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Jewish Assimilation. Reciprocity of Prejudices

jan peczkis|Thursday, June 4, 2015

Joseph Margoshes (1866-1955) emigrated to the USA about 1900, and wrote this memoir in Yiddish in 1936. It focuses on the Jewish experience, primarily in the Lwow-Tarnow area, and mostly during 1880-1900. The author was a merchant at the Broniovski estate near Radomishla (Radomysl Wielki) near Tarnow.

4A Wealthy, Assimilated Jewish Leaseholder in Austrian-Ruled Poland (Galicia).


A major theme of this memoir is the wealth of many Jews, notably at Radomishla. (p. 86). Usury was a source of considerable Jewish affluence, (quote) The Aberdams, Rappoports, Schlossers and the others were substantial moneylenders who charged high interest, and their fortunes increased from year to year. (unquote). (p. 86). (Quote) (Reb) Shimshen also had a hand in money-landing. He offered larger loans to Polish PRITSIM and smaller ones to well-to-do Jews, always at substantial interest rates. When I got to know him in the 1890’s, his fortune was valued at a quarter of a million gulden, which was a conservative estimate. (unquote). (p. 124). (Quote) His wealth increased, and every year we would hear that Shimshen had acquired a new estate or extended a sizable loan to a Polish PORITS at high interest. (unquote). (p. 126).

The liquor trade [PROPINACJA] also proved lucrative for the local Jews. Margoshes comments, (quote) The Gutwirth family owned two estates close to the city…On top of this, the Gutwirths also possessed their urban PROPINATSYE (the exclusive rights to sell alcohol beverages). They leased out this privilege for eight to ten thousand gulden a year. Later, when the government took over all PROPINATSYES and paid the owners large sums of money, these particular Jews became even more affluent. (unquote). (pp. 86-87).


Margoshes describes the Jewish Germanophilia that was true of assimilated Jews in Galicia. (p. 17). As a boy, he, and his friends, hardly knew any Polish at all, and they showed virtually no interest in learning Polish. (p. 48). Margoshes then tells the reader how the Austrian authorities actively exploited the Jewish Germanophilia as an anti-Polish weapon, (quote) The Ministry in Vienna, which at that time was very inclined towards the “Germanization” of Galician Jewry, and tearing it away from Polish influence, was enthusiastic about these projects. It sought to use the opportunity for its own political ends. (unquote). (p. 9).


The Shomer Yisrael Society of Lemberg (Lwow, Lviv), dedicated to Jewish education, was founded by young MASKILIM, and Margoshes’ father was one of the founders. (p. 9). In time, many wealthy and influential Jews joined it.

Author Margoshes elaborates on the mindset of these successful, assimilated Jews, (quote) Kosher meat almost never entered their homes. They were generally far removed from Judaism, and often laughed at it publicly…In that era, the leaders of the province of Galicia were adopting a more liberal outlook. Jews were granted full rights as citizens and they were allowed to vote as well as to be elected as deputies to the Galician Landtag and the Austrian Reichsrat. The Jewish assimilationists—the wealthy bankers, the successful doctors and lawyers—now perceived a wide-open world and great arenas in which to fulfill their ambitions. They had never sought to utter a single Yiddish word, and were completely estranged from the Jewish people and its religion. Now these same men employed every means possible to become the Jewish representatives. When some of them attained their goals, they used their elevated posts and mandates for their own personal gain. The Jews and their religious, social, and economic interests were completely irrelevant to them. (unquote). (p. 18).

[The foregoing is essentially a Jewish mirror-image of Endek concerns that Jews who assimilated to Polishness commonly did so less out of devotion to Poland and more out of opportunism and self-advancement.]


