Academic journal article Shofar

Jews in Poland between the Two World Wars

Academic journal article Shofar

Jews in Poland between the Two World Wars

Article excerpt

In no other country were Jews, proportionally, such a huge minority as in Poland. Religiously, economically, and politically Jews varied a great deal. They were an urban and closed group which kept only economic contacts with the rest of the population. In the Polish state they had to struggle for equal rights. Anti-semitism propagated by nationalists was very powerful. In the second half of the 1930s the Polish government (sanacja) adopted the nationalists' slogans and tried to restrict the Jews' economic activity. An expression for the modernization of the Jews was the emergence, in the end of the nineteenth century, of a Jewish intelligentsia. Political parties were established and represented both the Polish state and Jewish national movements. Polish Jews created a rich trilingual culture in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish. The second Polish republic can be considered a golden era for Jewish culture in Poland.

Historically no other European country had as large a Jewish population as Poland. For centuries the towns and villages of Poland were the worldwide bedrock of the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition. Although there were more Jews in the Soviet Union and in the United States, to a large extent they too came from regions which used to be a part of Poland before the partitions.1 1 would like to describe this Jewish community, as well as the background and the atmosphere in which it was forced to exist.

Jewish life in the nineteenth century wasn't easy, especially in the overpopulated Pale of Settlement.2 On top of the usual economic reasons, life was made even more difficult by discriminatory laws in the territories under partition. All the partitioning powers had enacted such laws, but the situation in Russia was the worst, where about one thousand such laws have been counted. On top of the written law there was also aversion towards Jews, stemming primarily from religious prejudices, which to a large extent shaped the attitude of the local population toward Jews.

In the nineteenth century the traditional composition of the Jewish society did not undergo significant changes. Jewish society was affected by the same factors that modernized life in the Polish territories. The influence of Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, is hard to estimate. It developed primarily among the elites in the Prussian and Austrian partitions. In the northeastern borderlands, Wilno (Vilna) was an island unto itself. Only limited manifestations of the Haskalah reached the mass of the people, which on the whole remained under the influence of the rabbis of the different denominations, who were united in their opposition to emancipation and defended the traditional organization of Jewish religion and society. These traditions were the fundamental elements that isolated the Jews from Polish society. The history of Haskalah in Poland was first described by Salomon Lastik, and years later by Marcin Wodzinski, in an in-depth study including new research results.3

The small number of reformed Jews who opted for assimilation asserted that the Jewish problem was social and economic, rather than national, and that it could be resolved by emancipation. Some, however, did not want to break with the Jewish religion, and they founded the Association of Poles of Mosaic Faith. Antisemitism was also an important element, forcing additional isolation of the Jews and hampering assimilation for those who wanted it. These are the reasons for a gradual fizzling out of the assimilation movement, which was very strong in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in Galizia. Even so, we observe an increasing acculturation, under the essential influence of the Polish schools. We shall return to this issue later.

The exposition of the Jewish community should start with a headcount. One should keep in mind, however, that almost all the figures we are using here regarding the Jews result from estimates and extrapolations. The 1921 census did not cover the full territory of Poland. …

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