A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Poland

By Mohl, Allan S. | The Journal of Psychohistory, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Poland


Mohl, Allan S., The Journal of Psychohistory


Prior to the Holocaust, Poland was the center of Jewish culture and learning. When the Jews were expelled from various Western countries, the Poles accepted them and, in the modern era, Poland was numerically the center of the Jewish Diaspora. The tide of Jewish immigrants had first begun to flow into Poland from Germany as a consequence of the violence and persecution that accompanied the Crusades. Owing to Polish economic needs, they soon were being actively welcomed, particularly after the devastation and depopulation wrought by the Mongol invasion of eastern Europe in the 1240's. Thus, in 1264, King Boleslav the Brave issued a charter of liberties and protection to attract Jewish settlement, a policy adhered to consistently by his successors down to the end of the 17thcentury. At the height of Jewish entry into Poland, King Casimir IV issued a second great charter in 1354, confirming and extending Boleslav's.1

Together with German and Austrian settlers, who were invited for the same economic purpose, Jews created and built up Greater Poland's commercial, industrial, and financial structure. To agriculture also, they imparted a new efficiency, often becoming the estate managers and financial agents of the Polish nobility. In the course of this long period of economic growth, many new towns and villages sprang up with huge Jewish populations. Since the new communities-as provided in the royal charters-were self governing city states, Jews were able to preserve in full vigor their own institutions and mores, their own culture and language (Yiddish).

This paper will attempt how and why anti-Semitism evolved in Poland which initially was very accepting of and grateful for the Jewish contribution to Polish culture and society.

THE ROOTS OF ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND

As I indicated in the introduction to this paper, the Jews had an extraordinary, invigorating effect on the Polish economy.2 The higher nobility and the kings favored them. The Jews provided loans and revenue. The common folk favored them. Goods were more available and prices dropped wherever Jewish tradesmen appeared. They bid successfully for concessions to collect custom duties, which the lower nobility regarded as its preserve, and hence were resented by it. They were also resented by the Christian guilds whose monopoly they broke and, of course, by their traditional foes, the Germans. The eruptions against Jews were most frequent and violent in Polish cities with large German populations. The triumvirate of lower nobility, the guilds, and the Germans finally compelled the Jews to evacuate the cities and seek their livelihood in the rural Ukraine. This was Poland's eastern-most frontier. Life was austere and dreary there, and the Jews acquired an additional enemy-the Ukrainian serf.3

Everything in sight belonged to the Polish barons and bishops-the fields, rivers and forests, the flour and lumber mills, the breweries and inns, and even the Greek Orthodox Churches in which the Ukrainians prayed. The Jews leased it all except, the churches, from the Polish aristocracy. The absentee landlords were given a sizeable down-payment, pledged a share in the profits and guaranteed against a loss. Confident in the competence of the Jews, and ever-suspicious that it was being cheated, the Polish nobility spent its income lavishly and pressed the Jews for more revenue.

To meet the Poles' mounting demands and yet sustain themselves, the Jews were compelled to squeeze the Ukrainians while their own rewards were only a meager livelihood in primitive surroundings, several days travel by horse and buggy to the nearest synagogue and Hebrew school. "It was a precarious isolation. To the Ukrainian, the Jews had become the embodiment of their horrible fate under Poland."4

THE GERMAN JEWISH MIGRATION

"Beginning with the First Crusade (1096) and especially after the Second (1147) and Third (1189-1192), when conditions in Germany became more and more lamentable, the stream of Jewish migration poured into Poland. …

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