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Conflicts Across the Atlantic: Essays on Polish-Jewish Relations in the United States During World War I and in the Interwar Years

jan peczkis|Monday, September 5, 2011

The informed reader of this scholarly work may be struck by the similarities that exist between post-WWII attacks on Poland, which center on Polish conduct during the Holocaust, and similar attacks around the time of WWI. They are amazing.

Since time immemorial, a profound disconnect has existed between the two communities, both in Poland and the USA. Kapiszewski cites a 1906 study by Beatrice Baskerville, who wrote: "`Which side was the more to blame at the beginning...it is difficult to say...there has been a good deal to forgive on both sides, and today, at any rate, Jews are as anti-Polish as the Poles are anti-Semitic. Jews do not want to assimilate, they do not want to blend their interests with the interests of the rest of the community. They are striving to assert their national individually, to live their own lives and attain their own ends, all three of which, are as far removed from Slavonic ideals as the twilight from dawn, as night from day.'" (p. 25).


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Throughout this work, there is a negative portrayal of Dmowski and the Endeks. Interestingly, however, some influential Jews (Isaac Gruenbaum, Leo Glassman, members of the United Palestine Drive, and [not mentioned] Vladimir Jabotinsky) agreed that the only long-term solution to the Jewish problem in Poland was mass Jewish emigration. (pp. 141-142).

Around the time of Poland's re-acquisition of independence (1918), there was a causus bellus between Poles and Jews, resulting from tales of massive Polish pogroms, in which each side attempted to sway American opinion, and in which both sides engaged in massive street demonstrations. (p. 62, 103). There were acts of violence between American Poles and Jews. (p. 176). The press uncritically trumpeted fantastic death tolls: In one town alone, 14,000 Jews were reportedly murdered. (p. 128). Some influential Jews went into a Polonophobic frenzy. For instance, George Morris Brandes (p. 36) and Aaron Levy (p. 181) proclaimed that Poland did not deserve independence.

Newspaper accounts spoke of ruthless Polish extermination of Jews (e. g., facing page 64). Two decades later, the "crying wolf" about extermination of Jews helped undermine the credibility of reports about the very real Nazi extermination actions. Judge Felix Frankfurter accused Poles of exterminating Jews around 1918, but in an ironic later about-face, when eyewitness Jan Karski informed him of the unfolding German Nazi extermination of Jews, Frankfurter refused to believe it. (p. 122).

Polish-Americans welcomed outside investigation of pogrom allegations: "The Polish authorities gave the Morgenthau Commission a free hand and made no efforts to restrict its access to Jewish representatives and witnesses." (p. 94). Jewish-Americans did not want the pogroms investigated. (p. 90). In fact, "According to Morgenthau himself, some Jewish leaders opposed him because they were `afraid of the truth' and only wanted to establish a case, not to determine the facts." (pp. 90-91). [If so, the perceptive reader can see how history later repeated itself. The forensic dig at Jedwabne was stopped by a suddenly-discovered respect for the dead just as it began uncovering evidence refuting the Pole-accusing claims of Jan T. Gross.]

The author discusses the findings of the investigative reports. [See also the Peczkis review of The Jews in Poland: Official reports of the American and British investigating commissions, and follow the links in the review to the Morgenthau and Goodhart reports]. However, Kapiszewski goes far beyond the reports, quoting the apparently previously-unpublished papers of the likes of investigators Hugh Gibson and Henry Morgenthau, some of which I cite.

A mountain had been made of a molehill. There were 280 Jewish deaths in all of Poland (p. 97), not thousands or tens of thousands, and certainly no extermination of Jews. Even then, an unknown fraction of the 280 owed to wartime events, not necessarily animated by anti-Semitism. For instance, the Pinsk "pogrom" was actually a shooting of 35 Jewish Communists, who had been exposed by Jewish informers, and caught plotting an anti-Polish, pro-Soviet uprising. (p. 67). Pogrom accusations always had employed a double standard: "According to Gibson, when a Jew was injured it was always called a pogrom, but `when a Christian was mobbed, it was called a food riot.'" (p. 71).

The investigative reports were almost completely ignored by the Jewish press (p. 99), which otherwise called Morgenthau a traitor to the Jewish cause. (p. 95). Gibson was attacked as an anti-Semite or Jew-baiter (p. 84), with allegations that his WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) background animated his prejudices. (p. 110). [Ironic to this, one could just as easily suspect a WASP of prejudice against Slavs as against Jews.]. Gibson responded: "`I find that most of these people are over wrought and have reached that stage where they unconsciously want to believe every exaggerated yarn about excesses against the Jews. They take it as prejudice if you question any story no matter whether they know where it comes from or not, as long as it makes out a case against the Poles and shows that the Jews are suffering...'" (p. 85). Gibson never absolved Poles for killing Jews. (p. 76). He concluded that Polish-Jewish problems can only be solved by goodwill from both sides, including American Jews "`who could face facts honestly.'" (p. 71).

Investigator Gibson quoted General Haller as attempting to stop anti-Jewish excesses among his troops. American volunteers, unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish men, saw them as freaks and objects for sport. They also reacted with "frontier justice" (my term) to peasants' complaints of Jewish profiteering. (p. 78). However, Kapiszewski does not mention the fact that many accusations against Haller's men proved to be, if nothing else, geographically impossible, and that beard-cutting tales had been so overused that they had become jocular. (See the Peczkis review of Pamietniki z Wyborem Dokumentow i Zdjec.).

Gibson suggested that pogrom tales were a tool of Zionists designed to scare Jews into supporting Zionism. (p. 84). Some American Jews, including a onetime Polish Jew veteran of the 1863 Insurrection, came out in strong defense of Poland. (pp. 128-129). They concurred with Gibson (p. 68) that the WWI-era pogrom accounts were products of Prussian and Soviet propaganda, designed to weaken western support for an independent Poland. [If so, the perceptive reader can again realize how history later repeated itself in the possibly Soviet-staged 1946 Kielce Pogrom, intended as it was to weaken western support for a free, non-Communist Poland.].

For a time in the 1920's, relations between Jewish and Polish-Americans improved. However, they deteriorated again in the 1930's.
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