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.
1Discussion of Jewish attitudes has generally been eschewed. 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
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 1 This continues to be the case even in recent scholarship, for example, Neal Pease, Rome’s Most Faithful Daughter:
The Catholic Church and Independent Poland, 1914–1939 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Pres, 2009). The topic is
considered not to be “politically correct” and invites charges of anti-Semitsim from those who view any criticism of Jews as unacceptable. Reading Pease’s study, however, one can see why many members of the Polish Catholic clergy supported the right wing National Democrats in the interwar period, since the leftist political parties were fiercely anticlerical and anti-Catholic. Freemasonry, a secret society with strong anticlerical roots, was also correctly viewed as an enemy of Catholicism. Pease notes that, “on the whole Masons and politically active Jews did support the laicization of Polish education and society,” which most Poles opposed, while most Jews were in favour of a special status and state-funded religious schools for Jews. Ibid., 112.
2 Beniamin Horowitz (Władysław Pawlak), Przesiedleńcy w zaświaty, Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute
(Warsaw), no. 302/121.
3Poles, as Poles were about Jews. “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
4with their Christian neighbours.
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
thth5rise of Jewish nationalism in the late 19 and early part of the 20 century 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 3 The jump from viewing “others” as simply “enemies” is often made in recent scholarship in relation to the Poles’ attitude toward Jews, but not the converse, even though theoretically that approach should be equally valid for all inter-group relations. See, for example, Katherine R. Jolluck, “Gender and Antisemitism in Wartime Soviet Exile,” in Robert Blobaum, ed., Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005),
210–32, where Jolluck suggests that any unfavourable description of Jewish conduct by Poles is imbued with antisemtism, and even attributes to Polish anti-Semitism (sic) the frequently encountered critical statements about Poles made by Jews. It goes without saying—though this is scarcely noticed by those who dwell on conditions in Poland— that similar attitudes prevailed in Western Europe and North America as well. A Dutch rescuer from Amsterdam, a Lutheran, recalled that Catholic and Lutheran children generally played apart, that there was animosity between Catholics and Protestants (his grandmother “detested” Catholics), that Calvinists (even schoolteachers) belittled Lutherans, and that Lutherans harboured resentments toward Calvinists. He also had ill feelings toward Jews and Gypsies. See Pearl M. Oliner, Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe (New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 104. A Jewish survivor who settled in Canada after the Second World War recalled: “It was also there in rural Ontario, that I came face to face with the dislike, or to be more precise, the hatred that existed between Protestants and Catholics, and how deep rooted it was. [The Protestant population was of British stock and the Catholics were usually Irish. Ed.] Yet they were neighbors who came together at harvest time
to help one another, or to cut wood for winter. How polite and superficial they were to one another at that time. Yet when they were alone with us, they expressed their innermost feelings towards one another with no inhibition. Bluestein and I could not understand why those two Christian groups could hate each other so much, and we were wondering how much more each of these groups must hate us Jews.” See Moishe Kantorowitz, My Mother’s Bequest:
From Shershev to Auschwitz to Newfoundland (2004), Internet:
4 This is not to say that Jews, among themselves, were a cohesive entity. On the contrary, even in Poland, there was considerable rivalry and bad faith among various groups, especially the so-called Litvaks. See Edward Gigilewicz, “Litwacy,” in Encyklopedia “Białych plam” (Radom: Polskie Wydawnictwo Encyklopedyczne, 2005), vol. 19, 262–
64.th5 On the issue of the rise of Jewish nationalism and Zionism in the 19 century, a phonemenon that was parallel to and
inspired by European models especially the German one and incorporated some of its racist teachings, see Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (New York: Verso, 2009). Polish nationalism, although very real and hostile
to other nationalisms, was amateurish and lacked the sophistication of the German model and the perseverance of Jewish nationalism which is still plainly evident in the State of Israel and in the diaspora.
