From a golden age of Torah learning to killing fields

In the long Jewish exile, the relationship with Poland has been one of the deepest — and most troubled and tragic


… the uncircumcised went to live in the houses
where we were born for blessing, Torah, mission,
for a life without the sword…

Uri Zvi Greenberg, from Streets of the River (Rechovot Hanahar)


Baroness Ruth Deech, referring to Jewish property taken over by Poles during and after the Holocaust, has described Poland as “the only country in modern Europe to refuse to set up a scheme for compensation”.

Yet, in Shakespeare’s time, the largest Jewish community in the world lived in Poland; and for centuries, when England and other European countries persecuted and banned Jews, Poland gave Jews sanctuary.

In the long Jewish golus (exile), the relationship with Poland has been one of the deepest, most vital and creative — and most troubled and tragic.

The Hebrew Nobel laureate, SY Agnon, born in Polish Galicia, wrote of Poland as a major centre of Jewish life and Torah learning, but also of the hatred, violence and bloodshed suffered by Jews — of the six million exterminated in the Holocaust, half came from Poland.

Medieval Poland lacked a middle class, and Jews were needed as middlemen between the nobility and the peasantry. Poland had largely autonomous Jewish government, hundreds of synagogues and houses of study, and rabbinic luminaries such as Moses Isserles, Joshua Falk and David HaLevi Segal.

By the 18th century, the golden age was past. The Jewish philosopher, Solomon Maimon (1754-1800), described Poland as a quagmire of Jew-hatred, exploitation and corruption, from which he was lucky to escape.

The partitions of Poland in the late 18th century between Russia, Prussia and Austria decided the fate of the Jews in these territories in different ways. Yet, whether Jews retained their traditions, as most did, or sought modernisation, they tended to be sympathetic to Polish independence. Jews fought in every Polish revolt.

At the time of the partitions, the world Jewish population was at a low point, perhaps about three million, rising by the early 20th century to an historic high of over 16 million, with about 20 per cent in Poland. When Poland regained independence in 1918, Jews were about a tenth of the Polish population, with much larger percentages in big cities such as Warsaw, Kraków, and Lviv.

The two decades of Polish independence were filled with minor and major pogroms, anti-Jewish laws and discrimination. In a country already economically mismanaged, corrupt and impoverished, the Polish Jews were reduced to extreme poverty. Many were diseased and hungry. In the early 1920s, the Hebrew and Yiddish poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, a victim of a mock execution by Polish antisemites in the Lviv pogrom in November 1918, predicted a Holocaust in the nightmarish “kingdom of the Cross” (malchus fun tzelem). Greenberg recalled the love once felt by Jews for Poland, which antisemitism turned to hate:

We dared not come near our neighbours’ fence
to say dzien dobry,
for they would set their cruel dogs at us

In John Maynard Keynes’ quip on Poland’s interwar economic troubles, the country “had no industry but Jew-baiting”. Jews had lived in Poland for centuries and were the one minority whose loyalty to Poland could be counted on but were still regarded as aliens, Christ-killers, parasites, a potential Fifth Column of Bolsheviks ready, Judas-like, to betray the country.

Many Poles sought to reduce or eradicate the Jewish population. From 1923, Poland had a ‘cold pogrom’ government policy designed to eliminate Jews from the economy, refusing to hire Jews, denying them support in education and welfare, and tolerating violence against them.

The historian Sir Lewis Namier, himself of Polish-Jewish origin, noted that the Poles in their newly-independent state were torn between the desire for separation from Jews to avoid their allegedly pernicious influence and reluctance to grant the Jews educational autonomy because “to acknowledge us as a national minority would be to some extent equivalent to acknowledging our presence in Poland as fully legitimate”.

Despite, and perhaps because of Polish antisemitism, diverse Jewish groups — the Chasidic rabbis of the Agudath Israel party, the atheistic Bund socialists, upper middle-class Polish Jews with capital, skilled workers and even Zionists — declared patriotic loyalty to Poland.

In the two decades before the Holocaust, an increasing number of Jews spoke Polish as their mother tongue, and identified with Polish nationalism. The rapid assimilation of Polish Jews was unprecedented. The historian Norman Davies has described interwar Polish Jewry, despite its poverty and disabilities within a deeply prejudiced society, as a dynamic community which produced many of Poland’s public figures, thinkers, writers and artists, athletes and business people; Poland’s first woman deputy in parliament, Roza Pomerantz-Meltzer, was Jewish (and a Zionist).

Most Jewish children went to Polish public schools, where Polish valour, nobility, greatness and beauty were celebrated. The historian Isaac Deutscher recalled his childhood indoctrination in Polish patriotism:

“I was a Polish child, brought up in a Polish school. For us the Germans, like the Russians, were oppressors who robbed us of our independence for a century and a half, and against whom we had struggled in numerous insurrections.”

