At the turn of the 15th century, large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia, Moravia, and Germany were arriving to Poland seeking refuge from persecution in their home countries. The transit route went through Oświęcim and Zator.
The Jews came to Oświęcim in the first half of 16th century. The first historical record of their permanent settlement dates back to 1549. Before that, the only Jews who appeared within the area of Oświęcim and Zator until the end of 15th century were most probably traveling merchants. Czech Jews, who made up most of the newly established community in Oświęcim, settled in the northern part of town below the castle. Other areas of Jewish settlement included today’s Berka Joselewicza Street and the northern suburb of Oświęcim. The town was located on an ancient salt trade route leading from the salt mines in Bochnia to Wrocław and distribution of salt became the main occupation of its Jewish residents. Others also became involved in making alcohol.
The legal position of the Jewish communities in Poland was determined by royal privileges. The first known privilege for the Jews of Oświęcim was issued by King Władysław IV on March 10, 1636 in Kraków. The document granted them rights of residence, possession of houses and land within and outside of the town walls, as well as permission to use the synagogue and cemetery. The rights were confirmed in another privilege by King Stanisław August from May 5, 1766.
There were also unfavorable developments which destabilized the livelihood of the new Jewish community in Oświęcim. On July 28, 1563, the Polish King Zygmunt August approved a document prepared by Christian burghers, which prohibited any further Jewish immigration to Oświęcim. Jewish owners of real estate in the main market square were forced to sell their property within six months. No details about enforcement of the decree are available; however, a year later only five Jews lived in the town, according to the royal census. It seems that privilege was aimed at creating a separate Jewish district in Oświęcim, which soon happened. Oświęcim also witnessed accusations of host desecration and ritual murder leveled against local Jews. Those false judgments were driven by anti-Semitism and led to trials against alleged desecraters. In 16th century Poland, 10 host desecration and 42 ritual murder accusations were recorded. In Oświęcim two such cases took place in 1580 and 1627.
Despite those difficulties, the Jewish community in Oświęcim didn’t cease to develop. In 1588, Oświęcim nobleman Jan Piotraszewski donated a plot of land to the town’s Jewish residents for the purpose of building a synagogue and a cemetery. The donation was recorded in the royal chancellery in Kraków on September 19, 1588. Following this act, a formal Jewish community or kehilla was created. In this way the Jewish community of Oświęcim was among the 23 important towns of the Little Poland (Małopolska) region which had their own houses of prayer. These included: Kazimierz near Kraków, Bochnia, Olkusz, Nowy Sącz, Tarnów, Wodzisław, Opatów, Kraśnik, Wiślica, and Oświęcim.
Over time the conditions of the Jewish community in the town improved. After the incorporation of Oświęcim into Poland, the town enjoyed gradual economical development, especially in artisanship. In 1581 there were 59 artisan workshops in Oświęcim and textile manufacturing was the most common craft. Many of Oświęcim’s Jews were active in this field. The proximity to Kraków and thriving Silesian towns also played a role in its development. The growth of the economy in Oświęcim was also inspired by royal privileges, which forced salt merchants to use the town as transit point (1564), licensed the town to charge fees for using bridges over the Wisła and Soła rivers (1558) and allowed fishing in Soła as well as brewing beer (1569).
Since the Middle Ages, Oświęcim was also an important trade center for wine, fish, cloth and lead. Crucial for its development was the location on the important trade route from Western Europe via Prague and Little Poland (Małopolska) to Ruthenia. Additional regulations required merchants traveling on that route to stop in Oświęcim and display their goods under the penalty of confiscation. The end of the 16th century was also the time of greatest economical freedom for Jews in Poland.
The turning point for Oświęcim and its Jewish community was the Swedish invasion of Poland knows as the Swedish deluge. In early February 1656 the town was robbed and burned to the ground. This tragic event marked the beginning of its demise. According to records from 1660 there were only 20 houses in Oświęcim and of 300 artisans before the deluge only 6 remained. The local Jewish community was heavily affected. The situation slowly improved in the coming years and in 1676 there were already 23 Jews in Oświęcim, which made a significant proportion of the town’s population.
The 18th century started with another avalanche. On July 6, 1711 the town’s center with market square and synagogue was consumed in a fire. The royal records from 1765 mention Oświęcim as „having a Jewish concentration of particularly large size”. Their occupations included production and sales of alcohol in two local inns. Despite economical efforts of the noblemen and Jews Oświęcim did not regain its pre-war position. In the wake of the first partition of Poland, the kehilla of Oświęcim included 47 neighboring towns and villages and 815 Jews, of whom 133 in Oświęcim (1765).