negatively impact the rights that were given to the Armenians, Greeks and Czechs.  Jews were forbidden to trade in liquor, bread and poultry.  In order not to impact the local merchant guilds, Jews were forbidden from engaging in fur making, shoemaking, butchery and pottery.  However they were allowed to slaughter for their own needs and sell the non-kosher sections at the fairs or in the surrounding towns under the jurisdiction of Zamoyski.

The document also stipulated that in order that the aforementioned Sephardic Jews would not fall under the jurisdiction of other Jews, they were entitled to elect their own leaders and councils in which no Jews of other nations (i.e. Ashkenazim) could participate.  No Jew was to be accepted in the community without the authorization of the heads of the Synagogue, and only with the consent of the majority of the Sephardic congregants would the individual’s name be inscribed in the synagogue’s roster.

The Spanish Jews were also permitted to elect their own community heads, who were granted the jurisdiction to judge their disputes and also mete out punishment against their members if necessary, including excommunication and banishment from the community.  Zamoyski added that should a dispute arise between “my townspeople” i.e. the Sephardim and a non-Jewish resident of the city, Zamoyski himself would adjudicate the case or appoint someone trustworthy and acceptable to all sides.

This remarkable document illustrates the sense of liberalism, an obvious product of the Renaissance spirit by which Zamoyski had been heavily influenced.  However it is important to point out that this sense of liberalism and tolerance did not extend to the local indigenous Polish Ashkenazic Jews.  From a letter of De Mosso Cohen dated 1587 we learn that “the councilor only wants ‘Frankim’ to settle there and does not desire the local Jews.” The preference for Sephardim over Ashkenazim continued after Zamoyski’s death when his heir and successor Tomasz requested to extend the 1588 charter to newly arrived Sephardic settlers from Flanders and Holland. This blatant discrimination was based mainly on the economic benefits the city derived from the mercantilist and diplomatic skills of the Sephardic Jews.  In general, these Jews were more cultured and modern and therefore fit in very well with the cosmopolitan atmosphere that the city’s founders sought to foster.

There was a faint hope on the part of the Polish noblemen that these Sephardim would prove to be a source of emulation for their “backward” Ashkenazic brethren.  This can be observed from the fact that the Sephardim were given the right to accept Ashkenazim into their communities if they so desired and to admit local Jews into their educational institutions.

Zamoyski’s vision of creating in Zamość a center of scholarship and trade never came to fruition.  Likewise, his hope that Sephardic Jews would continue to settle there and swell the ranks of the community never materialized either.  Schatzky surmises that the Zamość Sephardim conducted most of their business in nearby Lviv, and never gave the Zamość community a chance to develop. According to Schatzky, by the year 1600 the Sephardic community in Zamość was no more.

Another Polish-Jewish historian named Morgenstern, rejects Schatzky’s claim and claims that the Sephardic community existed there as a separate entity, at least until the end of the 16th century and possibly even into the first decades of the next one.

Great Chancellor of the Polish Crown Tomasz Zamoyski on anonymous painting first half of 19th century

In the first decade of the community’s existence, until the year 1600, the Zamość archives contained the names of 11 Sephardic Jews, 6 of Venetian origin, 3 from Turkey and 2 whose origins were not given.  The total property ownership was 4 structures.  From 1600 to 1610, 11 new names were added to the list, 9 of them of Italian origin, one Turkish Jew and one whose origins were not given.  By this time, the community was in possession of 7 houses.

As mentioned before, Tomasz Zamoyski welcomed newcomers from Flanders and Holland into the city and indeed the archival documents reflect that fact.  Documents from the fourth and fifth decades of the 17th century added another 18 names to the list of Jewish residents of the city and property ownership had risen to 15 houses. In the years 1638-1641, there was an unexplained increase in Jews selling their houses, perhaps in response to the Chmielnicki massacres then occurring, which may have caused a migration of Sephardic residents out of the city.

It is safe to assume that at the height of its success, in the first half of the 17th century the Zamość community numbered 40 to 50 families, which based on 5-6 people per family would have totaled 200-250 community members.

Shatzcky’s claims that the Sephardic community disappeared by the 17th century were based in part on the fact that there is no remnant of a Sephardic cemetery in the city.  In addition, we are unaware of the name of even one Sephardic Rabbi in Zamość.  However, these contentions are erroneous. The cemetery in the city was first used exclusively by Sephardim and later by Ashkenazim as evidenced by the discovery of tombstones from before 1809 that are laid flat in the Sephardic manner.  In regards to Rabbis, remnants of the old Synagogue and communal institutions, reveal the name of at least one spiritual head of the community named Michael Doktor and his shamash named David.