Jewish patriotic loyalty to Poland culminated at the time of the German invasion in September 1939, when an estimated 180,000 Jews served in the Polish army, with over 30,000 casualties.

As in other European countries, Jewish assimilation often roused hatred rather than acceptance. Jews in the past were hated for being different — Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking, averse to assimilation and secular learning. How could they be hated also for trying to blend in, become part of the nation and contribute to its achievements?

Among disillusioned assimilated Jews was Julian Tuwim, a major Polish and European poet, an innovator devoted to Poland and Polish literature and hostile to Jewish bourgeois “materialism” and “philistinism” as well as Zionism.

Ferocious antisemitic attacks on Tuwim for “debasing” and “sabotaging” the Polish language were symptomatic of the fragility of Polish-Jewish acculturation in the interwar years. Tuwim had a vision of Poland as forward looking, civic, pluralistic and European, but the Poland he experienced was narrow and inward-facing, specifically Catholic, obsessed by Poland’s tragic history, and hostile to foreign influences.

As Polish antisemitism grew, so did Zionism and the Hebrew language and literature. Many leading Zionists, including David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, were born in Poland. The Fourth Aliyah (wave of Jewish migration to Palestine) in 1924-26 was driven chiefly by antisemitic Polish government policies.

Some Polish Zionists saw parallels between Jewish and Polish nationalism, which the historian Jacob Talmon described as “Judaic”, “that of a conquered, humiliated and oppressed nation dreaming of resurrection”.

Polish Jews were drawn to socialism, too, as an ideology which fought antisemitism. The socialist Bund, somewhat paradoxically, was fiercely patriotic and opposed emigration of Jews as Poland was their homeland. “Here we were born”, the Bund declared in 1936, “here we work and struggle, here we live with our anguish and joy, here is our homeland;” and in 1937: “Today, as always our slogan is still true: right here [in Poland] and not elsewhere – in a relentless fight for freedom, arm in arm with the working masses of Poland – lies our salvation.” For the Polish “working masses”, however, freedom meant not fighting “arm in arm” with Jews but being free of Jews.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s only novel written in Poland, Satan in Goray (1933), describes the murderous antisemitic rage of 17th century Polish peasants — “In silence each day they sharpened their scythes … in silence they filed the blades of their axes”. Contemporary Poland was clearly in Singer’s mind as the Jews of Goray foresee the gathering of Christians to “exterminate” them; though Singer in his post-war novels acknowledges the many Poles who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust.

Even so, historians have found much evidence of collaboration of Poles with Nazis, and they tend to link modern Polish antisemitism and the atrocities perpetrated by Poles during and after the Holocaust — notoriously, the massacre by Poles of the Jewish community in Jedwabne and the post-war pogrom in Kielce — with a long ugly past.

Polish Jewish artists often seem drawn in unexpected ways to the troubled history of Jews in Poland. Roman Polanski’s classic film Knife in the Water (1962) is, on one level, an allegory of the violent failure of Jewish assimilation in Polish society after initial hope of acceptance. The Polish-born novelist, Louis Begley, like Polanski a child survivor, gives in Wartime Lies (1991) a semi-biographical picture of a Polish Jewish child who survives among mostly hostile Poles by pretending to be Catholic. In doing so, he adopts inadvertently the antisemitism rampant among Poles, ironically mimicking them by applauding the murder by Poles of Jewish survivors who returned to their homes in Kielce in 1946.

In 2018, the Polish government made it a criminal offence to blame the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. Poland, to be sure, suffered more than most countries from Nazi rule. Also, Poland’s view of Jews as foreigners was largely shared throughout Christian Europe — and by the European Jews themselves — until modern times, as exiles from Zion.

Yet, as the Polish diplomat and historian, Jan Karski, observed in 1940, though Germany and Poland were bitter enemies, they found in war conditions a narrow area of agreement in their hatred of Jews. Polish refusal to make amends for the expropriation of Jewish property is widely seen by survivors and their descendants as a confession of Polish collaboration and of unrepentant Polish Jew-hatred.

Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Hebrew dirges for the Jewish dead during and after the war lament the Jewish communities murdered in the Holocaust, their former homes inhabited in post-war Poland mostly by murderers, collaborators, and onlookers:

Now – our bodies made holy in their blood
rot there, the inheritance of worms,
house and vessels bathed in holiness
of Sabbath and festivals,
song of deep longing, the flap of the Shekhinah’s wings –
the inheritance of goyim: for in their land
we built houses and synagogues and dug graves
not in Jerusalem
Jerusalem of rock of gold.
Allelai Amen

David Aberbach is the author of ‘The European Jews, Patriotism and the Liberal State 1789-1939’

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