January 2014 Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles

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January 2014

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. 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, Poles are often condemned for not embracing Poland’s Jews as Poles, for having seen Jews as the “Other,” and even for not including Jews within the Poles’ “sphere of moral obligations.” 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. Such a one-dimensional focus is skewed. 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 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 moderation 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.1
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.2 “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.3 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.

In Poland, Jews lived in closed, tightly knit, isolated communities largely of their own making.4 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,5 in opposition to that of the Poles. 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.6
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. Most Jews in the Eastern Borderlands and the German-held parts of Poland were opposed to the prospect of Polish rule after World War I.7 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. They considered Poland to be a multinational state where national minorities could pursue their own national agendas. (The socialist Bund was more moderate and was willing to settle for “cultural autonomy”.) 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.8

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 many Jews to maintain an extreme distinctness, particularism, and cultural separatism, as evidenced by their rejection of even the pluralism offered by the secular western nations. 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.”9

Contemporary, objective outside observers saw the potential for conflict, and they did not lay all the blame on the Polish side as is increasingly the case with more recent historical treatment of Polish-Jewish interwar relations.10 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.”11

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 exclusivist schools for Jews, which were to be funded by the state, Jews wanted to have it both ways: they also demanded full access to state-funded public schools as a vehicle for their own social advancement. While such 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 state schools for Catholics. (Denominational schools existed in many countries including Canada.) The Jewish community had to settle for the right to establish separate schools and maintained a broad range of community institutions. (Some Jewish schools were government run and funded but most were private, though the latter also often received municipal subsidies, as did many Jewish social and cultural institutions,12 a fact generally ignored by Jewish historians.)

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 rejected by most 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.13 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.14 This sense of Jewish separateness, coupled with the Poles’ objectively justifiable belief that the Jews—unlike others who had settled among the Poles—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.15
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.16 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.17

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

Non-Jews also perceived the same problem, though from a different perspective. Hendrik Willem van Loon, a Dutch-American correspondent for the Associated Press during the Russian Revolution of 1905, commented that most of the Jews “were never polonized: they hardly ever used the Polish language and did not feel to be a Pole.” Thus, the Poles “found themselves in company with 5,500,000 [an inflated figure—M.P.] strangers who live with them and on them and who have no intention to act in unison with them.” More than anything else, van Loon saw the Jewish attitude of “I belong to the chosen people and I am a different creature from you” as the source of feelings of animosity toward the Jews in Poland.19

William John Rose, an authority on Poland who taught at several North American universities, observed on his visits to Poland before and after the First World War, that many Jews were hostile to even learning Polish—even after the rebirth of the Polish state itself. Rose describes his experiences with a Polish Jew who experienced enmity from fellow Jews for not sharing their veiled (and politicized) anti-Polish and anti-goy sentiments:
Then my guide took me to see what everyone regarded as a model piece of work for abandoned children, the Jewish orphanage on Leszno Street [in Warsaw], managed by a Mr. Hosenpud. This remarkable man had been a teacher for years, and was president of the Jewish Teachers’ Association. A believer, he took the view that Jewry is a religion and not a nation, and had many enemies among his own people, who were opposed to having orphan lads taught Polish, or brought up to play games, or introduced to the school curriculum that is regarded the world over as the road to intelligent citizenship.20
Having a firsthand knowledge of Poles and Jews, Rose, in contradistinction to most modern thinking, found Jews the ones primarily responsible for the negative aspects of Polish-Jewish relations. Citing several sources published by Rose, Danie Stone comments:
He [Rose] recognized that Jews were subject to discrimination but considered actual anti-Semitism uncommon and of recent date, deriving from economic competition. The real problem was not Polish attitudes but the refusal of Jews to assimilate. He strenuously opposed Zionism insofar as it led to a resurgence of Jewish nationalism in Eastern Europe. The best solution needs to be emigration, preferably to established countries where Jews would not be too ‘arrogant’ to assimilate. Rose applauded those Jews who considered themselves Polish nationals … [such as] historian Szymon Aszkenazy, a practicing Jew …. Nonetheless, assimilation could not offer a solution to the mass of Jews.21
The following commentary about the views of Chaim Zhitlovsky (1865–1943), one of the leading ideologues of the secular Yiddishist movement, provides more insight on the obstacles to integration:
Since Enlightenment universalism was the secular product of Western Christian culture, Jews must overcome their instinctive hatred of Christianity if they wish to join the modern world. The paradoxical path to Jewish secularization led through the Christian religion, not by conversion but by renouncing the Jewish religion’s teaching of contempt. Yet, by reclaiming Jesus as one of their own, the Jews might argue that their culture was a key source for Western civilization.22
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.”23 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.24

Isaac Deutscher, a native of Chrzanów, offers the following observations:
In Poland Jews lived in virtual ghettos even before 1940. Polish nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Catholic clericalism on the one hand, and Jewish separatism, orthodoxy, and Zionism on the other, worked against a lasting and fruitful symbiosis.25
Deutscher shared the “Endek” view that, owing largely to their large population and strong sense of separatism, Polish Jews would never assimilate:
It was in the Eastern European ghettoes that the ancient current of Jewish life ran strongest and that Jews dreamt the dreams of Zion most intensely. … The processes by which before the rise of Nazism French, British, Italian, and German Jews were being ‘assimilated’ never went far in Russia and Poland. The Jews there lived in large and compact masses; they had their own homogenous way of life; and the adsorptive powers of the Slavonic cultures were anyhow too weak to draw them in and assimilate them. Eastern Europe was therefore the land of Jewry PAR EXCELLENCE (not for nothing was Vilna [Wilno] called ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania’).26
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, except in narrow areas where it was not in their economic interest to do so. 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 …27

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.28 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.29 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.30 For many, committed Zionists as well as others, the Jewish national state was to be a purely Jewish one.31

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. 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.’”32 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:

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