|by Ara Vartanian|
|Anti-Semitism in Poland||by Jennifer Parnes|
|Lewkowicz Collection||By Diana Jauregui|
In this short essay, I will analyze the impact of the Jewish people and their culture on the Eastern European country of Poland. Since Poland was captured and parts of its territory was controlled by other countries (Russia invaded 4 separate times between 1772 and 1815 alone), the history of this country and its various peoples is complex. In fact, some have said that the "history of the Jewish people, and their relationship to the non-Jewish people, varied from region to region and from partition to partition in Poland" (PBS). Still, before World War II, Poland contained the largest population of Jews in Europe (and the second largest in the world), and though they are now almost gone, their impact can still be felt.
Jews first came to Poland seeking freedom from persecution. They came from England, France, and Spain after they were forced to leave (in 1290, 1306, and 1492, respectively) (PBS). In the beginning, Jews were welcomed by the Polish government and were granted full rights. King Kazimierz Wielki (1310-1370), for example, invited them to the country because he believed they would be a cultural and economic asset (LNT). Unfortunately, by the 14th century, they began to be persecuted, as they had been everywhere else.
Still, the Jews remained and grew in numbers. There was another great influx during the Crusades, when Jews were again persecuted throughout Western Europe (LNT). In the 18th century, the Hasidic movement was inaugurated in Poland. At the same time, "a thriving middle class of professionals, scientists, and merchants" established themselves throughout the country. (Wroclaw).
Jews were instrumental in nearly every aspect of Polish life and civilization. For instance, Jews played an important role in Polands industrialization. They were bankers, merchants, traders, entrepreneurs, industrialists, and moneylenders, and they "initiated, organized, and developed many fields of economic life" (LNT). They also contributed much to Polish culture, especially literature and music. Isaac Bashevis Singer (winner of the Nobel prize), the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, Aleksander Reichman (founder of the Warsaw Philharmonic), as well as many other famous writers, poets, sculptors, musicians, scientists, and inventors were Jews. (LNT, Wroclaw).
Finally, Jews figure in Polish military history as well. They played an important role in Polish battles for independence during the 17th and 18th centuries against the Russians and others, and helped Poland gain freedom in 1918. Also, nearly 100,000 Jews fought against the Nazis in World War II, although most were killed. Thus, in economics, the arts, and political history, it is clear that Jews have played a large part in forming Poland’s identity. However, the holocaust literally destroyed the Polish Jewish community. Out of 3.3 million Jews before the war, only 300,000 survived. Today, there are less than 3,000 Jews remaining. But still, their effect can be felt in what the holocaust means to Poland. The camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek are "constant reminders of this centurys darkest hour" (Wroclaw).
The history of Polish Jewry has virtually come to an end. It is estimated that 6,000 Jews still reside in Poland, and even though a number of institutions such as the Jewish Social and Cultural Organization are devoted to preserving their antiquated history, it is difficult to view organized communal life surviving through the next generation. Throughout history, the Polish population has not appreciated the significance of the Jewish contribution in Polish life to any recognizable extent. As Jewish writer Yitzchak Leib Peretz says “I know who you are, but who I am – You do not know” (Abramsky, pg. 11). Many Jews perceive this as a Polish superiority complex, which envisages refuting the accomplishments of Jews in the Polish community. The interwar years marked an era of prejudice, exclusion, and torture for a significant part of the Jewish community, and some of these stereotypes continue to prevail today.
In Polish political life, the process of assimilation and Polonization were the traditional means of answering the Jewish question. This belief which advocates homogeneity was invoked by the democratic movements of the 19th century, including the positivism existing in Warsaw at the time. These points of view were characterized by a tolerance of Jews as individuals as well as a dismissal of the Jewish religion as a manifestation of complete backwardness. The Jewish population was commonly referred to as the “Dark Continent” which emanated qualities of simplicity and primitiveness, leading to the Poles automatically regarding their superior position. The liberal middle class rejected the cultural differences between Poles and Jews but accepted them on the whole. The Socialists rejected Judaism and refused to accept a separate Jewish Socialist movement. The Socialists demonstrated their hypocritical nature as they utilized Yiddish for their propaganda with the local party organizations that recruited Jews, yet instilled in the Polish political parties the potential danger of the Jewish movement.
