May 2016 Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles

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May 2016

Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles

by Mark Paul

Mutual prejudices and stereotypes have been harboured by both Poles and Jews, in regard to one another, for long centuries. However, few scholars in the West have recognized that Jews, no less than Poles, adopted parallel, reciprocal views about the other community.1 A much overworked theme in studies of Polish-Jewish relations is that of the “Other,” with its exclusive focus on Polish attitudes toward Jews. Nowadays, condemnation is often expressed at the very notion that Jews were seen as the “Other” by the Poles.2 Poles are condemned for not embracing Poland’s Jews as Poles and for not including Jews within the Poles’ “sphere of moral obligations.”3 However, there were many times in the past that Poland’s Jews had overtly excluded themselves from the Polish nation and the modern “Jews as nationality” concept only enhanced and formalized this self-exclusion.


Discussion of Jewish attitudes toward Poles has generally been eschewed in the literature on Polish-Jewish relations. Such a one-sided focus is seriously skewed.4 On an objective level, there is no reason to assign all the blame to one side for a state of affairs that was mirrored in both communities. Moreover, it provides little understanding of the dynamics of inter-ethnic relations in the context of the dramatic social, political and economic upheavals that befell Poland. This was especially true in interwar Poland, a multi-ethnic country that had reemerged after World War I after more than a century of foreign, colonial-like rule and where Poles were themselves in a minority in many towns and districts. Conflict between competing groups (nationalisms) was inevitable. The situation was further compounded by the traumatic experiences of the Second World War and how they have been handed down. Stereotypes directed at the “Other” often came to the forefront and moderation is discarded in formulating opinions. Beniamin Horowitz, a Holocaust survivor, recalled:

In relations between particular groups of people, and even entire nations, there reigns an all-powerful principle of collective responsibility. That is why no one said that in Białystok, Równe or Łuck some Jewish Communists behaved with hostility toward Poles, but rather they generalized: “The attitude of the Jews was unfriendly.” Besides, this was the mutual rule in Jewish circles. I often heard similar generalized opinions about Poles that were equally inaccurate and equally unfair.5

The truth of the matter is that all ethnic and religious groups have traditionally viewed members of other groups as outsiders—as being outside their “universe of obligation,” to use a much hackneyed phrase—and treated them with suspicion, if not hostility. Jews were as much imbued with negative stereotypes about Poles as Poles were about Jews.6 “Otherness” was in fact a mainstay of traditional Judaism, no less than of Christian society, and the separateness of the Jews was accentuated by the claim that they were God’s “Chosen People.”7 The Jewish community was the repository of longstanding religious-based biases that instilled far greater affinity and solidarity with co-religionists from other regions and even other lands than with their Christian neighbours.8 In this regard, attacks directed against Poland and the Poles are to some degree a substitute for attacks on Christian society in general and the Catholic Chuch in particular. (Broad-based attacks on the Catholic Church, such as those launched incessantly by historian Daniel Goldhagen, tend to get a more vigorous rebuttal and manage to alienate many people. On the other hand, attacks on Poland and the Poles are—as this study shows—politically acceptable, even in their crudest form.) In addition to religious fundamentalism, Jewish nationalism played an increasing role in Polish-Jewish relations since 19th century.

The notion that Polish, Christian-based anti-Semitism was the key factor that set the tone for relations between Poles and Jews must be dismissed as an unfounded generalization—one that purposely omits other important components from the picture. It presents Jews as objects of perceptions, and not as agents that affect how they are perceived and how they are treated. Informed observers reject that approach. As Dr. Berthold Zarwyn remarked:

