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The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War;The State of European Judaism. Has Inadvertent Insights Into Some of the Negative Aspects of Pre-WWII Polish-Jewish Relations,

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Jewish communities of both eastern and western Europe underwent many changes in the decades leading up to WWII, but the Holocaust has overshadowed them. Wasserstein helps the reader understand what the Jewish communities were like.

This work features an assortment of seldom-mentioned information. Thus, historian Emmanuel Ringelblum was a member of Poalei Zion Left. (p. 61). There was significant Jew-on-Jew violence in Poland, notably that caused by political disagreements. (p. 77). Benjamin Mond, though converted to Christianity, was the only Jewish general in the Polish Army. (p. 201). Quite a few Italian Jews had been Fascists (p. 384) and, until 1938, Jews were welcome in Italy's fascist youth movement. (p. 331).


In his section on Jewish Nazis (pp. 216-217), Wasserstein describes German Jews who were perfectly comfortable with the chauvinistic premises of Nazism, without of course its anti-Semitism (excepting the vehement hostility to the Ostjuden). This included Max Naumann, who argued unsuccessfully that Jews were in fact part of the German VOLK. His organization, VERBAND NATIONALDETSCHER JUDEN, once had a membership of 3,500 mostly Berlin-area Jews. Hans Joachim Schoeps led a similar movement, the DEUTSCHER VORTRUP.


The author alludes to the tendency of Jews to identify with the stronger, (quote) A telling sign of the acculturation of Jews in the Soviet Union was the fact that Jews preferred to acculturate to Russian rather than to the majority languages of union republics such as Ukrainian or Byelorussian. In this, they followed the practice of Jews throughout history, from Byzantium to the Habsburg dominions to British India, who had found it wiser to adopt the language of the imperial power than that of their colonized neighbors. (unquote). (p. 233). Although Wasserstein does not mention this, it illuminates the fact that, a century earlier, erstwhile Polish Jews had tended to identify with the Partitioning powers rather than the restoration of Poland (as manifested, for instance, by the Litvak (Litwak) problem and the ensuing Endek reaction against Jews.)

More recently, between WWI and WWII, (quote) The mainly German-speaking Jews of Danzig [Gdansk] had always supported German as against Polish interests there. But that availed them nothing after 1933. (unquote). (p. 420).


Wasserstein points out that Poland's pre-WWII Jews lived in self-imposed apartheid (my term), "...Polish Jews were to a considerable degree isolated from the rest of the population, religiously, socioeconomically, and politically. They had their own residential areas, political parties, newspapers, theaters, labor unions, and professional organizations, often operating in their own language, Yiddish. Together these formed the scaffolding of a largely self-contained world within which it was possible, if one chose, to live almost without venturing into broader society." (p. 7). Even on the eve of WWII, at the time of the ghetto benches, social contacts between Poles and Jews were commonly minimal. (p. 330).

The Agudas Yisroel [Agudat Yisrael], an Orthodox Jewish political party in pre-WWII Poland that eschewed Jews as a nationality, and limited its politics to religious matters. Some commentators have contended that its Pole-conciliatory manner was no more fruitful than the separatist and confrontational approach of other Jewish political parties. Wasserstein, in contrast, implicitly disagrees, and provides examples of concessions that it got from the Polish government. (p. 55).


In countless works, including this one (p. 31), Polish Cardinal August Hlond is censured for his 1936 sermon in which he characterized Jews (though admittedly not all Jews) as: Freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, purveyors of white slavery (prostitution), and an overall bad influence on the morals of youth. Although this book is not about Cardinal Hlond, it raises many issues that enable to reader to see where Hlond was coming from. Each of these issues is considered, in turn, in successive paragraphs.