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
6community institutions, 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
7Hebrew or Yiddish, rather than Polish. 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 6 For example, the Zamość town budget allocated substantial funding for Jewish schools, an old age home, social organizations, and summer colonies for Jewish children. See Mordechai V. Bernstein, ed., The Zamosc Memorial
Book: A Memorial Book of a Center of Jewish Life Destroyed by the Nazis (Mahwah, New Jersey: Jacob Solomon
Berger, 2004), 283. The same was true in many other localities, such as Wilno (and nearby towns) and Białystok. See Jarosław Wołkonowski, Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w Wilnie i na Wileńszczyźnie 1919–1939 (Białystok: Wydawnictwo
Uniwersytetu w Białymstoku, 2004), 133–43, 186–97, 209–12, 216–17, 219, 222–23, 227, 263, 275–76, 280, 285, 288; Katarzyna Sztop-Rutkowska, Próba dialogu: Polacy i Żydzi w międzywojennym Białymstoku (Kraków: Nosmos, 2008),
182–83, 233, 244. Subsidies to Jewish schools and organization were also provided in Warsaw and Łódź, and doubtless many more places.
7 Sean Martin, Jewish Life in Cracow, 1918–1939 (London and Portland, Oregon: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), 14, 50,
84; Wierzbieniec, Żydzi w województwie lwowskim w okresie międzywojennym, 41–42.
the Poles. They and the Poles were almost strangers. They avoided association with the vast
8majority of the population, the Polish peasantry, not wanting to live like, or with, them.
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
9not a Pole.”
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.’
10 That there was such fundamental closeness and such great psychological alienation is astounding.
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
11Jewish community were the Yiddish language, clothing, customs, and communal institutions.
8 Ralph Slovenko, “On Polish-Jewish Relations,” The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, vol. 15 (Winter 1987): 597–687,
as quoted in Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, Jews in Poland: A Documentary History (New York: Hippocrene, 1993;
Revised edition–1998), 157. Slovenko goes on to state some rather self-evident truths that are often overlooked by those who tend to view Polish-Jewish relations as some exceptional form of ethnic or religious interaction: “The phenomenon is surely not unique. Birds of a feather flock together. That people group with those similar to themselves is one of the most well-established replicable findings in the psychology and biology of human behavior. People of whatever race or religion have always tried to insulate and remove themselves from what is perceived as different behavior, whatever its origins.” George Orwell in his famous “Notes on Nationalism,” writes that characteristic for the nationalism of the victim is a reluctance to acknowledge in just measure the sufferings of other pepples, and an inability to admit that the victim can also victimize.
9 Janusz Korczak, The Ghetto Years, 1939–1940 (Tel Aviv: Ghetto Fighters’ House and Hakibbutz Hameuchad
Publishing House, 1983), 128.
10 In fact, there was nothing unsual in such co-existence either at that time or today. In Canada, there was an enormous divide between French Canadians and the dominant English-speaking society until the 1960s. A similar situation thprevailed in Northern Ireland, between the dominant Protestants and the Catholics, throughout the 20 century, and
many Protestants and Catholics continue to live in segregated communities to this day. In many Western countries, where racist policies were entrenched in their very fabric, there was even state-enforced segregation. In the United States, Blacks and native Indians were segregated from Whites, as were native Indians in Canada and the aboriginal peoples in Australia and New Zealand. (New Zealand, like the United States, has a shameful, but little known, history of bloodily forcing its Maori population off their lands.) In the 1950s Inuit families were uprooted from their traditional homes and shipped to remote reaches of the Arctic—an attempt by the government to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the uninhabited Arctic Islands. They transplanted people were left without assistance to endure winters in Igloos and tents made of muskox hide. Struggling to find food, many of them did not make it through the punishing winters. See Bill Curry, “An Apology for the Inuit Five Decades in the Making,” The Globe and Mail, August 19, 2010.
11 Regina Renz, “Small Towns in Inter-War Poland,” in Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 17: The Shtetl: Myth and
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
12of this situation and often considered moving to Palestine.” 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
13from experiencing a sense of Polish nationality or cultural identity.” 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
14youth did not know Polish, and if they did, they knew it like I did—poorly.
Reality (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: The Litman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), 143–51, at 148.12 Cited in Chone Shmeruk, “Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bruno Schultz,” The Polish Review, vol. 36, no. 2 (1991):
13 Cited in Alina Cała, “The Social Consciousness of Young Jews in Interwar Poland,” in Polin: Studies in Polish
Jewry, vol. 8: Jews in Independent Poland, 1918–1939 (London and Washington: The Littman Library of Jewish
Civilization, 1994), 50.
14 Cited in Ewa Kurek, Poza granicą solidarności: Stosunki polsko-żydowskie 1939–1945 (Kielce: Wyższa Szkoła
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
15state sovereignty …
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
16faith, as they represented a civilization and culture unto themselves. 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,
17where Jews would live in conformity with their Jewish religious and cultural traditions. This dream was
Umiejętności, 2006), 86.