The Poles were encouraged to take two major stands on the position of Jews in Poland during the interwar years: isolationism and assimilation. The isolationist position advocated cultural separatism and religious hostility as well as condemning all contact with Jews, while assimilation coupled with polonization attempted to integrate Jews into Polish culture. Jews were stripped of their political rights and were ostracized in their communities. “Isolationism became a synonym for thrusting Jews back behind the ghetto walls “ (Polonsky, pg. 195). The national worldview of anti-Semitism as demonstrated by the Galician peasant movement and other propaganda seemed to further enhance the Isolationist position. Many based this anti-Semitism campaign on the threat of the predominance of Jews in certain areas of financial industrialization and their support of Christian and Polish elements which employed their danger to faith and morals. In the first years of the second Republic, anti-Semitism disappeared completely but reared its ugly head in 1922-23 as it intensified, characterized by extremist views and anti-Semitic psychoses. Jews were denied their rights to education and were limited in their residences and job searches.
Many fundamental changes took place by the end of the 1920’s. Political forces with roots in the National Democracy changed from ideological anti-Semitism to supporting the organized use of physical force. Jedrezej Giertych advocated this view which contradicted the earlier view of Jews as the alien culture. He believed that the Jews constituted the most important problem for Polish politics, as they were the enemy and the pillar of Anti-Polish activity. In May 1938, the Governing Council of Party of Labor mandated that all Jews had to emigrate, but force was opposed. The Jews represented barriers to the development of the Polish middle class in the areas of trade and credit mediation. “Jews were described as an extra-state group with independent nationalistic aims that weakened the normal development of a Polish national state” (Polonsky, pg 197). The beginning of the interwar years saw the first stages of anti-Semitism as a social movement being transformed from an isolationist movement in to a movement advocating physical force.
The Poles had an inborn prejudice to the Jewish population, but there were some circumstances that actually brought them closer together. The mutual threat imposed by the Germans during their occupation of Poland and their anti-Semitic feelings helped to bring the Poles and the Jews somewhat closer together in some areas. The Poles reviewed some of their former beliefs and displayed compassion for the Jews. The creation of the ghettos helped to form a bond between the Jews and the Poles who had both been subjected to the force of the Germans. While Jews were being forced into the ghettos, Poles were being forced to live in areas known as Aryan districts. Many Jews were approached by members of the Polish community with a desire to help them escape the wrath of the Germans. One of the Polish women who helped was Regina Zakrewka. She wrote, “My whole family, being members of the Polish intelligentsia were friendly before the war with the Jewish Intelligentsia which was more or less polonized, It is not surprising, therefore, that during the tragic period of the occupation we remained loyal to our friends, all of whom probably survived the war and the occupation because of that (Abramsky, 155). Jewish-Polish intermarriages protected Jews by moving them out of the area, or securing for them suitable Aryan papers. There was a Polish underground movement in which money was donated to aid the Jews. “Noble human instincts moved many individual Poles to actions that were not necessarily consonant with and may even have been contradictory to their own political views” ( Abramsky, pg. 179).
The history of the Polish Jews captures only a miniscule part of Polish history, but it receives paramount importance. The Poles were subjected to slavery and were demoralized and forced to observe the destruction of Polish and European Jewry by the Germans. “Although they did not choose for themselves the role of witness, they have the duty to bear witness” (Polonsky, black, pg. 161). Historians emphasize that there wasn’t any practical manner in which the Poles could save the Jewish people. “There was no complicity and not the slightest possibility of saving the Jewish nation (pg. 162). The moral problem here is not diminished here by the fact that if there was moral compassion it could not have translated into significant help because the Poles had been warned that they could not possibly help the Jews since they had been given a death sentence for doing so since 1941. One example of an attempt to go against the stream was by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. She was a head of a small Catholic underground organization the Front for the Rebirth of Poland. She said, “Our feelings toward Jews have not changed. We still consider them to be political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland… The awareness of these feelings, however, does not relieve us of our duty to condemn the crime” (Abramsky, 199). She later became one of the organizers of the Zegota, the special section of the Home Army created to help the Jews.
