Is Your Jewish Family from Poland Originally From Spain?

— by Aaron Biterman

My family left northern Spain, likely around the time of expulsion in July of 1492. I am unsure what path they took to arrive in Poland, but oral tradition suggests that my Jewish family settled in the town of Hrubieszow in southeast Poland (near Lublin and Zamosc) by 1600. The surname they eventually adopted sounded much more Eastern European than Spanish. I talk more about the origins of the surname below. It’s possible my family was Ashkenazic and migrated west to Spain from another place, and then migrated back east after expulsion from Spain, but it seems more likely that they actually were Sephardic.

More after the jump.
Evidence that the family was Sephardic includes:

  • Dual Hebrew names (Yehuda Aryeh ben Yosef Tzvi) is a Sephardic practice. Ashkenazi tradition is “Yehuda ben Yosef.”
  • Concluding Shabbat davening with Ein Kelahaynu instead of Adan Olom is a Sephardic practice.
  • There may have been a synagogue in Hrubieszow before WWII which was Sephardic, where my ancestors prayed.
  • The family was religiously observant but not Hasidic even though the town they lived in (Hrubieszow) was a mostly Hasidic town.
  • There is an oral tradition of arrival in the area in Poland in the mid-1500s.

Jews had a very difficult time in Europe during the later portion of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of some of the behaviors of the Holocaust can be traced to the period in Europe from 1200 to 1500. Throughout Europe, the Jews were gradually confined in ghettos as the Middle Ages progressed. The first compulsory ones were established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century. Jewish ghettos existed in Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Prague, and other European cities (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims had occupied and settled most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain). Jews, who had lived in these regions since Roman times, were considered “People of the Book”‘ and given special status and often thrived under Muslim rule. The tolerance of the Muslim Moorish rulers attracted Jewish immigration, and Jewish enclaves in Muslim Iberian cities flourished as places of learning and commerce. Living conditions for Jews in al-Andalus became more difficult after the fall of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate around the year 1030.

The Reconquista was the gradual reconquest of Islamic Iberia by the Catholic kingdoms with a powerful religious motivation: Iberia was being reclaimed for Christendom. By the 14th century, most of the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal, had been regained from the Moors. Overt hostility against Jews became more pronounced, finding expression in brutal episodes of violence and oppression. Thousands of Jews sought to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on March 31, 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31 of that year. The punishment for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline was death. Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree; the numbers vary between 130,000 and 800,000 (Source: Wikipedia).

Migration to Poland

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, Jews lived in 85 towns in Poland, totaling 18,000 — a mere .6 percent of the total population. But the 16th and the first half of the 17th century saw increased settlement and a relatively fast rate of natural population growth of Jews in Poland. Among the new arrivals there were not only the Ashkenazim banished from the countries belonging to the Hapsburg monarchy, but also Sephardim who were driven away from Spain and Portugal. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, Jews started to settle in the countryside in larger numbers. During the hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish Polish population exploded from about 15,000 to 150,000. In the middle of the 17th century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland — five percent of the total population.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland became the center for Jewish learning. Between 1501 and 1648, Jews intensified their economic activity. The primary sources of income for Jewish families were crafts and local trade. The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by expansion of their self-government organization. As in the Middle Ages, every autonomous Jewish community was governed by its kahal — a collegiate body composed of elders elected as a rule from among the local wealthiest. The kahal organized funerals and administered cemeteries, schools, baths, slaughterhouses and the sale of kosher meat. In the closed “Jewish cities”, it also took care of cleanliness and order in the Jewish quarter and the security of its inhabitants. Administering charities such as the organization of hospitals and other welfare institutions and the dowering of poor brides were also taken on by citizens or organizations within these Jewish communities (Source: Mike Rosenzweig).

There was a period when members of the Sephardic middle class could establish themselves with some distinction in Poland. This most important page in the history of Sephardic Jews in Poland began with the reign of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus (1529-1572). At that time, one of the most influential statesmen of the Ottoman Empire was Don Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who died in 1579 (Source: Alexander Beider).

In 1588, Polish Chancellor Jan Zamoyski established a special privilege allowing Sephardic Jews to live in his own newly founded private town of Zamosc. Many advantages were offered to those Sephardic Jews who decided to move there, which prompted a number of Sephardic families to migrate to the town. During the first part of the 17th century, new settlers generally came from Italy and Holland, according to Alexander Beider. Some of the Sephardic Jews left the area; others intermarried with Ashkenazic Jews. As a result, during the second half of the 17th century, Sephardic names do not appear in the historical documents of Zamosc and Lvov. The census of 1664 showed only 23 Jews in Zamosc, most Ashkenazic.

The presence of Sephardic families in the territory of Poland during the 16th to 18th centuries did not influence the surnames used by Polish Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The cultural fusion of foreign Sephardic Jews with local Ashkenazic Jews, who had lived in the same area for several centuries and were far more numerous, was rather rapid. The Sephardic Jews lost their language, and their descendants used Yiddish as the vernacular. They dropped their Sephardic names and were named according to local Ashkenazic patterns (Source: Alexander Beider).

Jews lived in Russia for centuries — sometimes welcomed and other times barely tolerated. Before 1500, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in Russia. As Russia’s western boundary moved west in the 1600s and 1700s, more Jews were annexed into a country which was intolerant of Jews. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great decreed that Jews could only live in the territory along the western Russian border, known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1772, more Jews lived in the Pale than in the rest of Europe.

Prosperity continued until the second half of the 17th century, when a series of massacres by Cossacks ruthlessly killed Jews and Gentile Poles alike. Poland was then pummeled by another Cossack uprising, two invasions by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1700s, Poland was divided three ways, and the Jews of Poland fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Surname Biterman

My family’s surname of Biterman could either have Eastern European or Sephardic origins. I talk more about it on my genetic genealogy page http://chelm.freeyellow.com/bi…

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