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Henry Morgenthau's Report on the 1918 Polish Pogroms against Jews

jan peczkis|Saturday, October 26, 2013

This review is limited to Jewish-American Morgenthau's 1919 mission to Poland (pp. 348-384) and his report on the same (pp. 407-437). As a backdrop, Poland had, at that time, been at war for 5 years. There was widespread destitution, disease, hunger, and even starvation (p. 418). Morgenthau cautions: "The mission has purposely avoided the use of the term `pogrom', as the word is applied to everything from petty outrages to premeditated and carefully organized massacres. No fixed definition is generally understood." (p. 409). Pilsudski (p. 371) restricted the term to government-sponsored violence against Jews (as in czarist Russia). (In my reviews, I use the term pogrom as a concession to modern usage)

Morgenthau's conclusion on what he prefers to call excesses is as follows: "Just as the Jews would resent being condemned as a race for the action of a few of their undesirable coreligionists, so it would be correspondingly unfair to condemn the Polish nation as a whole for the violence committed by uncontrolled troops or local mobs. These excesses were apparently not premeditated, for if they had been part of a preconceived plan, the number of victims would have run into the thousands instead of amounting to about 280." (p. 415).

Apart from the commonly-noted triangular enmity between Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, a major ingredient in the bloody November 1918 pogrom (64 Jewish deaths) in Lwow (Lviv, Lvov, Lemberg), had been the following: "The situation was further complicated by the presence of some 15,000 uniformed deserters and numerous criminals released by the Ukrainians from local jails, who were ready to join in any disorder, particularly if, as in the case of wholesale pillage, they might profit thereby." (p. 410). After the Minsk pogrom, Jewish witnesses reported to Morgenthau that the retreating Soviet forces had deliberately shot at Polish troops from within Jewish homes so that the local Jews would be blamed and reprisal pogroms would be provoked (p. 361).

An overall factor in all, or nearly all, of the pogroms had been the state and the control of the Polish armed forces: "The responsibility for these excesses is borne for the most part by the undisciplined and ill-equipped Polish recruits, who, uncontrolled by their inexperienced and ofttimes timid officers, sought to profit at the expense of that portion of the population which they regarded as alien and hostile to Polish nationality and aspirations. It is recognized that the enforcement of discipline in a new and untrained army is a matter of extreme difficulty...On the other hand...an unflinching determination to restore order and a firm application of repressive measures can prevent, or at least limit, such excesses." (p. 415)

Morgenthau has been accused of whitewashing the Poles, perhaps because he faulted both sides: "There was no question whatever but that the Jews had suffered...Yet there was also no question but that some of the Jewish leaders had exaggerated these evils. There, too, were malevolent, self-seeking mischief-makers both in the Jewish and Polish press and among politicians of all stripes. Jews and non-Jews alike started out with the presumption that there could be no reconciliation." (pp. 382-383).

Bearing in mind the huge size of the Jewish population (14% of Poland's total), consider Morgenthau's opinion of Polish attitudes towards Jews: "In considering the causes for the anti-Semitic feeling which has brought about the manifestations described above, it must be remembered that ever since the partitions of 1795 the Poles have striven to be reunited as a nation and to regain their freedom. This continual effort to keep alive their national aspirations has caused them to look with hatred upon anything which might interfere with their aims. This has led to a conflict with the nationalist declarations of the Jewish organizations which desire to establish cultural autonomy financially supported by the State...Moreover, Polish national feeling is irritated by what is regarded as the `alien' character of the great mass of the Jewish population. This is constantly brought home to the Poles by the fact that the majority of the Jews affect a distinctive dress, observe the Sabbath on Saturday, conduct business on Sunday, have separate dietary laws, wear long beards, and speak a language of their own. The basis of this language is a German dialect, and the fact that Germany was, and still is, looked upon by the Poles as an enemy country renders this vernacular especially unpopular. The concentration of the Jews in separate districts or quarters in Polish cities also emphasizes the line of demarcation separating them from other citizens." (p. 417).

Another factor was the Jewish domination of commerce: "The cessation of commerce is particularly felt by the Jewish population, which are almost entirely dependent upon it. Owing to the condition described [the wars], prices have doubled and tripled, and the population has become irritated against the Jewish traders, whom it blames for the abnormal increase thus occasioned." (p. 418). Pilsudski remarked: "Our trouble isn't religious; It is economic. Our petty dealers are Jews. Many have been war-profiteers..." (p. 371). Morgenthau (pp. 416-417) rejects the claim that the elimination of the middleman is ipso facto an anti-Semitic act.

Finally, Morgenthau recognized the fact that Jewish demands had, using modern parlance, crossed into the realm of special rights and, again using modern parlance, implied a balkanization of Poland: "We found that, among the Jews, there was a thoughtful, ambitious minority, who, sincere in their original motives, intensified the trouble by believing that its solution lay only in official recognition of the Jew as a separate nationality...they aimed at nothing short of an autonomous government and a place in the family of nations. Meanwhile, they wanted to joint the Polish nation in a federation having a joint parliament where both Yiddish and Polish should be spoken...their advocacy of a state-within-the-state was naturally resented by all." (pp. 383-384).
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