The history of Polish Jews can be coupled with the experiences of my grandparents. As much as this research may have been graphic and heartfelt, no research is as graphic and conclusive as the experiences I have heard firsthand, from survivors of the Holocaust, my grandparents. My grandmother was born in Shedlese, Poland in 1929 where she lived with her parents, 2 older sisters, and younger brother. The first day of the war in 1939 marked tragedy for my grandmother as her eleven-year-old sister was killed in a building bombed by German soldiers. A few years later my grandmother was standing next to a building as it too was bombed by the Germans, sparing her life. Years passed by and my grandmother met my grandfather. My grandparents were one of the lucky ones being sheltered by a Catholic family in the mountains of Poland. While they were never forced into concentration camps, they were transported to forced labor camps in the freezing woods of Siberia in which they had to endure detrimental weather conditions and extreme labor. While my grandparents live to tell of these stories I can only look at the expression on their faces and the fear in their eyes when they relive these experiences, the expressions that the pages of these books conceal.
In recent years the situation has improved as Polish interest in Jewish matters has greatly increased. The links between Jews and Poles have been fortified as Yiddish and Hebrew literature has been translated into Polish and attempts have been made to preserve Jewish monuments and the study of Polish Jewry. Attempts must be further made to salvage the history of Polish Jewry before it is lost forever.
1. Abramsky, Chimen et al. The Jews in Poland. Basil Blackwell: New York, 1986
2. Polonsky, Antony. Jews in Independent Poland 1918-1939. Institute for Polish Jewish Studies:
3. Polonsky, Antony. My Brother’s Keeper: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust. Routledge:
Before World War II the Jewish population in Poland made up about one-third of the population of cities in central Poland. Many had moved there fleeing religious persecution in other European countries, but in September 1939, their worst fears became a reality. In that year the
German Nazis occupied Poland. The Nazi Party from 1933 to 1939 tried to eliminate Jews from economic and social life in Germany. They believed that "pure Germans" or Aryans were a superior race and that all other races, especially Jews, had to be removed Europe. The Polish Jews were forced to live in ghettos, sections of cities that were surrounded by walls, in order to segregate the Jews. They had to eat, sleep, work, and socialize in the ghetto. By September 1941, the Jews were being sent to work camps where they were worked to death or simply killed. The German government insisted in the beginning that they were only deporting the Jews, but the truth was soon revealed. By the end of the war, five million Jews had been killed. One of these Jews was Wolf Lewkowicz. Wolf Lewkowicz was a Polish Jew who lived in the city of Opoczno right before the time of his death. Between 1922 and 1939, he wrote to his nephew Sol who moved to the United States with his mother before World War I. Although many of these letters contain personal information, they also give us, as the reader, a sense of how it felt to be a Jew in Poland. Before the Nazis entered Poland in 1939, Wolf writes to his nephew of anti-Semitism, high inflation, and food shortages occurring in Poland. The letters are filled with doubt and fear of, what Wolf feels is a declining of the Jewish lifestyle. The last letter written by Wolf is right before World War II begins. On September 22, 1942, most of the Jews in Opoczno, where Wolf and his family were living in a ghetto, were forcibly taken by cattle car from to their deaths in a concentration camp in Treblinka. (wolf collection) The last letter in the collection was written by Sols two nephews from what is now known as Israel. One learns that Wolf and his family hid in a cellar when the Jews were taken from Opoczno, but on January 5, 1943, the last train from Opoczno to Treblinka contained Wolf and his family. It not only describes Wolfs train ride to the death camp but how one of the nephews, Aaron Chmielnicki Carmi, escaped from the cattle car and ended up surviving the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. In the end Wolf seems to blame himself for the massacre of his family because he had not gone to America with his sister prior to World War I. He considered himself a failure.
If someone came across this collection accidentally, as I did, one would be touched instantly. Through these letters one has a chronological account of a Jews feelings during this time. It is amazing to see the decline of a race that was treated like a regular citizen one day and being persecuted the next. Wolf already felt a bit doubtful about Jewish life in Poland, but by the conclusion of the war, instead of blaming the Nazis, he blames himself. He spent his entire life fighting for his pride and his children, but in the end he died believing he was a failure. The Yiddish letters which make up the main body of this Collection constitute the only remaining tangible evidence of the life of Wolf Lewkowicz. (wolf collection) The Wolf Lewkowicz Collection symbolizes the fighting spirit and loss of hope that many Jews in Poland and beyond felt during the Holocaust.
The Wolf Lewkowicz Collection www.mit.edu/maz/wolf/
Polish Jews in World War II http://www.cyberoad.com/Poland/jews_ww2.html