The lower marketplace, Rynek Dolny, in the early 1930s.
Bodzentyn is a small town to the northeast of Kielce, the provincial capital, in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship of Poland. More than 50 per cent of all Polish Jews lived in Congress Poland, the central part of the country where the cities Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin and Kielce were situated. Krakow belonged to Galicia, the southern Poland that was home to one-fourth of Polish Jewry.
"Bodzentyn"—Baizetshin, Bodjentin or Bodzentin in Yiddish—derives from its founder's name, bishop Bodzanta. The town belonged to successive Bishops of Kraków up to 1797. As a clerical possession, Bodzentyn had the privilegium de non tolerandis Judaeis, meaning that Jews were not allowed to live inside the city walls or even, in some cases, to visit without a special permit.
At the turn of the century, as the situation changed, Jews began to move into Bodzentyn. In the beginning, they came mainly from the surrounding villages. In 1820, about fifty Jews were registered as tenants; Jews were not permitted to own property in Bodzentyn. At that time there were about 1,050 Catholic residents.
As the Jewish population began to grow in the early nineteenth century some of the Polish Christian residents would protest and remind the mayor of the former non-tolerance of Jews as part of the episcopal privilege of Bodzentyn. The Mayor was also reminded of the ban on acquisition of property by or for Jews.
Many of the Poles who protested against Jewish settlement feared economic competition. It was generally thought that the number of Jews would increase so much that the Polish residents would be outnumbered and ousted. This was not altogether unrealistic. The numbers of Jews did increase and there were a very few among them who prospered while many of the remainders survived in slightly better circumstance than in other places.
In the early nineteenth century, the Jews were accused of trading without permission and threatened by eviction. Even the field police were called in on at least one occasion. However, a number of Polish residents were beginning to appreciate the skills that the Jewish settlers had to offer and found that the general economy had improved. Some of the Poles even protested against eviction orders.
In 1862 the Jews received civil rights, and in 1876 the local authorities recognized the Jewish community in Bodzentyn. Some decades later the Jews in Bodzentyn were nearly 50 per cent of the total population.
The deadly typhus epidemic swept the area in the fall of 1917 and affected the Jews of Bodzentyn more heavily due to cramped housing following the "Great Fire" set by retreating Austrian troops in June that year. Due to this, and the hardships between the wars as well as the trickling emigration that became a flood in 1921, the growth of the Jewish community stopped and remained at close to one thousand Jewish souls, about 30 per cent of the population, with little change until 1939.
In 1939 the Jews numbered about a thousand. Three years later the Nazi German occupants wiped out the community. Only a few survived.