It appears to me that two main factors led to anti-Semitism in Poland. The monopolization of commerce by Jews forced into this area by exclusive regulations, and the lack of cultural interaction based mostly on religious ignorance. The attitudes of Catholic clergy on the one-side and of Orthodox Jewry on the other did not stimulate a normal understanding and intermingling.9
In Poland, Jews lived in closed, tightly knit, isolated communities largely of their own making.10 Orthodox Rabbi Avigdor Miller attributed the unwillingness of Poland’s Jews to assimilate to economic self-interest, along with a somewhat condescending attitude towards Poles. The rabbi comments:
When the Jews in Spain began to use that wealthy land as a means of mingling with the Arabs and Spaniards, G-d’s plan caused them to be expelled to lands of lesser culture, such as Turkey and Poland, with whom our people had no incentive to assimilate. Among these nations, G-d permitted the Jews to live in relative peace for centuries; for there was no danger that they would imitate the ways of the poor and backward populace. But those of our people who dwelt among the Germans, French, and English were tempted to mingle with them; for their higher living standards created a lure. You see how our nation adopted the German language, but not Polish or Turkish.11
The perpetuation of Jewish “otherness” worked to undermine any commonality with the non-Jewish population. The consequence was the existence of parallel societies that did not share any common aspirations and had little to do with each other. As one rabbi and writer noted,

Despite a continuous history of nearly ten centuries, the Jews were isolated from their fellow-citizens by religion, by culture, by language, even by dress. The Polish Jew had his own educational system, his own communal organization, his own youth movements, his press, theater, his party politics.12
Unlike the Christian Armenian and Muslim Tatar minorities, who did not shy away from cultural polonization and gained acceptance by Polish society despite religious differences, Jews guarded their communal life closely and wanted as few dealings with the outside world as possible, except those necessary to sustain their economic livelihood. Originally, the basis for separation was dictated by the tenets of the Jewish religion. The rise of a full-fledged, anti-assimilationist Jewish ethno-nationalism in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century fostered the expression of a distinctive ethnic and national identity,13 in opposition to that of the Poles. The Yiddishist secular movement in the 19th century, which elevated Jews to a separate, formal nationality, fostered an aggressive and politicized Jewish particularism and self-imposed apartheid. For example, the Yiddishist Folkspartei was of the position that a Jew could only join another national group, such as the Poles or Russians, by resigning from the Jewish community.14

It was inevitable that the religious, cultural and socio-economic differences between the Polish and Jewish communities would give rise to divergent political aspirations and agenda. Jewish politicization at the start of the twentieth century compounded this problem, underscroring that Jewishness was a key element of identity. Nationalist ideas even penetrated the Jewish socialist movement, symptomatic of the growing divisions between the Polish and Jewish workers’ movemeny. For example, Feliks Perl (1871–1927) sharply criticized the Bund for its politically separatist ambitions (in addition to all the pre-existing religious and cultural separatist tendencies) that went squarely against Polish national interests. Historian Joshua Zimmerman comments,

Perl’s main critique, however, was that the Bund excluded Polish independence from its party platform. … More importantly, the Bund’s vision of a democratic federal republic was undemocratic in character, Perl argued, for under the Bund’s plan, the nationalities of the western provinces and the Kingdom of Poland would be coerced into a federation ruled from Moscow. … In an effort to formulate a theoretical justification for its refusal to support Polish independence, Perl continued, the Bund had resorted to intellectual “acrobatics” and “prevarications”. How did the Bund arrive at such a position? Perl’s answer is revealing: “It derives from the Bund’s original sin—it’s all-Russian position. In the country in which it is active—in Lithuania and Poland—the Bund has separated itself from the local population, neither shares its aspirations not understands its interests, and does not sympathize with the exceptional predicament in which these subjugated people find themselves.” By linking the Jewish labour movement in Poland-Lithuania to Russia, “the Bund plays a false and harmful political role”.15

