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The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust: A Memoir

jan peczkis|Saturday, May 21, 2011

If you want detailed information on the nuts-and-bolts practice of religion among the Jews of pre-WWII Poland, this book is for you. This work emphasizes religious observances over religious philosophies, although Gold does engage in some post-Holocaust soul-searching. There is interesting information on the role of women in Orthodox Judaism (pp. 55-on), along with the Jewish concept of the Messiah and of the hereafter. (p. 31). There were a number of activities performed in the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "One of them was Kapparoth (Atonements), a ritual in which one's sins are passed on to a chicken, a rooster, or even a fish, which is offered as a substitute for oneself." (p. 37).

Poland's Jews were less a minority group than a separate nation living on Polish soil. Jews were in a state of profound disconnect from Poles and Poland, even in the case of language. "In 1918, after Poland regained independence, the government decreed that Polish be taught in heder...Most religious Jews who grew up before Poland became independent spoke Polish poorly..." (p. 80).

The kind of education that religious Jews obtained also contributed to their self-imposed apartheid (my term): "In Poland, my education was strictly within the Jewish tradition. In heder, I had learned a little Polish history, and arithmetic [and then only because the Polish law required it: p. 47]. In the yeshiva we viewed all secular education as contaminating. We actually believed that we had nothing to learn from the goyim." (pp. 146-147).

As for assimilated Jews, notably the young, they too generally were not really part of Poland. In 1936, Cardinal August Hlond made a statement in which he characterized nonreligious Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, etc. (for full text of the statement, see pp. 76-77). Gold tacitly makes it clear that this had quite a bit of basis in fact, as he comments: "I grew up during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In those years about three and half million Jews lived in Poland, but less than a third of them were religious. Most young people of my generation abandoned religion for political or practical solutions to the dilemmas of Jewish existence. They were attracted to Zionism, to the Jewish Socialist Bund, or to Communism, the groups that were competing successfully for the allegiance of the younger generation." (p. 16). Note that becoming better Polish citizens does not make the list.

Gold keeps Polish anti-Semitism in perspective: "It is remarkable that despite the vehement anti-Jewishness of the 1930's, Jews still fared better in Poland that they did in Germany, France, or Spain. Jews were never expelled from Poland." (p. 81). He also praises the Poles, including devout Catholics, who rescued Jews during the German occupation.

The author realizes that Polish anti-Semitism was only one side of the coin: "Relations between Poles and religious Jews were burdened by prejudices on both sides. Just as our self-image was shaped by our religious tradition, so was our view of Poles. We were the descendants of Jacob, who, according to tradition, studies Torah and lived by its commandments. Poles, on the other hand, were the descendants of Esau, with all of the vile characteristics that our tradition ascribed to him: a depraved being, a murderer, a rapist, and an inveterate enemy of Jacob." (p. 76).

Gold continues: "We viewed Catholicism as idolatry. Poles were stereotyped as lechers and drunkards, given to brawling and wife-beating. I remember a popular Yiddish folk song about Jacob, the Jew, who rises in the morning and goes to the Beit HaMidrash to study and pray, and Esau, a Pole, who goes to the tavern. The refrain exclaims: `Oy! Shiker is a goy, a goy is drunk! And he must drink because he is a goy.'" (p. 79). For more on this, see the Peczkis review of
Poland, What Have I to Do With Thee...: Essays Without Prejudice.
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