This Day in Jewish History / Kalisz Statute Gives Polish Jews Landmark Civil Rights Protections

Charter issued in 1264 has been described as one of the first attempts at delineating 'human rights' in the modern sense of the phrase.

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On September 8, 1264, Boleslau the Pious, duke of Greater Poland, issued the General Charter of Jewish Liberties. Better known as the Kalisz Statute, the charter contained a set of 36 conditions mandating the rights and privileges of the Jewish community of Poland.

Boleslau (born about 1224, died 1279), was the son of Wladyslaw Odonic, who, together with his brother Przmesyl, gradually reconquered the lands lost by their father, and between 1257 and 1273 was the duke of Greater Poland and Poznan. During his reign, parts of Poland were invaded – and despoiled – by the Mongols. The duke invited Jews and others from Germany to Poland to help rebuild it. His charter can be seen as part of an effort to make the Jews feel welcome and secure, at a time when such forces as the church were looking to limit their ability to integrate into society.

Nonetheless, the Kalisz Statute was far-reaching in the guarantees it offered the Jews, and has even been described as one of the first attempts at delineating “human rights” in the modern sense of the phrase.

Although based on similar charters that had been issued in the recent past in Austria (1244) and Bohemia (1254), the Kalisz Statute was the most far-reaching. Its 36 points, presented in Latin, guaranteed Jews the right to govern their own internal affairs, and to adjudicate matters in Jewish courts, except in cases that involved Christians and Jews, which were to be heard in a royal tribunal rather than an ecclesiastical court. Someone who murdered a Jew would be subject to “the proper sentence,” plus confiscation of all his property, and “wherever a Jew shall pass through our territory, no one shall offer any hindrance to him or molest or trouble him.”

Not only that, but Christians were forbidden from vandalizing synagogues or Jewish cemeteries, and faced punishment if they did. And if a Jew were to cry out for help in the night, and his Christian neighbors failed to come to his aid, “or heed the cry, every neighboring Christian shall be responsible to pay thirty shillings.”

‘Refrain from the blood’

Other clauses dealt with the conditions under which Jews could make loans, and the measures they could take when a loan went unredeemed. Another forbade Christians, “According to the ordinances of the pope, in the name of our Holy Father,” from accusing Jews of killing Christian children for their blood, “since according to the precept of their law, all Jews refrain from any blood.” Anybody who did wish to make such an accusation was obligated to produce three Christian witnesses and three Jewish witnesses to the crime for it to be proven.

The terms of the Kalisz Statute were confirmed by subsequent Polish kings into the 16th century, and served as a basis for Jewish privileges in Poland and Lithuania until the end of the 18th century. They also led to backlash by church officials, who in various periods and towns tried to impose different restrictions – e.g., segregated housing, wearing of identifying clothing or symbols, prohibition on the holding of public office – but generally with limited success.

In the 1920s, the artist Arthur Szyk, a proud Polish Jew, created a series of illuminated miniature paintings depicting Jewish life in Poland, accompanied by the text of the Kalisz Statute, in seven languages. Today, the originals of the miniatures are in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York.