Most Jews in the Eastern Borderlands and the German-held parts of Poland were firmly opposed to the prospect of Polish rule after World War I.16 At the same time, the mainstream Jewish organizations, especially the Zionist ones, waged a political war against Poland in the international forum to achieve a far-reaching form of national autonomy. (The socialist Bund was more moderate and willing to settle for “cultural autonomy”.) They considered Poland to be a multinational state where national minorities could pursue their own national agendas. Most Poles, on the other hand, viewed Poland foremost as a national homeland of the Poles, just like Jews view Israel as national homeland of the Jews.17

The widespread disdain for the Polish state again came to the fore when throngs of Jews, in every town populated by Jews, welcomed the Red Army when it invaded Eastern Poland in September 1939. This attitude is also evidenced in scores of Holocaust testimonies that relish in reporting, falsely, that the Polish army collapsed in one week (or even days) when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and in illegitimate comparisons, made by many Holocaust historians, of the defence of Poland in September 1939 to the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943, with the latter being touted as more formidable than the former.


The resistance of many Polish Jews to assimilation is often blamed on the uncongenial Catholic-majoritarian atmosphere in Poland (“Polish Jews had nothing to assimilate to.”). The real reason was the desire of vast majority of Jews to maintain an extreme distinctness, particularism, and cultural separatism. By and large they adamantly rejected the prospect of the pluralism offered by secular Western nations. In an Amazon review of Joshua Karlip’s book The Tragedy of a Generation,18 Jan Peczkis notes:

Jewish counter-assimilation, and maintenance of Jewish particularism and separatism, are usually blamed on the persistence of anti-Semitism, the denial of equality and full acceptance to Jews, and to a strongly Christian-majoritarian atmosphere. According to this kind of thinking, assimilation can only proceed in a pluralistic, western-style secular state, with its unambiguous separation of church and state and its equality of all citizens.

Ironic to this line of reasoning (or exculpation), the Jewish separatists actually feared the very equality offered by western-style democracies—precisely because it would lead to assimilation! What the Jewish separatists wanted was special national rights for Jews. Thus, Karlip comments, “Following their expressions of euphoria, Diaspora nationalists and Yiddishists began to articulate their vision of the future of a liberated Russian Jewry. Like all other Jewish nationalists, [Elias] Tcherikower warned that civic emancipation in the absence of national rights would lead to West European-style assimilation. He reminded his readers that Russian Jewry had won negative freedom—namely, the freedom from oppression—but had yet to win its positive freedom, which meant national rights and the creation of national institutions.” (P. 135.)

To the Yiddishists, Jewish emancipation and assimilation were inherently unacceptable because they were gutting the very essence of being Jewish, “In this article, he [Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch] argued that assimilation resulted from the historical process of modernity itself. In the Middle Ages, he argued, Jewish individuals had lived as members of the Jewish community. Capitalism, however, had granted these individuals the opportunity to seek their fortunes in non-Jewish society.” (P. 199.) In addition, “Emancipation had led to a selfish individualism that condemned all experiments at secular Jewish identity to failure.” (P. 178.)

Other Yiddishists went further. They believed in a form of Jewish essentialism that made Jews unassimilable in the first place, “More viscerally, [Yisroel] Efroikin argued that Jewish national distinctiveness rendered assimilation futile. At times, Efroikin’s integral nationalist conception of Jewish identity drifted into a racialist conception of Jewish distinctiveness. Invoking the historian Cecil Roth, Efroikin described how Marranos in Spain and Portugal retained a separate identity even five hundred years after their conversions.” (P. 257.)