Consider Jewish freethought. To begin with, Jewish religiosity declined, and, when practiced, often owed less to religious conviction than culture. (p. 85). Jewish entertainment, sports, and commerce, to the chagrin of devout Jews, commonly took place on the Sabbath. (pp. 86-87; 126). In addition, (quote) The decade after 1914 therefore led to a sense of crisis in east European orthodoxy. Not only orthodox leaders but ordinary Jews with no axe to grind saw religion as in rapid retreat. `The only ones who pray are the middle class, the poor, and the aged' wrote an observer in Lodz in 1928. (unquote). (p. 126). In Poland, the Agudists sometimes obtained covert government support for blocking antireligious Jews from the electoral lists of local elections. (p. 77). The mainstream Bund played a significant role in the atheization of Poland's Jews. Its Warsaw newspaper, FOLKS-TSAYTUNG often appeared with slogans such as "Down with clericalism." (p. 250). The Bund-sponsored TSYSHO, the third largest Jewish school system in Poland, obstinately refused to offer any form of religious instruction, and even eschewed teaching the Bible and Talmud. (p. 323).

The political aspects of the Zydokomuna (Bolshevized Judaism) in Poland have commonly but incorrectly been marginalized as a phenomenon of the fringes of Judaism, and only membership in the Communist Party itself. In actuality, Jewish Communists [who, in any case, remained Jews] had varying degrees of affiliations with Judaism. (p. 63). Not only the CP itself (to say nothing of its several-fold outnumbering fellow travelers), but also mainstream Jewish political parties were infected with Communism to a significant extent. Among Zionists, the Left Poalei Zion joined the Comintern, and, according to Wasserstein, walked a fine line between Communism and democratic socialism. (p. 59). (The Jewish youth movement, Hashomer Hatsair [Hatzair] was, in Wasserstein's words, Marxist-Zionist). (p. 317, 332). As for the anti-Zionist Bund, the author comments, (quote) Rejecting integration into the Polish Socialist Party, the Bund sought cultural autonomy for the Jews in Poland, and in particular, separate schools and the right to use Yiddish in official business. (unquote)(p. 69). Considering the large size of the Bund, it is astonishing to learn that, in the 1930's, fully 40% of the membership of the Bund, in the words of Wasserstein, "was in constant danger of being sliced off by the Communists." (p. 70).

As for prostitution, official figures showed Polish Jews underrepresented as prostitutes (p. 169), but strongly over-represented as pimps (p. 176), the latter of whom even had their own Jewish argot. (pp. 241-242). However, owing to the unregistered and clandestine nature of this vice, official Polish figures likely understated the problem. (p. 169). Internationally organized pimping and prostitution involving Jews was serious, as evidenced by the international conferences attempting to deal with "the danger represented by Jewish prostitution." (p. 169, 472).

Other factors that may have prompted Hlond to see Jews as a bad moral influence on Polish youth may have included the rapidly increasing Jewish divorce rate (p. 156), then virtually unknown among Poles. In addition, many of the luftmenshn ("men living on air"--Jews lacking a definite occupation) included idlers, charlatans, smugglers, denizens of the criminal underworld, tramps, etc. (p. 171). According to Polish criminal records, Jews outnumbered non-Jews in fraud, vagabondage, avoidance of military service, etc. (p. 176).


Finally, Cardinal Hlond's moralisms fit the context of his times, which included comparable ones among Jews. Hafets Hayim, the revered Torah sage, decried the emigration of Jews to the USA, which he called "a den of modern iniquities." (p. 127). Rebbe Hayim Eleazar Shapira, even after visiting Palestine, denounced Zionism as Satanic. (p. 130). Shapira also denounced admixtures of secular learning in Jewish schools, citing the "defiling of children's minds and hearts with foolishness that leads to levity and heresy." (p. 56). Rabbi M. Rabinowitz of Szydlow, writing on behalf of parents and the Jewish community, requested assistance from the Polish authorities in dealing with "the impudence of the young" and the "corruption of the youth" by Hehalutz (Labor Zionist Movement)(p. 331, 485).

Nor were such attitudes limited to "backwards" eastern Europe. A 1936 Belgian Agudist publication excoriated the custom of young Jews moving to the big cities, as this allows "their lowest instincts to dominate them" and to "throw away their few years of youth on the momentary gleam of over-extended `pleasure'". (p. 88). Many Orthodox Jews, including in Germany, the birthplace of Reform Judaism, opposed all but the most superficial manifestations of modernity. (pp. 128-129).
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