Jewish history in Poland is about more than just the Holocaust. The vitality and significance of Jewish life and culture in Poland is often overshadowed by its destruction. But to truly understand what was lost and to rebuild and deal with a divisive collective past, one must explore the complex and deep pre-war history of Jewish life in Poland. Taking a quick look at the origins of Jewish settlement, the vibrant and tumultuous interwar period and offering some insights and findings on the state of Jewish culture in Poland today, this is an attempt to do just that.
Jews have lived in Poland for over one thousand years, protected by such Polish rulers as Bolesław the Pious, whose 1264 General Charter of Jewish Liberties granted Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel, and King Casimir the Great, whose 1332 Wiślicki Statute freed Jews from paying additional taxes and lifted restrictions as to where they could live. As a result of this history of tolerance, Poland had the largest Jewish population of any European nation at the time. Pogroms were not unknown, however – in 1648, for example, 200,000 Jews were murdered in a peasant uprising – and there was an active policy of Polonization, but the country was still one of the safest places for Jews in Europe.
Arriving first as transient peddlers and merchants, Jews eventually settled in Poland to escape the harsh prejudices of the nearby German Empire and other regions. Compared to the Jewish experience elsewhere in Europe and Russia, Polish Jews lived in relative peace with their neighbours. Indeed, the sixteenth-century Krakow scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles famously punned on the Hebrew name for Poland – Polin – suggesting that God had led European Jews to the area and told them, “Poh lin,” Hebrew for “Rest here.” Over centuries, significant centres of Jewish learning and important religious and political movements had developed and flourished. Jews in Poland also evolved their own distinct musical traditions, along with literature, theatre and cinema in Yiddish, the everyday language of Eastern European Jews.
While most Jews shared the poverty of the Christian peasant majority, they were distinguished not only by religion but by their concentration in urban areas and a way of life that included unique customs, distinctive dress and a pattern of employment characterized mainly by work in commerce, artisanry and light industry. Moreover, most Jews spoke Yiddish as their native language and prayed in Hebrew; in contrast, Catholic Poles employed Polish and Latin for largely the same purposes. In short, the Jewish presence in Poland was both ancient and conspicuous. It was indispensable to the economic development of the country and, in the period between the two world wars, would come to play an increasingly important role in its cultural and political life as well.*
When Poland was reconstituted as an independent state after World War I, Jews – alongside chiefly Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians and Germans – belonged to the group of so-called national minorities that made up about a third of the new state’s population, especially in its eastern provinces.
Numbering more than 3 million, Jews made up roughly 10 per cent of interwar Poland’s overall population. As may be expected of so large a group, Polish Jewry was quite diverse within itself and divided into rival factions competing for leadership in communal and state institutions. Despite the popular stereotype equating Jews with communism and support for the Soviet Union, the vast majority of Jews, who were traditionally religious and small business owners, had little sympathy for Poland’s dreaded eastern neighbour and its anti-religious, anti-capitalist ideology. A small minority of Jews voted for general Polish parties, particularly the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), or supported communism (which was then illegal in Poland). Most Jews voted instead in state and city elections for distinctively Jewish parties offering competing visions for their future. The dominant ideologies among Jews of the day were religious Orthodoxy, socialism and nationalism, although these streams often mixed. Nationalism meant programs for cultural autonomy for Jews and other peoples in a multinational Polish state or support for the Zionist vision of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was under British administration since the end of World War I.
Jews represented as much as one-third of the nearly one million residents of Poland’s capital, Warsaw. This made for the largest Jewish community in all of Europe in the interwar period and the second largest in the world, second only to New York City at this time. The percentage of the population that was Jewish in such important cities such as Bialystok, Lodz and Vilna was even higher. This was cause for profound alarm among Polish ethno-nationalists, including high-ranking members of the Catholic clergy, who minced no words to warn the public that the Jews’ allegedly overwhelming and baneful influence on the economy and public life was depriving Poles of rightful control over their own country and transforming it into a morally dissolute “Judea.” In contrast with views of Slavic minorities, who were also usually viewed with disfavour but still seen as capable of being assimilated under the right circumstances, little hope or desire existed among much of Polish society for Jews to be fully integrated.
