Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

P O L A N D:
A Complicated Coexistence
Polish-Jewish relations through the centuries

Joanna Rohozinska

Between the summer of 1998 until they were removed by government decree in May 1999, Kazimierz Switon and a group of his right-wing followers erected more than 300 crosses near the former death camp of Auschwitz, often handing out flyers containing anti-Semitic and anti-German messages to passers-by in the process. Switon was recently convicted of inciting hate, but the relatively light sentence (a six-month suspended sentence and a fine of Zl 400 [USD 98]) - which amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist - suggests that public opinion in Poland does not necessarily condemn Switon's actions or beliefs too harshly. The predominant explanation, or excuse, of Switon's actions is the necessity to draw world attention to Auschwitz as the site of Polish martyrdom. There is a common perception that this attention has too long been focussed on the suffering of Jews during the Second World War, while ignoring the plight of Poles. The reason for this is due to a combination of factors - real and imagined - dating back to the Soviet period but in the end ties into the broader and far more complicated issue of Polish-Jewish relations.

The history of Jews in East Central Europe is perhaps nowhere a more sensitive, debated and current topic than in Poland. Although Polish-Jewish relations stretch far back before the Second World War - to somewhere around the 13th century, though this date is debated - they have been defined by that event more than any other. The unfortunate effect that this teleological approach has had is protracted hostility and misunderstanding among both groups and the persistence of mutually detrimental stereotypes. Both sides tend to adopt inflexible, judgmental and defensive attitudes toward one another - practically forestalling any chances at reconciliation.

As is frequently the case in such situations, there are essentially two approaches, or assumptions, which underlie the majority of literature on this theme: Poles are anti-Semitic to the core (imbibing anti-Semitism with their mother's milk) or positively guileless victims of a world conspiracy aimed at depicting them as such. Neither, of course, is true, and though much academic literature has moved away from either polemic, both have unfortunately retained their place in more popular discourse.

Considering the length of time that Poles and Jews co-existed, their mutual history has been relatively peaceful. Jews originally moved eastward into Poland, fleeing persecution in western Europe, as they were systematically banished from one country after the other (England in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394, Spain in 1492, Portugal between 1496 to 1497 and the German Duchies on several occasions). Polish legend has it that the Polish King magnanimously opened his kingdom to the Jews, inviting them to settle and offering them full rights of citizenship and protection from harm. The status of Jews in Poland was determined by the charters of Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 and Kazimierz the Great in 1334, 1354 and 1367. True, the Jews were extended far more rights and privileges than elsewhere, including a relatively large degree of autonomy, but this was not a result of any nascent sentiment of human rights or equality but rather a strategic and pragmatic decision. Though it couldn't have been all bad, as one Jewish story has it that the Yiddish word for Poland - Polin - comes from Poh lin, or "here we rest."

Poland's social structure was rather peculiar, as the gentry class comprised almost 10 per cent of the population, with the remainder basically made-up of peasants. By this point in time, social interactions were becoming sufficiently complicated that the lack of an intermediary merchant class became acutely felt. Enter a convenient solution. With the Jews acting as intermediaries for the landed gentry, who would, among other things, collect taxes, the gentry would get their money while not having to seem the bad guy in the eyes of their tenants. Jews, on the other hand, enjoyed relative freedom, though they were still not permitted to buy land, to live according to their customs. They even organised the largest governing council, the so-called Council of Four Lands, to govern Jewish affairs throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; it may not have lasted too long, but then again the Commonwealth itself was decisively dismembered by 1795.

Life was very different under the three Partitions, both for Poles and Jews. The largest part of the Jewish population found itself, unenviably, within the Russian partition. There were several consequences of this - the most important being the creation of the Pale of Settlement, a band of territory stretching north-south across the former western "borderlands" of the Russian Empire - from Lithuania to the Black Sea. The Pale constituted the only legal area of settlement for Jews and consisted mainly of small villages, or shtetls, which remained very traditional and pious and thus relatively isolated from their Christian neighbours.

However, the Russian Empire, much like its Soviet successor, was hardly a model of efficiency and control. As a result, a significant number of Jews gained access to higher education and moved deeper into the Empire and into its urban centres, notably St Petersburg, Odessa and Vilnius. Likewise, within the territories of the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland (1815 to 1874), the Jewish population was relatively free to settle in the cities - of which Warsaw was the most significant.