15 Aviel Roshwald, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, Russia and the Middle East, 1914–1923 (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 165. See also Peter D. Stachura, “National Identity and the Ethnic Minorities in Early Inter-War Poland,” in Peter D. Stachura, ed., Poland Between the Wars, 1918–1939 (Houndsmills,
Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press, 1998), 67–70, 74–77.
16 Cited in Kurek, Poza granicą solidarności, 34–35.
17 Typical of sentiments in Jewish memoirs is the following: “We dreamed of living in Palestine, equal members of society in our own Jewish state.” See Shalom Yoran, The Defiant: A True Story ((New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996),
120. There was little place in such a state for non-Jews. The following excerpts from a memorial book from a typical shtetl in Eastern Poland, where most Jews were said to be “middle class” and better off economically than their Christian neighbours, are instructive:
The tradition of mutual assistance between peoples existed for many years. … The Torah
commandment: “And your brother shall live among you,” became a prime concept for the Rokitno
Jews. … They showed their love for their fellow Jews and their wish to help each other.
“Hashomer Hatzair” [a leftist-leaning political organization] in Rokitno was built on pure rdnationalism and Zionism. … On Polish Independence [sic, Constitution] Day, May 3, we were
forced to participate in a parade in order to show loyalty to the government.
When construction was completed, most of the Jewish students transferred from public schools to
the Hebrew school. More than 90% of the children of the town and its surroundings were educated
especially strong among residents of the hundreds of traditional shtetls (small towns) strewn throughout
18Poland, where many Jews did not even know what the Polish flag looked like. For many, committed
19Zionists as well as others, the Jewish national state was to be a purely Jewish one.
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
in the Tarbut School. It is important to point out the great dedication of the parents who willingly
gave up the free public school whose building was spacious and well equipped. … Except for
geography, Polish history and language—compulsory subjects taught in Polish, the language of
instruction was Hebrew.
There were about 300 children in the Hebrew school in Rokitno in 1927–28, i.e., almost all the
children in town. It seems to me that no Jewish children attended the Polish school, or at least very
The members of the [Hebrew-speaking] association kept their vow and spoke Hebrew at home and
outside, in spite of the Poles. When they entered a Polish store [the author must mean a government
office, because Jews rarely, if ever, patronized Polish stores—M.P.] they used sign language or
winking and pointing to show the shopkeeper what they wanted.
There was hardly a Jewish child in Rokitno who did not know Hebrew. … Parents denied
themselves food to give their children a Jewish education, so they would grow up knowledgeable
and comfortable with their background. … the children were educated with Jewish values and
Hebrew language. When they made Aliyah, they seemed and felt like native-born.
From time to time a wall newspaper was published in the school. … The richest section was the
one with news of Eretz Israel. This was our purpose in life. There were always enthusiastic students
standing near that section.
The JNF [Jewish National Fund] served as a cornerstone for the nationalistic education—the value
of the land [in Palestine] to the people. The notion: “The land will not be sold for eternity” was well
received by the students. Every new purchase of land was received enthusiastically and donations
were increased. There was a JNF corner in every classroom and the blue box was the center of the
corner and of the life of the class. Every happy event was celebrated with a donation.
Although the Jews of Rokitno had dealings with non-Jews, they did not follow their customs. There
was a division between them when it came to matters of faith and opinion. The locals fed calves for
alien work and bowed to emptiness while we [Jews] thanked and blessed our G-d for his creation.See E. Leoni, ed., Rokitno–Wolyn and Surroundings: Memorial Book and Testimony, posted on the Internet at:
sevivah: Sefer edut ve-zikaron (Tel Aviv: Former Residents of Rokitno in Israel, 1967) 45, 65–66, 87–112, 167. Joseph Schupack describes similar conditions in Radzyń Podlaski, where Jewish religious-based nationalism thrived:
My small existence, like that of my friends, centered around my parents’ home, the Hebrew school
and the Zionist youth organization, Hashomer-Hazair. There, on the fertile ground of the Diaspora,
we were nourished with love for Eretz-Israel. It was unnecessary to teach Zionism; we were born in
Zionism and grew up with it. The Polish national holidays of May 3 and November 11 were only
pro forma holidays for us; our holidays were Purim and Hanukah. The biblical prophets and Bilaik
were our poets. Negev, Judea and Galilee were our provinces. The pictures we drew as children
always depicted the sun, palm trees and the Star of David. Our coins went into the Keren-Kayemeth
piggy banks. We were always concerned about recent developments in Eretz-Israel. When we
weren’t speaking Yiddish with each other, Hebrew became our common language. Thus we lived
our own lives. I was supposed to go to Palestine and attend the agricultural school of Ben-Shemen,
but things turned out differently. There were only a few Jews who were willing to do without the
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
cultural or religious ties to Judaism in order to assimilate into Polish society.