Nahum Sokolow, a member of a Jewish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, made this obvious. Oscar Janowsky writes, “Sokolow also maintained that 85% of the Jews of Poland knew no Polish, but spoke Hebrew or Yiddish. They possessed a communal life with flourishing educational, social and charitable institutions. Mere emancipation of the western type would destroy, in his view, this communal life.”19

It is often claimed that Jews were loyal citizens of Poland because they did not have a political agenda that conflicted with that of their home state. However, Yiddishist-oriented Jews were against an undoing of the Partitions of Poland, and resurrection of the Polish state, because this would geographically divide the Jews and thus dilute their political power. A new Polish state could also cause the diminution or loss of centuries-old Jewish economic privileges. Finally, Slavic culture was unworthy of the Jews. As Joshua Karlip writes,

As this last shred of hope gave way to sober reality, [Yisroel] Efroikin also mourned the breakup of Russia into independent successor states as spelling the death of a unified Russian Jewry. From the late eighteenth century until World War I, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian Jews had comprised a united Russian Jewry that experienced modernization together through such movements and processes as Haskalah, Zionism, and the rise of Yiddish culture. Now, however, Russian Jews would face the future as minorities in emerging nation-states. … Although the successor states might guarantee personal emancipation and national autonomy, he argued, the small size of these fragmented Jewish communities would preclude autonomy’s implementation. The peasant nationalities that would lead most of these successor states, moreover, would force the Jews from their traditional economic role in commerce and industry. Echoing the Yiddishist call for a synthesis between Jewish and European cultures, Efroikin feared that the low cultural level of these peasant nationalities would negatively affect the development of secular Yiddish culture.20
Objective outside observers saw the potential for conflict inherent in Jewish attitudes, and they did not lay all the blame on the Polish side as is increasingly the case with the more recent historical treatment of Polish-Jewish interwar relations.21 The American H.H. Fisher recognized the alienating nature of Jewish separatism in Poland: “This Jewish nationalist formula was supported by the Zionists, and the right and left Jewish Socialists. The orthodox Jews advocated merely emancipation and equality of rights. The conflict, therefore, was notwith ‘Poles of the Jewish faith,’ but with ‘Polish citizens of the Jewish nation.’” Despite the later (1925) efforts of Stanisław Grabski (Minister of Religious Beliefs and Public Education), Count Aleksander Skrzyński (Poland’s Prime Minister in 1925–1926), and several Jewish members of the Sejm (Polish Parliament), the problem persisted: “These measures did not, of course, put an end to anti-Semitism in Poland or to hostility to the Polish state among certain Jewish groups, but it was a step in the right direction, a hopeful indication of a less intransigent spirit in Polish-Jewish relations.”22

As noted, the Jews wanted to live as a separate nation within a nation, among their own kind, with their own language, schools and institutions, and even their own communal government. Contacts with Poles (Christians) would be kept to a minimum, mainly on the economic plane. However, in addition to an exclusivist community for Jews, whose institutions were to be funded by the state, Jews wanted to have it both ways: they also demanded full access to the institutions of the majority as a vehicle for their own social advancement. While such an imbalanced separateness or autonomy was pressed by Jews and other minorities, those Poles who held similar aspirations for themselves were branded as anti-Semites and xenophobes. Just as rabbis favoured denominational schools for Jews, some Catholic clergy advocated for the establishment of denominational schools for Catholics. (Denominational schools exist in many countries including Canada.) The Jewish community had to settle for the right to establish separate schools (some were state funded, but most Jewish schools were private), and maintained a broad range of community institutions. Many private Jewish schools, however, did receive municipal subsidies, as did many Jewish social and cultural institutions,23 a fact that is generally ignored in Jewish historiography.

Jews enjoyed an unhampered cultural, social and religious life that flourished in interwar period. They also participated in the country’s political life through a host of political parties that won representation both locally and nationally. Nonetheless, separateness was fostered by Jewish community leaders and remained the preferred lifestyle for most Jews. Assimilation into Polish society automatically put one outside the mainstream of the Jewish community and even led to ostracism. Assimilation on the Western model was vigorously rejected by most Jews, who saw themselves as a distinct nation.24 Tellingly, during the 1931 census, the Jewish community leaders urged Jews to identify their mother tongue as Hebrew or Yiddish, rather than Polish.25 When a committee named after Berek Joselewicz promoting Polish-Jewish dialogue was started in Wilno in 1928, it was boycotted by the Jewish community leaders on the grounds that it could lead to assimilation.26 This sense of Jewish separateness, coupled with the Poles’ objectively justifiable belief that the Jews—unlike others who had settled among the Poles (like the Armenians)—were by and large an inassimilable group, constituted the most serious impediment to Polish-Jewish co-existence.

