December 2010 Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles



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December 2010

Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles


by Mark Paul

Mutual prejudices and stereotypes have been harboured by both Poles and Jews, in relation to one another, for long centuries. However, few authors in the West have recognized that Jews, no less than Poles, succumbed to a parallel view of the Other, and fewer still have analyzed the impact of Jewish attitudes on their relations with Poles. A patently obvious, yet much overworked, theme in studies of Polish-Jewish relations is that of “Otherness,” with its exclusive focus on Polish attitudes toward Jews. Discussion of Jewish attitudes has generally been eschewed.1 Such a one-dimensional focus is skewed as 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 was inevitable. The situation was further compounded because of the traumatic experiences of the Second World War, and how they were handed down. Stereotypes directed at others often came to the forefront and moderatation was often was discarded in formulating one’s 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.2
The truth of the matter is that all ethnic and religious groups 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.3 “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.” 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.4

In Poland, Jews lived in closed, tightly knit, isolated communities largely of their own making. Unlike, the Armenian and Muslim Tatar minorities, who did not shy away from cultural polonization and gained acceptance by Polish society despite their religious differences, Jews guarded their communal life closely and wanted as few dealings with the outside world as possible, except for those necessary to sustain their economic livelihood. Originally, the basis for separation was dictated by the tenets of their religion. The rise of Jewish nationalism in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century5 fostered the expression of a distinctive ethnic and national identity, separate from that of the Poles, and thus exacerbated the situation. It was inevitable that the cultural and socioeconomic distinctions of Polish and Jewish society would translate into different political interests. The political agenda of the mainstream Jewish community during the First World War and the early stages of Poland’s rebirth was a form of national autonomy. (The socialist Bund was willing to settle for “cultural autonomy”.) 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 government. Contacts with Poles (Christians) would be kept to a minimum, mainly on the economic plane. However, in addition to exclusivist schools for the Jewish community which were to be funded by the state, Jews wanted to have it both ways: they also demanded full access to Polish state-funded schools as a vehicle for their own social advancement. (While such separateness or autonomy was championed for Jews and other minorities, those Poles who held similar aspirations for themselves were branded as anti-Semites and xenophobes. In response to the rabbis’ insistence on Jews attending Jewish religious schools, some Catholic clergy advocated for the establishment of a countrywide Catholic school system.) Reluctantly, the Jewish community had to settle for the right to separate schools (some were government run and funded but most were private, though the latter also often received substantial municipal subsidies as did many Jewish community institutions,6 a fact that Jewish historians ignore) and maintained a broad range of community institutions. 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 ostracization. Assimilation on the Western model was vigorously eschewed by the Jews, who saw themselves as a distinct nation. Tellingly, during the 1931 census, the Jewish community leaders urged Jews to identify their mother tongue as Hebrew or Yiddish, rather than Polish.7 This sense of Jewish separateness, coupled with the Poles’ objectively justifiable belief that the Jews—unlike others who settled among the Poles—were by and large an unassimilable 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.8
As late as 1940, the famed doctor Janusz Korczak pointed out:
A certain nationalist told me: “A Jew, a sincere patriot, is at best a ‘Warszawer’ or ‘Cracower’, but not a Pole.”9
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.10 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.11


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.”12 Singer recalls wanting to learn Polish as a boy growing up in Warsaw, but his father scoffed at the notion.

The degree of alienation of the Jewish community, which was largely self-imposed, cannot be overemphasized. For Orthodox Jews, their Jewishness constituted an absolute and insurmountable obstacle to meaningful relations with the outside world. As sociologist Alina Cała argues, Orthodox Jews manifested no emotional relationship to Polishness or Polish culture, and thus “were virtually precluded from experiencing a sense of Polish nationality or cultural identity.”13 Marian Milsztajn, who was born in Lublin in 1919, wrote:


Where we lived … I didn’t hear one word of Polish. I didn’t know such a language existed. To the extent it existed, I knew it was the language of the goys. Poland? I had no idea. I first encountered the Polish language when I was seven, when I entered my first class on the second floor of Talmud-Tora. The language of instruction was Jewish (Yiddish). … We wrote in Jewish, learned some history in Jewish, mathematics, and the Polish language. During the first week of studies, when the teacher spoke in Polish we did not understand a word. And we began to shout: “speak our language, speak our language.” We made such a commotion that the shames arrived. And the shames turned to us: “Children, you must learn Polish because we are in Poland.” …

In the small towns the Jewish youth did not know Polish at all, but Jewish or Hebrew. … The youth did not know Polish, and if they did, they knew it like I did—poorly.14


By the beginning of the twentieth century, most Jews regarded themselves as members of an ethnic or national group, and were so regarded by the surrounding population. This made much more difficult an accommodation between Jews and the reborn Polish state, since what they were now demanding were national rights. Many Jews were in fact opposed to Polish rule and some even the notion of Polish nationhood. The vast majority of Jews would only settle for living in Poland under one condition: full autonomy, which meant separation from the “Other”—their Polish neighbours. As historians point out,
Zionists, who dominated the joint committee of East European Jewish delegations at the [Paris] Peace Conference and enjoyed the support of the American Jewish Congress, demanded that Poland … recognize their Jewish residents as members of a distinct nation, with the right to collective representation at both state and international levels. This would entail the creation of a separate Jewish parliament in Poland, alongside a state parliament representing all the country’s inhabitants, and it would mean the creation of a Jewish seat at the League of Nations.

