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The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture

Jan Paczkis|Sunday, November 29, 2009

This one-volume history of Poland covers the period of prehistory up through the "free" elections of 1989. Owing to the wealth of information presented, I focus only on a few reviewer-unmentioned facts.

      The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture    
  5.0 out of 5 stars Corrects Misconceptions on the 17th-Century Cossack Revolts, 20th-Century Jewish Poverty and Emigration, etc.,
Consider what Poles call the Deluge. "The Cossacks were not a people, they were a way of life. The very name `Cossack' derives from a Turkish-Tatar word denoting a free soldier...it is now generally accepted that they were originally a breakaway group of Tatars..." (p. 161). Only later, after Chmielnicki's [Khmelnytsky's] victories, were they joined by large groups of Ukrainians. The events surrounding the Cossack revolts have, in recent history, been distorted by Ukrainian nationalists as well as Communists. Zamoyski corrects this as he writes: "Cossack leaders were cast as either knights of Orthodoxy crusading against the Jewish and Polish interloper, or as folk heroes dreaming of liberation from under the Polish lord's boot. Such interpretation largely ignored the facts. The Cossack leader Sulima, who led a rebellion in the 1630s, turns out to have been a man of substance, and a creditor of no less a person than Prince Wisniowiecki himself. Sulima's friend Pavluk led his rebellion in the name of the King of Poland, and his first action was to massacre the elders of the Sich. Ivan Bruchowiecki, the leader of the Muscovite-inspired rising purporting to be on behalf of the Orthodox faith, was in fact a Polish Jew." (p. 163). Chmielnicki's background and motives are also questioned.

Fast forward three centuries. One of the main causes of the 20th-century Polish-Jewish conflict originated in the late 19th century, when the tsarist authorities made Russian-ruled eastern Poland a dumping ground for Russian Jews. Zamoyski comments: "As a result of mass expulsions from the Western Gubernias in the 1890's, vast numbers of Jews settled in the Kingdom, of whose entire population they now made up 14.6%. The Litwaki [Litvaks], as they were known, did not even speak Polish. They were strong in the Bund, which in 1898 allied itself with the Russian Social Democratic Party, turning its back on the PPS [Pilsudski's party] and the cause of Polish independence." (p. 329).

Against the misconception of pre-WWII Jewish poverty being caused primarily by Polish discrimination, and the misconception that "unproductive" Jewish middlemen were merely being replaced by "unproductive" Polish middlemen, Zamoyski writes: "Every time a new peasant co-operative was founded or a village combined to sell its produce directly to the buyer, the livelihood of several Jewish families vanished. By 1936 at least 1,000,000 Jews in Poland were losing their source of subsistence, and by 1939 just over that number were totally dependent for their survival on relief from Jewish agencies in the United States." (p. 346).

Was the Polish-encouraged mass emigration of interwar Polish Jews purely an anti-Semitic act? Hardly: Zamoyski points out that: "...the same representatives also appealed to the League [of Nations] to facilitate large-scale emigration of poor Polish peasants from the overpopulated countryside...Abraham Stern, the son of a dentist from Suwalki and a great admirer of Pilsudski's Bojowki [Warriors] visited Poland a number of times after settling in Palestine or order to recruit for the Irgun. The Polish authorities allowed him to buy arms and train men, and facilitated the illegal immigration of Polish Jews into the British mandate." (p. 346).
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