The modest-scale Jewish abandonment of Talmudism/rabbinism and the enclave mentality, in favor of secularization and assimilation, had limited impact. It did not, at least necessarily, lead to a substantial thaw in centuries-old Jewish-Christian antagonisms. Author Joseph Margoshes’s experience is instructive. He and a Catholic priest had developed a friendship. (pp. 111-112). They shared an interest in Schiller, Lessing, Heine, and other intellectual luminaries. At no time did the priest attempt to convert Margoshes. In fact, religion was never brought up. (p. 112). Despite this, and the fact that Margoshes and his peers were nonreligious assimilated Jews--moreover living in the relatively pluralistic culture that was Galicia--Margoshes still came to feel a negative peer pressure. For this reason, Margoshes dropped the friendship, (quote) I certainly did not need it to be known that I was friends with a priest and that I was going to see him at church! (unquote). (p. 112).


A number of works, notably Celia Heller's ON THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION, have a doom-and-gloom portrayal of Poland's Jews as constantly in danger of violence. The truth was quite different.

It is obvious that violence against Jews, far from being an unavoidable manifestation of Christianity and Polishness, was something that was episodic and situational in nature. Margoshes comments, (quote) I cannot speak with accuracy about other areas in Galicia because I am not well enough acquainted with them. However, I can say this with confidence about the stretch from Rayshe (Rzeszow), Tarnow, to Krakow, which is about 25 miles in total: the peasant has long acknowledged the “hegemony” of the Jew, and openly admitted it. During the period between the 1880’s and the War [WWI], this part of Galicia was a true paradise for Jews in some respects. They had it better there than ever before, and certainly than they would ever again; I have my doubts that these times will ever return. Anti-Jewish persecution was unknown during this period. When several thousand peasants would gather at the weekly fairs, the Jews never feared attack or abuse of any sort…The Jews and the farmers lived in a state of perpetual friendship and helped each other out in the same way as Christian neighbors. (unquote). (pp. 99-100).

Margoshes also upends the myth of the defenseless, violence-averse Jew. He writes, (quote) If a Jew fought, or even exchanged blows, with a peasant, as it is wont to happen among people who know each other well, the Jew almost always came out the winner. (unquote). (p. 100).


The Polish peasant knew his place, (quote) When a peasant spotted a Jewish estate-holder driving on the road, he would doff his cap to greet him. (unquote). (p. 100). Margoshes reiterates the fact of, (quote) The unrestricted hegemony that village Jews, that is to say, estate-holders, had over the peasants… (unquote). (p. 102). As if that was not enough, the law almost always sided with the Jew in a legal dispute between a Jew and a Polish peasant. (pp. 100-102).

Other factors also came into play. The author believes that Polish lords tended to favor the Jews over Polish peasants owing, in part, to bitter memories of the decades-earlier jacquerie of 1846. (p. 101).


It is well-known that Polish peasants commonly saw Jews as greedy, crafty, unscrupulous, and even malevolent. However, Jewish prejudices against Polish peasants not only existed but, perhaps ironically, often were mirror-images of popular prejudices against Jews. These Jewish attitudes against peasants obviously did not develop out of the anger and pain of Jews experiencing Christian or Polish persecution: Just the opposite. They had flourished when Jews were free from harm, and were relatively privileged, as was clearly the case with Margoshes’ circle of wealthy Jews.

Consider the specifics. The author describes some thefts by a few specified peasants. Despite their admitted rarity, these incidents did not prevent Jews, as a whole, from verbalizing pejorative generalizations about Polish peasants in a collective sense. In fact, these generalizations partook of racism, in that they, instead of appreciating the lowly status of the peasantry, imagined that these negative traits were innate to the Polish peasant:

(Quote) In a previous chapter, I wrote that our area was very safe and that major theft was almost unheard of…However, we did have small-scale crime as was usual. Jews in our area used to say, “Every peasant is by his nature a thief. If he does not steal, he is either lazy or is afraid of a beating.” (unquote). (p. 126).

(Quote) I did not want to provoke the entire farmer “GROMADA” (Community)…“One should not provoke a gentile too much,” we would say in the area, “he is like a malicious worm.” (unquote). (p. 129).

(Quote) The Jewish leaseholders were busy people and most of them had neither the time nor the will to deal with the peasants, who could be very tough and frustrating customers, in individual sales of clover, Timothy or grasslands. These leaseholders thus preferred to sell the entire enterprise to a Jewish merchant, take his money, and have him quibble with the peasants. (unquote). (p. 150).
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