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Polish-Jewish Relations

Jewish attitudes regarding Poles and Poles regarding Jews have been shaped by a complex and long history. Many Holocaust survivors have negative attitudes toward the Poles based on their experiences in the 1930's and 1940's.

While for a thousand years Poles and Jews lived in close physical proximity and became economically inter-dependent they remained highly separate groups: separated by culture, by religion and by national identity.

The Holocaust made matters even more complicated. Polish Jews accounted for over half of all the victims of the Holocaust and the death camps were established on Polish soil. Yet Poles were themselves victims of German barbarity; after the Jews and the Roma (Gypsies) the Poles were the most tormented national group. Millions of Poles were murdered by the Nazis during WWII.

The Poles were also witnesses to the destruction of the Jews. Most were passive witness who did nothing to aid their neighbors nor did they assist the Germans in destroying them. But by remaining passive (it is arguable) they took on a kind of bystander guilt and complicity.

A minority of Poles co-operated with the Germans by turning in Jews who were in hiding to get rewards of money or goods. A different minority became the so-called Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews. A majority of the Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem are Poles.

Jewish Holocaust survivors grew up in Poland in the 1920's and 1930's and survived in Poland of the 1940's. Their memories in the present are based on what were current events back then. Their experience of Poland ended when they left the country; and most either never returned after WWII or left after the massacre of 42 Jews in Kielce by a Polish mob in 1946. Poland was a very anti-Semitic society in the years just before and after WWII.

During the War Jews were appalled by the lack of aid they received from their neighbors and what they took to be avariciousness as some Poles usurped Jewish property now suddenly become available. The small number of Poles who preyed on Jews by turning them in for rewards made every Pole a risk to Jewish confidence. Jewish partisans were attacked and killed by Polish right wing nationalist groups who instead of making common cause against the Germans regarded the Jews as their enemies also.

It is hard to know how many Poles had sympathy for their Jewish neighbors but were paralyzed into inaction by fear. Yet incidents described above were frequent enough that it was a common Jewish perception of Polish attitudes that they were either indifferent to Jewish suffering or positively glad that the Jews were being removed.

Historically, Jewish identity in the Diaspora was based on insularity. Insularity from the majority of the population ensured Jewish perpetuity and continuity. Religious strictures meant that Jews could not eat the same foods that other people ate and many Jews did not dress the way that Poles dressed.

The Poles for their part were passionately devoted to the Catholic religion which taught them that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Many Jews feared having stones flung at them or worse at Easter.

Differences and insularity led to mutual suspicion and stereotyping. Typically, the Jews were regarded as sharp dealing in business and comical in their affectations. The Poles were regarded as ignorant and overly fond of vodka.

Poland has been enormously important to the Jews. Large numbers of Jews had settled in Poland because they found relative freedom from anti-Semitism and economic restrictions. Before WWII Poland was the center of the European Jewish world. Yet, by the 20th century for complex reasons of nationalism and economic competition Polish anti-Semitism had become harsh and pervasive in public life.

Two political parties represented divergent alternatives. The Polish Socialist Party of Jozef Pilsudski adopted a policy of pluralistic and inclusive nationalism. The National Democratic Party of Roman Dmowski (known as Endecja) advocated a policy of "integral nationalism;" this meant it favored a monolithic state populated by those of ethnic Polish descent and of the Roman Catholic religion.

Following WWI when the newly constituted Polish state emerged from the Versailles peace conference there began a period of civil conflict. The resulting bloodshed led to pogroms against Jews. Prior to this time anti-Jewish violence had been rare in Poland. Jews were identified with the Communists.

During Pilsudski's rule anti-Semitism moderated somewhat. However, in the 4 years between his death in 1935 and the beginning of WWII there was an increasing tide of anti-Semitism in national life.

During the 1930's when Poland was hit by massive unemployment as a result of the worldwide depression anti-Semitism became rampant. National policy was such that jobless Jews were excluded from welfare benefits. The Endecja party promoted a national boycott of Jewish merchants that so radical as to advocate the confiscation of Jewish businesses.

At the universities Jewish enrollment was restricted and Jews had to sit in a segregated area of the classroom. The restrictions were so inclusive that while in 1921 Jews made up 24.6% of the student population by 1938 their share was down to only 8%. There was physical violence as well. Right-wing students assaulted their Jewish associates with canes and razors.

In the late 1930's the Polish government became increasingly concerned with the "Jewish Question." The favored solution was mass Jewish emigration. Under the guise of animal rights there was a national movement to forbid the Jewish ritual slaughter or koshering of animals. It has been pointed out that anti-Semitism is not the same thing as mass murder. Polish anti-Semitism never envisioned wholesale murder.

In the post-War period Communism made the Polish-Jewish attitudes and even more murky. Communism in Poland needed to use the past to show that the present regime was the progressive outcome of historical necessity. Nazi barbarity was opposed to Socialist humanitarianism. The Communist used the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by erasing their Jewish identity. Auschwitz was portrayed as a monument to internationalism.

Polish nationalists opposed to the 4 decades of Communist rule identified their oppressors as being of Jewish origin. Some Communist leaders had been of Jewish background but the stereotype belied statistics. And the Communist leaders of Jewish heritage had rejected their Jewish identity. Then in 1968 the Communist government expelled the majority of the Jews who had remained in Poland, some 20,000 people.

Today there are signs in Poland of a interest in learning about and preserving the artifacts of Jewish culture. There is a Jewish festival in Cracow. One can tour Jewish museums and sites. Poles have preserved and catalogued the graves in Jewish cemeteries. Yet there are also Poles who fight to put up crosses at Auschwitz and express anti-Semitic untruths.


Gilbert, The Holocaust; Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead.


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