The separateness of the Jews was clearly discernible at every turn. According to one Jewish researcher,

In Poland, … there was little question: Jews were Jews. With some exception, Jews neither considered themselves nor were they regarded by others as Polish or Polish Jews. As is well known, Jews in Poland were allowed to have their own laws and institutions. They were a nation unto themselves and they maintained their nationhood in Poland. From the time of their arrival and through the centuries, they sought to protect their way of life. They were not merely a separate religion but a tightly-knit community, leading life largely separate from Poles. They had their own customs, culture, dress, schools, courts, community government, and language (in the 1930 census almost 80 percent declared Yiddish as their mother tongue). Menachem Begin’s father refused to learn Polish. In a word, the vast majority of Jews were unintegrated socially and culturally in the fabric of the larger society. They shared little or no national sentiment or common allegiance with the Poles. They and the Poles were almost strangers. They avoided association with the vast majority of the population, the Polish peasantry, not wanting to live like, or with, them.27
According to historian Regina Renz,

Many small country towns … could be described as shtetls—localities dominated by a Jewish community, organized according to their own rules in their own unique manner. The Jews constituted an integral part of the material and spiritual landscape of small towns.

Poles and Jews living in the same town formed two separate environments. Rose Price recollects: ‘I was born in a small Polish town. In our district, everyone knew everyone else: grandparents, aunts, friends, neighbours, merchants, and craftsmen. The strangers were the non-Jews—the Poles.’ That there was such fundamental closeness and such great psychological alienation is astounding.28 Both the Polish and Jewish side harboured grievances and prejudices, although these had different sources and disparate natures. The model of bilateral contacts accepted by both sides was one of peaceful isolation, of a life devoid of conflict, but also of closer friendship. The Jews were an ethnic community with a marked consciousness of their cultural distinctiveness, which had been strengthened through the centuries by their common history, and which manifested itself in the cult of tradition and religious ties. Apart from tradition and religion, other important factors binding the Jewish community were the Yiddish language, clothing, customs, and communal institutions.29

In an article entitled, “Jews and Poles Lived Together for 800 Years But Were Not Integrated,” published in the New York newspaper Forverts (September 17, 1944), Yiddish author and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote under the pen-name Icchok Warszawski:
Rarely did a Jew think it was necessary to learn Polish; rarely was a Jew interested in Polish history or Polish politics. … Even in the last few years it was still a rare occurrence that a Jew would speak Polish well. Out of three million Jews living in Poland, two-and-a-half million were not able to write a simple letter in Polish and they spoke [Polish] very poorly. There are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland to whom Polish was as unfamiliar as Turkish. The undersigned was connected with Poland for generations, but his father did not know more than two words in Polish. And it never even occurred to him that there was something amiss in that.

Bashevis Singer again returned to this theme in the March 20, 1964 issue of Forverts: “My mouth could not get accustomed to the soft consonants of that [Polish] language. My forefathers have lived for centuries in Poland but in reality I was a foreigner, with separate language, ideas and religion. I sensed the oddness of this situation and often considered moving to Palestine.”30 Singer recalls wanting to learn Polish as a boy growing up in Warsaw, but his father scoffed at the notion. Tellingly, Jews also believed that even well-intentioned Gentiles cannot understand the Jewish spirit.31 Compared to Singer, who espoused rather moderate views, many Jews advanced extremist views. They underscored their alienation by reacting strongly against the supposed spirit of submissiveness that Jews had shown while in the Diaspora. In his novel Mikan U-Mikan (“From Here and From Here”), published in 1911, Yosef Haim Brenner wrote:



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