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political world

The Old Country: The Lost World of East European Jews

Jan Paczkis|Friday, October 30, 2009

The many pictures of this book, generally dating from the period 1860-1920, hearken back to a simpler time. They make it obvious that, not only were Poland's Jews generally unassimilated, but that they essentially lived in a world of their own. [The reader, beholding the poverty of the Jews, should realize that most Poles were even poorer.] A hierarchy existed within the Jewish community: "Manual workers were generally looked upon with condescension, but some professions were held to be lower than others." (p. 12).

This work includes many definitions of Jewish terms. For instance, a latke is a potato pancake, and a cheder is a school for children. Contrary to misconceptions, Poland's Jews had not generally been forcibly ghettoized: "Except for two towns, where the Christian clergy succeeded in establishing closed and locked ghettos (Lwow and in the Krakow suburb of Kazimierz), the Jews lived in the shtetlach and in special sections in the cities." (p. 8).

Shulman realizes the fact that prejudices between Poles and Jews went both ways, and that a fundamental disconnect had long existed between the two peoples. He describes the marketplace as follows: "Here the peasants of the neighboring villages came to sell their products, buy urban products from the Jews, and use the services of the Jewish artisans. In the course of centuries this contact was seldom of lasting duration or of profound value. The relationship usually remained on the level of mutual distrust. To the Jew, the non-Jew was the symbol of raw instinct, of physical power and primitive reflexes. To the peasant, the Jew represented slyness, brains, and, most of all, religious heresy...The peasant saw a Jew praying, wrapped in an exotic shawl, wearing a little black box on his forehead and arm; he heard strange words muttered in a dark language. This unknown created the usual fear and hatred." (p. 15).

The Zydokomuna (bolshevized Judaism) is commonly misportrayed as something limited to the tiny Communist Party, or even something that represented a repudiation of Judaism. In contrast, Shulman recognizes its broad-based following, as well as the fact that it was, in essence, a secularized mutation of conventional Jewish thinking. He writes: "While studying the teachings of Marx and Engels, Lassale and Medem, the Jewish poor in the shtetl saw how smoothly the new teachings fitted into the words of the ancient prophets...Many of the young Bundists from the crowded, poor streets of the shtetl, educated on the Talmud, didn't actually have such a long way to go. Later, when the Bund became a powerful party with its own candidates for the Polish parliament and municipal bodies, thousands of religious Jews gave their votes to those `godless socialists.' They were not frightened of the sharp slogans, for they sounded familiar. They had heard them from the prophets." (pp. 25-26). [However, poverty alone doesn't explain the appeal of Communism. Polish peasants generally lived in abject poverty under an unjust holdover quasi-feudal system, yet their support for Communism had been virtually nonexistent.]

Finally, Shulman touches on Poland's Jewish community just before the Holocaust: "Between the two world wars Jewish life went through a period of amazing renaissance in independent Poland, a period never experienced before except perhaps in Spain. Never before was the cultural life so rich...for the first time Jewish political parties became a power in the political constellation of the country." (p. 27). Whereas the books read by parents tended to be religious ones, those read by the youth were quite different: "The new books were DAS KAPITAL of Marx, FIELDS, FACTORIES, AND WORKSHOPS by Piotr Alekseyevich Kropotkin, ALTNEULAND by Theodor Herzl, and even WHAT IS TO BE DONE? by Lenin. (p. 27).
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