The Shul in Zamość

The first reports of a synagogue in Zamość speak of a structure built in 1603 made of wood, which was only rebuilt as a stone structure in 1620.  An inscription gives the name of the synagogue’s benefactor as one Shmuel Barzel.  There is evidence to indicate that there existed in Zamość both a Sephardic and an Ashkenazic community in the fifth and sixth decades of the 17th century.  As mentioned, the charter of rights granted to the community stipulated the right to accept Ashkenazim into its ranks if so desired.  Indeed, the archival records indicate that several wealthy and distinguished Ashkenazic individuals were granted permission to buy property in the city.  In the years 1632-1635, we found 20 Ashkenazic families in the city, with ownership of 9 houses.  In the years 1640-1650 many Sephardic settlers sold their property and left the city, presumably because of the increasing threat from Cossack hordes.  At that point, many Ashkenazim began moving in because of the increased security that the city offered due to the facts that it was surrounded by a wall and had a standing army.  As a result, the Ashkenazim quickly became a majority in the city.  Nevertheless the Sephardic community still managed to maintain a separate existence.

It is difficult to estimate the number of Sephardim in the city after 1648, but there are references to such individuals residing in the city at the close of the 17th century.  For example, we find Tomaszz Zamoyski granting permission to one Moshe Zacuto in 1691 to purchase houses in any part of the city.  Additional, albeit silent testimony to the continued Sephardic presence in the city are the tombstones in the cemetery with dates as late as 1809.

The Sephardic community continued to exist as an independent entity, exempt from the Jewish tax that their Ashkenazi brethren were required to pay.  Toward the end of the 17th century, the community breathed it’s last and ceased to exist. (Although, as mentioned, Sephardim continued to reside in the city as individuals and eventually assimilated into the Ashkenazic majority.)

With the Sephardim fast becoming a minority, they were forced to assimilate.  Zamość joined the Vaad Arba Aratzos (Council of the Four Lands) in 1666.  The assimilation process began with intermarriage with Ashkenazim, which had already begun in the 1640s when the Sephardim were still in the majority.  The Ashkenazic newcomers were a decidedly advanced and upper-class element and it was not long before they mixed comfortably with the cultured Sephardim, leading to close ties and marriages between the two groups.  Examples of “intermarriage” are Chana of the De Kampos family who married the Polish Jew Yaakov Bar; the daughter of Samson Manes married the Polish Jew Moshe Ben Avraham; and the wife of Lazer ben Nachman (Nachmanovitz) was a sister of the head of the Sephardic community.

As time progressed, the differences between the two groups lessened greatly, at least in the eyes of the authorities.  Whereas in the beginning, the Polish authorities added the moniker “Italikus” (a sort of generic term to describe all Sephardim whether they came from Italy or not) in order to differentiate them from the Ashkenazim, by the end of the 17th century this name no longer appears on official documents.  In addition, many Sephardic Jews took on Ashkenazic family names that were similar to their Sephardic ones.  For example, we find a Sephardic Jew previously named Abraham Uziel mentioned in official documents as Abraham Uzelowitz.

Until the Holocaust, there were many Jewish families in Zamość who were well aware of their Sephardic roots.  Some even still possessed copies of the charter granted to their ancestors by Jan Zamoyski.  One of these was the Peretz family, to which the famous Yiddish writer Yehuda Leib Peretz belonged.

The Shul in Zamość

According to the late Eva Bar Zeev, who chaired the Israel-based Association of Jews from Zamość, the first families in Zamość were descendants of Jews expelled from Torque in Spain. Other than the oft-cited Peretzs, there were many other families in Zamość who bore evidence of their Iberian roots in their surnames.  Families like, Kastiel, Bechar, (Efrat) Efros, Manzis (Manes), Margulis (Margaliot), Kohen, Maimon, Safian, Gerzon/Gerszon and others.

Zamoyski’s vision of creating, in Zamość, a center of scholarship and trade, never came to fruition.  Likewise, his hope that Sephardic Jews would continue to settle there and swell the ranks of the community never occurred either.  All that remains are the vestiges of an ambitious if failed, experiment.

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