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On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Monday, September 5, 2011

Celia Heller combines a great deal of detail on Jewish life in prewar Poland with an over-reliance on selectively negative anecdotes, from individual Jews, archived in the YIVO Institute, and her complete avoidance of anecdotes from the Polish side. How about, for instance, some testimonies of Poles who had been driven out of business, and reduced to penury, by unfair Jewish competition?

Heller gives only a partial account of the 1912 elections to the Duma (Russian parliament). The Jews of Russian-ruled Poland would not vote for National Democrat Jan Kucharzewski because he was "perhaps erroneously" thought an anti-Semite (pp. 43-44), and instead voted for left-winger Yagiello. Heller omits the fact that some Russian politicians had earlier sent a letter to the Jewish electoral committee urging the Jews not to vote for Kucharzewski because he would join the "Polish Circle" in the Duma. The election of Yagiello caused a tightening of Russian rule over Poland, and his election was seen by Poles as a direct Jewish affront to Polish national aspirations. From that time on, Dmowski saw the Jews as not merely an alien element but an anti-Polish one: Hence the boycotts. In any case, it appears that even an anti-Semitic Kucharzewski in the Duma would have done the Jews less harm than the Polish antagonism fomented by his defeat.

Heller (p. 310) translates and cites philo-Semite Pilsudski's comments on Jewish behaviors during the 1920 Polish-Soviet War: "The Jews did not behave badly everywhere. In the [towns of] Lomza and Mazowiecki they bravely opposed the Bolsheviks...But strange, as many things in Poland are, in the neighborhood [of Lomza] in [the towns of] Lokow, Siedlce, Kaluszyn, Bialystok, Wlodawa, there were numerous, even massive betrayals on part of Jews."

Heller faults Poles for being unwilling to step aside and "privilegize" the Jews as a nation-within-nation. Yet the balkanization of Poland that this would have caused would have included a linguistic fragmentation, not only Poles from Jews, but also Jews from Jews. She notes: "However, one must also admit that had the Polish government followed a policy of implementing for Jews the [Minority] Treaty's provision of public schools in the minority's language, the task would have been far from easy. There was bitter strife among Jews over the language of instruction (Yiddish or Hebrew) and over the general orientation (traditional or secular). Each side tried to press on the Polish government its own conception of Jewish schools, after the Minorities Treaty was signed." (p. 220).

Heller's preoccupation with popular Polish prejudices against Jews is counterbalanced by her inadvertent admission of reciprocal ones: "It was considered repulsive and un-Jewish for a man to get drunk. Of anyone who did, it was said, `He drinks like a gentile.'" (p. 150).

In her efforts to paint Polish Jews as the inevitable victims of anti-Semitism no matter what they did, Heller bends over backwards to find anecdotal examples of assimilated Polish Jews experiencing prejudice. But, by her own admission, there were only, at most, 200,000 assimilated Jews (p. 188), which constituted a mere 6% of Poland's Jews. How could such a tiny fraction of Jews enjoy the full benefits of the Polish nation when they were, to begin with, conceptually attached to such a heavy ballast of unassimilated Jews? Heller does not help her case when she quotes Hartglas, an assimilated Jew (pp. 208-209) who recoiled at Polish injustices to Jews in general, while admitting: "I personally did not experience them." Now, if injustices to Polish Jews were routine, even to assimilated Jews, as Heller would have her readers tacitly believe, how could this possibly be true?

Heller also undermines her doom-and-gloom portrayal of Polish Jewry when she discusses Jews organizing defenses against violent attacks by Polish hoodlums and nationalist extremists in the 1930's (pp. 286-291). Small groups of Jewish men, usually armed with such meager things as clubs and perhaps a few firearms, were often successful in preventing or beating off such attacks. Now, were the attacks anything other than unorganized, uncommon, and small-scale, how could such defenses possibly enjoy success?

Heller suggests that, instead of trying to force Jews to emigrate, Poles should have welcomed the Jews' predilection for commerce to help lift Poland out of poverty. But, even if successful, this would have relegated the Poles to permanent economic underclass status in their own nation. She disingenuously contrasts Polish boycotts of Jews with the favorable acceptance of Jews by Czechoslovakia and America. But, unlike in Poland, Jews were only a tiny percentage of these nations, and the latter, very unlike Poland, enjoyed a vast and rapidly-expanding economy. Furthermore, Heller falsely charges the Polish nationalists with wanting to force all Jews out of Poland. In fact, nationalists were willing to retain some 500,000 Polish Jews. Minorities, when small, posed no problems. For instance, there never was a significant body of Polish prejudices directed against endogenous Polish Muslims, the descendants of Tatars.

Heller's disastrous portrayal of Poland's prewar Jewry contrasts with that of Polish-Jewish scholar Joseph Marcus and his book, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE JEWS in POLAND, 1919-1939. Contrary to Heller's focus on Jewish poverty, Marcus shows that Polish Jews remained, on average, wealthier than Poles. According to Marcus, the main factors hindering Poland's Jews were the poverty of Poland as a whole and the excessive numbers of Jews crowded into Poland, not Polish discriminatory policies designed to limit Jewish economic dominance.

As for the German invasion, Heller (p. 293) recounts the widespread Jewish belief that, owing to the fact that "Every Pole has his Moses (favorite Jew)", the 20 million Poles would easily save 3 million Jews. Heller's extremely disingenuous attack on Poles ignores, among other things, the fact that most Jews were confined by the Germans into urban ghettos. This meant that the vast majority of Polish Jews never had access to Polish rescuers, and the vast majority of Poles never had access to a single Jew.
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