See Joseph Schupack, The Dead Years ([New York]: Holocaust Library, 1986), 6. This self-imposed isolation with its negative preconceptions of the “hostile” environment surrounding it appears to have a direct correlation to the holding and disseminating of primitive prejudices against Poles harboured by Jewish society. This memoir is littered with such examples: “Polish children had ingested anti-Semitism along with their mothers’ milk” (p. 3); “The Polish anti-Semites, a group largely identical with the ruling the ruling class, thought they should equal or even surpass the Nazis’ intense hatred of Jews” (p. 5); “We children had our first amusing moment when [Polish] officers carrying maps … asked us the way to Rumania” (p. 8); “the power of the Nazis was based partly on the considerable support which anti-Jewish laws received among the Polish population. It was not by chance that Poland was chosen as the place for the extermination of the Jews” (p. 59); “I also think about the Poles who helped my friends and me when we were in grave danger. Although their number is less than in other countries …” (p. 185); “Without their collaboration, quite possibly every third or fourth Jew in Poland might have remained alive” (p. 186).
18 Norman Salsitz describes how, in the interwar years, when buildings were obligated to display the flag on national holidays, he made the rounds in his small town of Kolbuszowa to bring to the attention of Jews that they had sewed together the flags incorrectly: “Many people sewed the red segment on top of the white; but that unfortunately was the Czech flag … In the Polish flag the white area was above the red.” See Norman Salsitz, as told to Richard Skolnik, A
Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 64–65,
19 Candid Jewish authors do not hide this fact. For example, Isaac Deutscher acknowledges that “From the outset Zionism worked towards the creation of a purely Jewish state and was glad to rid the country of its Arab inhabitants.” See Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968),
teach [even some] Polish to the children. … The purpose of his schools was to give the pupils the
20traditional Jewish education.
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
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
21was too hard. It no longer made sense.
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
22other countries.” 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 20 Arthur L. Goodhart, Poland and the Minority Races (New York: Brentano’s, 1920), 170–72.
21 Salsitz, A Jewish Boyhood in Poland, 201–202.
22 Ibid., 25. Goodhart also saw an anti-Polish play in a Jewish theatre in Warsaw, to which the “audience was most enthusiastic. … The audience consisted chiefly of young people, all of whom were dressed in the modern European style. ” According to Goodhart, “In this play a young Jewish widow marries a Pole, who is anxious to get her money. She changes her religion, but in spite of this her drunken husband abuses and ridicules her. Finally, she leaves her home in despair, while her cousin, who has remained true to her faith, marries a young Jew and lives happily ever after.” Ibid., 134.
handed down unchanged through generations. Except for doctors, lawyers, and others in the
23professional class, the Polish Jew saw to it that no one mistook him for anything but a Jew.”
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
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
25Poland or Hungary was certain to cause trouble regardless of the identity of the group …23 Hania and Gaither Warfield, Call Us to Witness: A Polish Chronicle (New York and Chicago: Ziff-Davis
Publishing Company, 1945), 49–50.
24 Raymond Leslie Buell, Poland: Key to Europe, Second revised edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), 308–9.
25 W. D. Rubinstein, “Jews in the Economic Elites of Western Nations and Antisemitism,” The Jewish Journal of
Sociology, vol. 42, nos. 1 and 2 (2000): 5–35, especially at pp. 8–9, 18–19. The overall economic situation of the Jews in Poland belies the claim of “oppression” that is often levelled in popular literature. According to a study by British economist Joseph Marcus, undoubtedly the most extensive analysis of the economic history of interwar Polish Jewry, the Jewish share of the country’s wealth increased both absolutely and relative to the non-Jewish share in the interwar period. The Jews, who represented 10 percent of Poland’s population, held 22.4 percent of the national wealth in 1929 and 21.4 percent in 1938. The average Jews was clearly better off than the average non-Jew: In terms of per capita income, in 1929 the income per caput was 830 złoty for Jews, and 585 złotys for non-Jews. Although very many Jews