Meanwhile, altogether different conditions prevailed in the Prussian and Hapsburg-controlled territories. The Hapsburg Empire, for all its flaws, was certainly the most liberal (using the term loosely) of the Partitioning powers and offered Jews the most accommodating circumstances in terms of education and employment as well as participation in political life. Emperor Joseph II enacted the Tolerance Act in 1789, which granted Jews freedom of religion and trade.

Yet the diversity of Jewish life seemed to depend more on the rural-urban differentiation than on geographical specificity. The Pale was barely affected by the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) that spread eastward during the 19th century, carrying with it (among other movements) the beginnings of modern Jewish nationalism, including Zionism. Indeed, there are numerous stories about those who came to the villages and tried to introduce youth to secular concepts being chased out. Similarly, Galician Jews, though also part of the Hapsburg monarchy, remained rather isolated, traditional and poor. True, there were certainly impoverished pious Jews in urban centres as well, but they were at least more exposed to a mixed polity and therefore more likely to be affected by it.

The politicisation of at least a proportion of the Jewish population would have a significant impact on Polish-Jewish relations in the inter-war period.

By the time that Poland was reconstituted as a state, one could no more talk of a homogeneous (ethnic) Polish or Jewish people or polity. Inter-war Poland is often seen as indicative of Polish-Jewish relations, explaining not only subsequent wartime relations but frequently also extrapolated to explain the hopelessness of peaceful coexistence. Such arguments are simplistic and deterministic and have done little to ameliorate relations or further knowledge.

The inter-war period was in some ways an exceptional period of transformation for the whole of Europe, and certainly so for Poland; yet at the same time (as some have argued), it represented the culmination of the intellectual and social trends of the preceding century. The new Polish state - while jubilant in its reconstitution - was plagued with the practical problems of integrating territories and populations regained from the defunct empires. The economy was in shambles, the politics factious, the neighbours hostile (or more importantly perceived to be), and on top of it all, roughly a third of its population was not necessarily pleased at being included in the new state. The inter-war period was also a time of high nationalism, which only added flamboyant and often spiteful rhetoric to the mix - coming from all parties concerned.

Jewish political parties and organisations ran the full spectrum from left to right and were very active throughout the inter-war era. Both Jewish and Polish parties were preoccupied with finding a solution to the "Jewish-question." The only groups who seemed to find some common ground were, ironically, to be found on either end of the extremes of the political spectrum. The Communists (who were outlawed shortly anyway) renounced nationality, ethnicity and religion; while on the other end, both the hard-core Zionists and the Polish far right agreed that the best solution was mass emigration to Palestine. Unfortunately, none of the groups enjoyed any kind of mass support, so neither solution was practicable. Jewish society and political parties were as fragmented as their Polish counterparts, and neither stability nor resolution were to be achieved by the end of the 1930s.

When it finally came, the war took on a particularly harsh form in the Polish territories. Occupation, by both the Nazis and Soviets, was extremely repressive and cruel on the whole population. However, as cruelly as the Polish Christians may have been treated, they were not singled out for immediate, systematic extermination; their Jewish co-inhabitants were.

Polish action, or inaction, during the war has a vast literature behind it - and surely before it as well. Polish anti-Semitism often becomes the central issue of these studies, when the real question is how one can account for the fact that the Jewish population in Poland went from around 10 per cent of the population before the war to about 0.5 per cent after. The Holocaust was (hopefully) a singular event and marked the failure of European (and North American) morals and ethics and cannot be explained by any one nation's attitude.

There were two subsequent waves of mass emigration of Jews who remained in Poland after the war, as a result of state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns: after the Polish October in 1956 and again after the student protests in 1968. Ezra Mendelsohn wrote an essay entitled "Interwar Poland: Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews?"; his conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that it was both. This can be extrapolated to the whole of Jewish history in Poland - or to any history for that matter. The history of Jews in Poland is inextricably bound to Polish history itself - good and bad. While certainly suffering from periodic persecution, Jewish society and culture flourished on Polish territory for centuries, and mutual co-habitation enriched both histories and societies. Polish Jews have contributed to Polish (and world) culture, literature, art, mathematics and sciences. Centuries of coexistence with Poles have left their mark on contemporary Jewish society.

However, though academic and scholarly discussions have largely moved on from negative stereotypes and misconceptions on both sides, they persist within the public perception in Poland. As is often the case, anti-Semitism is not universally or openly professed; yet it is undeniably present, spawning the interesting phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews. Switon's actions and the relative tolerance with which they were viewed (it must, however, be noted that the charges brought against him were originally done so on account of complaints from local citizens who found his actions offensive) perhaps belie this sad fact.

Joanna Rohozinska, 28 January 2000



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