While it would be a gross exaggeration to describe all Poles as hostile to Jews and wishing them harm, Jews, as long as they remained Jews, were widely seen as alien and incompatible with Polish national character whatever their degree of acculturation and their private views and loyalties. Even their liberal defenders, usually to be found in the parties of the Polish Left, generally expected the dissolution of any vestiges of a distinctively Jewish identity as a condition for their full acceptance in Polish society. More pronounced negative attitudes ran the gamut from comic bemusement and suspicion to religious animosity and modern racial antisemitism.
The reborn Polish state was poor, largely agricultural and very much wary of its large and powerful neighbours, Germany and the USSR. It struggled to strike a balance between promoting the interests of its ethnic majority and respecting the rights of its national minorities, which were guaranteed by an international treaty – known as the Polish Minority Treaty – that the fledgling state had signed under duress in return for Allied recognition at the end of World War I.
National minorities were affected by various forms of discrimination, such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts to support ethnic Polish interests, the shabby treatment of their representatives in the parliament, and a lack of government funding (and at times of harassment) for schools functioning in their languages. Jews faced severe obstacles to obtaining employment in the civil service and in gaining admission to institutions of higher learning. Although their situation improved somewhat once Marshal Piłsudski – seen by Jews as a benevolent protector against antisemitic forces – seized power in 1926, the basic pattern did not change and pauperization grew. Such trends only intensified as ethnically exclusivist forms of Polish nationalism, which strove for a uniformly Catholic and Polish country, took increasing hold as World War II approached. By the latter half of the 1930s, after the death of Marshal Piłsudski, this resulted in increasing violence against Jews and more systematic attempts, both official and unofficial, to drive them from the economy and, many hoped, from the country. In this respect, Poland was, however, hardly unique, as most countries in the region gravitated toward authoritarian and ethnically intolerant regimes in the interwar period. Indeed, several, including Poland, came to repudiate the National Minorities Treaty that they had signed after World War I.
On the other hand, the opening of Polish public elementary schools to Jewish children after World War I helped to effect a radical shift in Jewish attitudes and conduct as a new generation mastered the Polish language and came to identify with the state and the cultural legacy of the Polish lands. Indeed, most Jewish children attended free state elementary schools rather than any of the private Jewish educational networks – religious or secular – offering primary education in Yiddish or Hebrew, a language that had ceased to be spoken some 2,000 years ago but was revived for everyday speech by the Zionist movement. They imbibed the values of romantic Polish culture and devotion to the state and its symbols. Alongside a tremendously vibrant culture – both traditional and modern – that existed in Hebrew and, above all, Yiddish, Jews and individuals of Jewish origin increasingly became contributors to general Polish culture, producing some of twentieth-century Poland’s finest writers, poets, musicians and artists. At the same time, they contributed to an emerging Jewish culture that was Polish in language but Jewish nationalist or religious in orientation. Polish-Jewish youth at this time were part of a generation in transition, one undergoing varying degrees of secularization, political activism and language shift. It was thus natural for Jews – even supporters of Jewish nationalism – to be Polish patriots despite a feeling of exclusion from larger Polish society.
Culturally, Polish Jewry thrived in the interwar period, producing an unparalleled number of performances in theatre, an enormous number of published books and a vital Yiddish press that had a wide circulation among the literate and politicized Polish Jewish community.**
This was a world, a culture and a community that was destroyed between 1939 and 1945. Of the 3 million Jews living in Poland before before 1939 it is estimated that only 50 000 survived the Holocaust. Additionally, the multi-ethnic Poland described above has disappeared in the decades since World War II – a 2011 census poll revealed that 97.7 percent is ethnically Polish.
Despite this, there are promising signs of a revival of Jewish culture in Poland and attempts to celebrate and formally acknowledge the vitality and importance of Jewish life in Poland's history, which goes beyond the Holocaust.
It is these projects of positive construction and remembrance that provide fruitful avenues and opportunities for growth and dealing with the fraught intricacies of a collective past. That is, if they aren't overshadowed by the troubling findings in the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance's most recent report.
In order to bolster the former and combat the latter, it's important to recognize that, as the the director of the POLIN museum has stated, “You cannot have a good history of Poland without the history of the Polish Jews, and you cannot have a good history of the Jews without Poland.”
*-Taken from the introduction to If Only It Were Fiction
**-Taken from the introduction to Bits & Pieces