In demanding formal, corporate, political/diplomatic status for a territorially dispersed nation, as distinct from a state, the Zionists were challenging traditional notions about the indivisibility of state sovereignty …15


It is of profound significance that the memorial books of the Jewish communities destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War are written in Yiddish and (less often) in Hebrew, and although some of them contain English sections virtually none have any Polish-language content. According to French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the Jews of Poland could not properly be regarded as Poles of Jewish faith, as they represented a civilization and culture unto themselves.16 The ultimate goal for many, if not most Jews, in interwar Poland was to one day live in a national Jewish state in Palestine, governed by Jews, where Jews would live in conformity with their Jewish religious and cultural traditions.17 This dream was especially strong among residents of the hundreds of traditional shtetls (small towns) strewn throughout Poland, where many Jews did not even know what the Polish flag looked like.18 For many, committed Zionists as well as others, the Jewish national state was to be a purely Jewish one.19

The historic separateness of the Polish and Jewish communities, even on a day-to-day level, remained pronounced right up to the Second World War. For many Jews, especially the younger ones, the atmosphere of the traditional shtetl was stifling, if not repressive. True, some inroads had been made in “assimilating” the Jewish population, but that was a rather recent trend and, for the most part, largely superficial. It was more akin to acculturation than to the concept of assimilation. (Assimilation was something that was taken for granted and expected of Jews who settled in the West.) To outside observers the reality of Jewish communal life in Poland was a rather rude awakening.

Arthur L. Goodhart, who came to Poland in the summer of 1920 as counsel to a mission sent by the president of the United Stares to investigate conditions in Poland, described typical Jewish schools in Warsaw connected with synagogues. These schools were steeped in Jewish history tradition and paid virtually no attention to the non-Jewish community around them:
We then went to the senior class, where the children were thirteen or fourteen years old. These children had just been studying Jewish history, and one of them enthusiastically repeated to me the names of the different kings of Judah. As this was the oldest class, I thought I would ask them some questions. Of the thirty-five children … Nearly all of them knew that New York was in America. None of them knew who Kosciuszko [Kościuszko] was, and one particularly bright boy was the only one in the class who had ever heard of [King John] Sobieski. He thought that Sobieski was a Polish nobleman who had fought against the Russians. I then asked them some questions about languages. Only one boy could talk Polish, although four or five could understand it. … All the classes in this school were conducted in Yiddish, although the main emphasis was put on teaching the children Hebrew. …

We visited three or four other Talmud schools during the day. One of the best had some maps on the wall. When I examined them I found that they were detailed charts of Palestine. The children in this class were able to draw excellent plans of the country on the blackboard, filling in the names of all the cities and most of the villages. I asked one of the boys whether he could draw a similar map of Poland, and he said “No.” …

After having visited these schools, we had an interview with the head of the Talmud Torahs. He was opposed to the idea that the Polish Government should inspect these schools and force them to teach [even some] Polish to the children. … The purpose of his schools was to give the pupils the traditional Jewish education.20
Many Jews had more affinity for distant, mythical America than for Poland, or even Palestine, despite overwhelming evidence that Jews who immigrated there soon shed everything that made their lives distinctive in Poland.
Citizens of Kolbuszowa, still we were in love with America. Nothing could change that; nothing ever did. To us American could do no wrong. …

What could happen to people there was common knowledge. The religion of their fathers, the faith of our ancestors, once in America it no longer was the same. Incident after incident reaffirmed this lamentable fact; so did many popular stories. Just look at those who had returned from America to visit us. Beards trimmed or shaved off, payes removed, long coats gone. What kind of Jews were these?



