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STUDIES ON POLISH JEWRY 1919 - 1939: THE INTERPLAY OF SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL FACTORS IN THE STRUGGLE OF A MINORITY FOR ITS EXISTENCE (In English & Yiddish)

Jan Paczkis|Sunday, November 22, 2009

This anthology, simultaneously published in English and Hebrew, generally adheres to the Jewish-lachrymose template of history. However, it also includes some seldom-mentioned information that I now focus on.

Poland's Jewish problem was largely inherited from Russia. Pawel Korzec writes: "The reactionary Jewish policy of [tsar] Alexander III and the wave of pogroms that engulfed Russia after his coronation in 1881 resulted in a great influx of Russian Jews into Poland--mainly from economically underdeveloped regions of the Russian empire like the Ukraine and Belorussia (and from Moscow after the expulsion of 1892)--into Polish towns and cities then in full industrial expansion. Thus the so-called litvak question came into the existence." (p. 20).


This anthology, simultaneously published in English and Hebrew, generally adheres to the Jewish-lachrymose template of history. However, it also includes some seldom-mentioned information that I now focus on.


Poland's Jewish problem was largely inherited from Russia. Pawel Korzec writes: "The reactionary Jewish policy of [tsar] Alexander III and the wave of pogroms that engulfed Russia after his coronation in 1881 resulted in a great influx of Russian Jews into Poland--mainly from economically underdeveloped regions of the Russian empire like the Ukraine and Belorussia (and from Moscow after the expulsion of 1892)--into Polish towns and cities then in full industrial expansion. Thus the so-called litvak question came into the existence." (p. 20).


Korzec recognizes the fact that anti-Jewish violence was largely an import from Russia. (p. 21). He adds: "There were only two pogroms in 1906--in Bialystok and Siedlce--both organized almost entirely by Russian police and troops. The Polish population, including conservatives, disapproved of these barbaric methods." (p. 23).


The Pole-disenfranchising aspects of Jewish economic hegemony are made obvious by Korzec, who expounds: "During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, Polish-Jewish relations deteriorated considerably. As the economic situation grew worse, fierce competition between the Polish middle class and Jewish tradesmen and craftsmen arose. The relatively young Polish trading class was not able to overcome Jewish competition by means of economic activity alone. The small Jewish traders and craftsmen took advantage of their low standard of living. Jewish merchants adhered to the principle of high turnover and low profit, which was greatly to the advantage of the economy as a whole and to the consumer in particular, but was injurious to Polish business interests. Thus seeds favorable to anti-Semitism were sown among the Polish middle classes. [Also]...The nationalist and russifying policies of the tsarist government tended to eliminate Poles even from minor administrative posts and from government." (p. 21).


Much has been said about Poles boycotting Jewish shops and buying from fellow Poles. But, apart from the Poles having no other way of breaking the long-entrenched Jewish economic hegemony, it turns out that both sides did this. There is a Jewish document, an Appeal from a Jewish Farmers' Cooperative (probably early 1920's), that states: "It is also necessary to point out that by buying our dairy products marketed under the name of khema [`butter' in Hebrew] you are supporting the productive Jewish farmers and are performing a national duty by helping the Jewish farmers to keep their land." (p. 284).


The much-condemned numerus clausus of Jewish students at Polish universities, in interwar Poland, must be kept in perspective. According to a Jewish document (p. 290), the Jewish share of Poland's university population stood at 24.6% (1921-1922) and fell in the 1930's, eventually bottoming out at 8.2% (1938-1939). This means that Jews continued to be over-represented in Polish universities until nearly the very end, and even then their WWII-eve proportion was only slightly less than the Jewish share of Poland's population (10%).


While discussing a major Jewish political party (the Bund), Leonard Rowe writes: "Committed to the ideals of democratic socialism, the Bund was convinced, in true Marxist fashion, that only revolutionary struggle could bring about the new society." (p. 107). Its members took part in May Day demonstrations. (p. 139). Rowe insists that the Bund was socialist, not Communist. However, "democracy", in Communist lingo, means totalitarianism. Also, the distinction between socialists and Communists is often largely semantic, and the former can be a euphemism for the latter [After all, it was the USSR, not the USCR].


Jewish self-defense units, such as the Ordener-grupe, are also discussed by Leonard Rowe. They protected Jews from violence by Polish hoodlums and militant anti-Semites. But is this all they did? Rowe makes the following revealing comment: "The Ordener-grupe leaped into action when the picketing of Jewish stores became too flagrant." (p. 119). This corroborates Polish sources [Pogrom? Zajscia polsko-zydowskie w Przytyku 9 marca 1936 r. : Mity, Fakty, Dokumenty (Polish and English Edition)] which point out that the Jewish side was the one that sometimes was the first to cross the line between nonviolence and violence, as during attempts to break up until-now-peaceful boycotts.


Is there another double standard on anti-Jewish violence? Heller writes: "The Polish Communist party as such publically condemned organized anti-Semitism in Poland as a tool of the ruling class--including the big Jewish capitalists--to split the unity of the working people. But it also took a strong stand against Jewish nationalist manifestations, branding them as chauvinist even if they were socialist. The disruption of meetings and perpetration of physical attacks upon members of the Bund and the Left Poale-Zion were integral to Communist tactics to weaken the noncommunist socialist and nationalist movements, which competed with them for the allegiance of radical Jewish youth. The Communist party succeeded in recruiting many of them. As a matter of fact, numerically there were more Jews of non-assimilationist than assimilationist background in the party." (p. 273). The latter adds refutation of the premise that support for Communism was synonymous with a repudiation of one's Judaism. And how odd that so much ink has been devoted by past and present Jewish writers to anti-Jewish violence by Poles, but virtually none to anti-Jewish violence by pre-WII Poland's Communists.

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