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Jewish Assimilation,Lwow

jan peczkis|Saturday, May 9, 2015

The obvious theme of this work is Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish coexistence in Lwow (Lviv). This work is full of information, and I focus on a few items of historical--rather than cultural--interest.


Lwow (Lviv) was not founded by Danylo, as commonly taught. It long had preceded him. In fact, it is much older than anyone had imagined. Archeological evidence, cited from a Ukrainian-language source, indicates that the site of Lviv has been continuously inhabited since the 5th century A. D. (Yaroslav Hrytsak, p. 48).

After the 1908 assassination of the Viceroy of Galicia, Andrzej Potocki, by a Ukrainian, there was a transfer of Greek Catholics to Roman Catholicism. This was because Polish-speaking Greek Catholics did not want to be identified as Ukrainians. (Philipp Ther, p. 276).

The most important Jewish political party in interwar Poland, the Bund, had, in the author's words, "a Marxist orientation." (Philipp Ther, p. 266). Obviously, Jewish support for Communism had been much broader than membership in the Communist Party and its front organizations.

Most of the remainder of my review concerns the assimilation of Lwow's Jews.


The centuries of Jewish separatism and self-imposed apartheid (my term), based on Talmudism and rabbinism, were becoming increasingly unsustainable. Jews could not effectively function in the modern state while living in medieval-style isolation. Assimilation was an obvious remedy.

Assimilationist Polish Jews condemned modern Jewish nationalism (Zionism and Bundism) as a new form of self-imposed isolation---for "trying to create a modern, national Jewish ghetto". (p. 237).


After the Partitions, some of the Jews began to assimilate--but to German, not Polish, and they became tools of the Austrian rulers of this part of Poland. Author Waclaw Wierzbieniec quips, (quote) For a Jew in Lviv the route towards emancipation and Haskalah led through Germanization. (unquote). (p. 226). In addition, (quote) One of the most important aims of Austrian officialdom was to assimilate Jews not to the local Polish or Ukrainian communities, but rather to Austrian culture so that they would contribute to the Germanization of Galicia. (unquote). (p. 228).

The foregoing Jewish Germanophilia can very much be generalized. The author comments, (quote) Similar tendencies appeared throughout Central Europe, where the popularization of the German language among Jews was concomitant with the emergence of a Jewish renaissance. Almost without exception, emancipated Jews came from educated circles where German was the basic cultural language. (unquote). (p. 228).

Until the 1870's, Lwow's assimilated Jews had gravitated to German--not Polish--culture. (p. 243). However, even as Galicia's Jews began to Polonize, only part of them identified with the Polish cause. The rest of them, while outwardly Polish, recast their Jewish identity in this Polish garb, and often became supporters of socialism, Zionism, etc. (p. 236). By the 1920's, Zionism had a greater impact on Polonized Jews than did a pro-Polish orientation. (p. 241).

The Polonization of Galician Jews, however infrequent and however usually outward in nature, was a late development. Wierzbieniec comments, (quote) In the 1880s a majority of the Lviv Jews did not know Polish, and it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that knowledge of that language had so increased that sessions of the religious council could be conducted in Polish. (unquote). (p. 235). Parallel developments occurred, at about the same time, in other Jewish centers in Austrian-ruled Galicia. (p. 235). However, the acculturation of the Jews, to Polish ways, never gained popularity among the mostly-Orthodox Jewish masses. (p. 235).

Jews did not turn, in appreciable numbers, to the Polish language until after the resurrected Polish state had become a fait accompli in 1918. Even then, the Polonization did not come from Jewish initiatives. Instead, Jews had largely been driven to Polish by the prevailing circumstances--the use of the Polish language in public schools, the administration, and the armed forces. (p. 243).


Although Wierzbieniec does not put it in these terms, he makes it obvious that assimilation of Jews to Polish-ness had generally been driven less by some newfound love for Poland and more by a spirit of self-advancement and opportunism. This is obvious as the reason that Galicia's assimilated Jews had increasingly shifted from German to a Polish. He writes, (quote) The Jewish intelligentsia that had previously gravitated to German language and culture in order to participate in the broader cultural, social, and political realms now recognized the Polish language as such as means. (unquote). (p. 233).

A utilitarian spirit is also evident in the fact that Jews who assimilated did so to Polish rather than Ukrainian ways. He writes, (quote) The assimilation of Jews to Ukrainian culture had only an occasional or even incidental character, as it did not offer the possibility of social and economic advancement. (unquote). (p. 232).


During the 1848 Revolution, some of the maskilim supported the Polish side. However, they were only a small group of Jews, mostly intellectuals, while the Orthodox masses remained indifferent. (p. 230).

Movements among Galicia's Jews to identify with the Polish nation, and to support her national aspirations, were even more uncommon than outward Polonization. For instance, the Agudas Akhim [Covenant of Brothers; PRZYMIERZE BRACI], which lasted only from 1882 to the early 1890's, had only 178 members in Lwow in 1884. Attempts to open additional branches in other Galician cities failed, with the exception of Przemysl. (Wierzbieniec, pp. 134-135).

Interestingly, Jewish historian Wilhelm Feldman, one of the leaders of Agudas Akhim, tacitly echoed Endek sentiments about Jewish essentialism and its quasi-immutability. He alluded to the difficulty of even Polonophile Jews to fully become Poles, (quote) "A future scholar will not remain unmoved looking at the image of a handful of young people emerging around 1880 from the mass of half-Germanized and half-Asiatic Jewry, with a white eagle on a banner held in their mighty hands." (unquote). (p. 235).

Wierzbieniec blames Polish disinterest, and continued Polish anti-Semitism, for the marginal status, in Jewish eyes, of the Agudas Akhim, and its demise. Ironic to this, the Agudas Akhim blamed continued Jewish intransigence for Polish anti-Semitism. Please click on, and read the detailed Peczkis review, of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia.


The pre-WWII period is commonly painted, for Poland's Jews, in hues of black. It was not. Wierzbieniec writes, (quote) In spite of widespread anti-Semitism in Lviv society, Jews were free to open their own schools and participate in the politics and governance of the city. In the early 1930s, 25 Jews sat in a city council of 130 members. They designated their own representative to the city's deputy mayor...Jews constituted a significant group in the secondary schools and academies of Lviv...In the early 1920s, over 40 percent of the student body at the Jan Casimir University was Jewish. (unquote). (p. 242).

The latter figure must be kept in perspective. Jews were only 10% of Poland's population.


Fast-forward to the end of WWII:

Much has been said about the privations of the German expellees (VERTRIEBENE) from places such as Silesia, and how this was supposed to be collective retribution against the Germans for losing the war. However, the Poles, who were supposed to be on the winning side of the war, also suffered greatly after Churchill and Roosevelt consented (at 1943 Teheran) to the Soviet grab of Poland's eastern half (Kresy), and the Poles faced expulsion. German historian Phillipp Ther, who wrote about both the German and Polish VERTRIEBENE, described the experiences of the Polish expellees from Lwow, (quote) The journey from Lviv to the areas of resettlement often lasted several weeks. The trains were largely without heat, were not supplied with food, and were often stopped and plundered. Reports from Upper Silesia show that about a quarter of the expellees were so ill upon arrival that they required immediate treatment. (unquote). (pp. 283-284). Ad feedback   Search Customer Reviews
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