It was so. I remember when my brother came for a visit. Saturday arrived, the sacred Sabbath, but he continued to smoke his cigarettes. … Then he had someone go over to the local Polish store and buy pork sausages. What happened to kosher in America? Excuses—all you heard were excuses. It was too hard. It no longer made sense.21
Almost overnight, centuries-old traditions were abandoned by most Jews who immigrated to America from from the tradition-laden shtetls of Poland. But within Poland itself there was little tolerance for the idea of assimilation. As Goodhart points out, the so-called Polish-speaking assimilators—”Jews who believe that Judaism is only a question of religion”—were shunned and even despised by the vast majority of Poland’s Jews: “Most of the prominent Jews in Poland are not leaders of their people as is the case in other countries.”22 In view of such credible observations (of which there a plethora), unilateral charges that Poles regarded Jews as “others” and rejected the efforts of Jews to be “accepted” into Polish society are entirely misfocused. An American Methodist missionary who resided in Warsaw in the interwar period drew a similar picture:
Reared in a small American town, I had never thought, before coming to Poland, of Jews as being different, except in religion, from others in the community. In Poland, where they formed nearly 10 per cent of the population, I found them a separate people with a culture of their own. Their religion, language, customs, and garb were all a part of a tradition guarded with jealous pride and handed down unchanged through generations. Except for doctors, lawyers, and others in the professional class, the Polish Jew saw to it that no one mistook him for anything but a Jew.”23
Raymond Leslie Buell, an American writer, educator and President of the Foreign Policy Association, made the following observations:
The ordinary Jew speaks Yiddish … and is influenced by a particularly formidable type of orthodoxy, or rabbinism, of the Tsadika or Wunderrabi variety. While some Jews contend that the government obstructs assimilation, there is little doubt that the most powerful factor which keeps the Jew separate from the Pole is the type of orthodoxy which dominates a large part of the Jewish population. The American visitor unaccustomed to the Polish tradition wonders why more interracial disputes have not occurred when, on visiting a typical village, he sees the Orthodox Jew, wearing his skullcap, black boots, long double-breasted coat, curls and beard, mingling with the Poles proper. The government may think it is in its interest to support the Orthodox Jews against their more assimilated brethren, but the foreign observer is nevertheless struck by the readiness of the ordinary Poles to accept the assimilated or baptized Jew as an equal. In government departments, in the army, in the banks, and in newspapers, one finds the baptized Jews occupying important positions. This class, which in Nazi Germany is subject to bitter persecution, has been freely accepted in Poland. With the growth of nationalist spirit among both Jews and Poles, the trend toward assimilation seems to have been arrested. It remains true, however, that the Polish attitude towards the Jew is governed by racial considerations to a lesser degree than the attitude of other peoples.24
According to that author, the most significant factor that set Poles and Jews apart was grounded in economics, and certainly not race, though religion also played a role. As W. D. Rubinstein has argued compellingly,
the demonstrable over-representation of Jews in the economic elites of many continental European countries was itself a potent force for creating and engendering antisemitism, arguably the most important single force which persisted over the generations. … the fate of other ‘entrepreneurial minorities’ was, often, similar to that of the Jews in continental Europe. …

Over-representation in the economic elite of a visible ethnic minority of the degree found in Poland or Hungary was certain to cause trouble regardless of the identity of the group …25


It was no accident that, with the advent of the Great Depression, which hit Poland harder than any other European country, conditions would take a turn for the worse.26

The traditional role of the Jews as “middlemen” is one that is not fully appreciated in the scholarship on Polish-Jewish relations. Middlemen—whether Chinese in Southeast Asia, Tamils in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indians in Uganda, or Jews in Eastern Europe—exhibit a distinctive cultural profile which includes strong group ties, resistance to forming bonds with those who are not members of the group, and dress, language and religion that differs from the majority’s population. Middleman minorities are often regarded as economic exploiters who do nor commit to solidarity with the peoples they exploit. From time to time these sentiments explode in violent outbursts, often in response to an incident that provokes outrage among the host society.27 (As Israeli historian Emanuel Melzer has noted, the anti-Jewish excesses and pogroms that occurred in Poland in the years 1935–37, “Usually … resulted from the killing of a Pole by a Jew.”28) As Edna Bonacich has also noted, in relation to other countries that faced this problem, “The efficient organization of the middleman economy makes it virtually impossible for the native population to compete in the open market; hence, discriminatory government measures … have been widely introduced.”29 Arguing, in the case of Poland, that religious prejudice (Christian anti-Semitism) or nationalism per se is the driving force behind these reactions simply misses the mark.

Comparisons are sometimes made, in the writings of American Jews, of the situation of Jews in Poland to that of Blacks in the United States. This analogy is simply devoid of legitimacy. Rather, the position of Blacks was occupied by Polish peasantry, at least up to the 1920s. Booker Washington, a prominent Black American leader and a representative of the last generation of Blacks born in slavery, made a tour of Europe in 1910 during which he had an opportunity to observe the condition of European labourers and peasants. He used those observations to illuminate the situation of African Americans, especially in the South. This was a witness who, more than Whites or Jews, had first hand experience and knew of what he wrote. While in Poland Washington saw peasants living in “weather-worn and decrepit” huts shared with cows, pigs, geese, and chickens. Every exchange of cash seemed to be in the hands of Jews:

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