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Warsaw. The Jewish Metropolis: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Professor Antony Polonsky

jan peczkis|Monday, November 30, 2015

This anthology covers many topics, of which I discuss a few. Compared with most Jewish-authored works, this one employs less of a finger-pointing attitude towards Poles.


Cornelia Aust elaborates on an early version of what has since become known as “international Jewry.” Consider the Napoleonic Wars. Jewish army supplier Judyta Jakubowicza not only supplied the French and Polish troops in Warsaw, but also the Russian and Prussian troops. (p. 56).


Glenn Dynner has a fascinating chapter on the traditional Jewish sartorial habits. It especially focuses on the debates, among 19th-century Jews, on the continuing relevance of distinctive clothing. Was the adoption of gentile clothing intolerable only if it was forced by the gentile authorities, or was it always wrong--whether adopted by Jews coercively or voluntarily?

To begin with, distinctive dress has a Talmudic basis. Dynner comments, (quote) For the rabbinical injunction to opt for martyrdom rather than yield to a religiously-motivated royal decree that coerces even minor sartorial alterations, see BT Sanhedrin 74a-b. (unquote). (p. 99). [The online Soncino Babylonian Talmud, in its first explanatory note for Sanhedrin 74b, adds that the Jews’ shoe latchets were white, while those of the heathen were black.]

Sartorial differentiation enjoyed the force of law in Ashkenazic Jewish society, and Jewish religious authorities debated where, on the spectrum of transgression, gentile fashions fell. Was it outright idolatry (HUKOTEHEM), softer idolatry (“Amorite ways”), or licentiousness (PRITZUT)? (p. 99).

Of course, distinctive clothing went beyond religious considerations. It played a role in self-identity, group separatism, and the position of that group in society. As an example of the latter, Dynner remarks, (quote) Jewish sartorial differentiation was compatible with a pre-modern ethos that condoned and sometimes even required visible distinction among estates, social classes, and residents of different locales. (unquote). (p. 101).

Glenn Dynner doubts that the traditional dress of Polish Jews was an imitation of that of the Polish nobility (p. 100), and cites Montefiore, who dubiously claimed that the long-ago Polish authorities had forced Jews to dress distinctively. (p. 103). However, he does not develop these premises.


Scott Ury has a chapter on Warsaw’s Jewish coffee houses, and their implications for Jewish urban culture. One of these coffee houses was run by Yehezkel Kotik, who was also a tireless communal activist and champion of Jewish national regeneration. (p. 210).

Kotik believed that some of the negative stereotypes, which gentiles have of Jews, have a basis in fact. Ury comments, (quote) Kotik’s concern regarded the Jews’ chronic inability to act appropriately is echoed in his comments on “impudence”…Kotik was determined to reform urban Jewish society. Thus, in addition to divisions and discord among Jews, he worried that “the Jews” were indeed an unclean, immoral, and greedy people whose repeated displays of rude and insolent behavior disrupted the delicate urban ecology. (unquote). (pp. 223-224). [The latter conduct has also been called “Oriental hotheadedness”, “eastern excitability”, and “Jewish pushiness”.]


Francois Guesnet describes the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Litvaks (Litwaks) who moved to Warsaw after 1862. (p. 129-130). Their impact was unambiguous (tacitly confirming Endek impressions of them). Guesnet comments, (quote) The settlement of a considerable number of Russian-Jewish businesspeople and tradesmen in the Polish capital in the 1890s enlarged a pre-existing visible sub-community of Russian Jews who had kept close ties with the Empire, and were familiar with the Russian language and administration. Culturally, they were unreceptive to the Hasidic movement, indifferent to the Polish cause, and rather unsympathetic to those local Jews who would consider Polonization a viable cultural trajectory. (unquote). (p. 134).

As for the Wilno [Vilnius]-area Litvaks, they were not only hostile to Poland, but remained so long after the resurrected Poland had become a reality in 1918. Kulman Weiser writes, (quote) Much of Vilna’s Jewish intelligentsia came to embrace a demonstratively pro-Yiddish stance during World War I and continued to do so throughout the interwar period, even if, as elsewhere in the former tsarist empire, its member continued to speak Russian in private. This strategy was conditioned by a combination of factors: their lack of identification with Polish culture and the Polish nationalist cause (despite Vilna’s eventual re-incorporation into independent Poland), their distinctive Jewish nationalist aspirations, and their desire to maintain a relatively neutral position in the conflict between Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Russians over control of the city and its environs. (unquote). (p. 307).


The Endeks doubted if Jewish assimilation, even were it to occur on a large scale, would make Jews part of the Polish nation. This premise finds inadvertent support in Kenneth B. Moss, who quips, (quote) Of course, at this stage in the historiography of Polish Jewish life, it hardly bears repeating that linguistic and cultural Polonization did not necessarily connote an embrace of Polishness as national identity, and that indeed this equation became less and less self-evident as the interwar period wore on. (unquote). (p. 405).

In addition, there was concern that assimilated Polish Jews would think and function as Jews who happened to be Polish rather than Poles who happened to be Jewish. This is borne out by Moss, who discusses the Warsaw-centered Polish-language Jewish writers. They formed a distinctive subculture, and specifically insisted on a Jewish national identity. Many of whom later turned to Communism. (p. 407).


The Jewish involvement in Communism is often marginalized as membership in the tiny Communist Party. It was actually much broader than that, and it was not confined to the desperately poor, disaffected youth, or to extremists. Gennady Estraikh writes, (quote) In the 1920s and 1930s, many “pure” Yiddishists moved over to the Communist camp. Thus, a pro-Soviet newspaper, FRAYND (Friend), was launched in Warsaw in April 1934 under the management of Boris Kletzkin, one of the best-known and most respected members of the Yiddish publishing world. (unquote). (p. 341).

Kenneth B. Moss refers to the Zionist youth movement, Ha-shomer ha-tsair [HASHOMER HATZAIR], as “romantic-cum-Marxist”. (p. 423). He also refers to the Left Poalei-tsion [POALE ZION] as a Marxist Zionist Party. (p. 424). How—semantics aside—they substantially differed from Communism, if at all, is left unclear.


The latter chapters of this book touch on the German-made Holocaust and aftermath. One of these, by Gabriel N. Finder, delves into the postwar Polish trials of Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.

Nowadays, Jewish collaboration with the Nazis is customarily excused as the acts of desperate individuals doing anything to try to save their lives. However, this definitely was not the opinion of Holocaust-surviving Jews, who, more than anyone else, understood exactly what it meant to try to remain alive under the Nazis. Thus, Jewish honor courts were established not only in Israel, but also in the Netherlands, in the Jewish DP camps of Western Europe, and in Poland. Furthermore, Poland’s surviving Jews thought that the Polish authorities were being too lenient on Jewish-Nazi collaborators. (p. 545).

Ironic to the save-ones-life exculpation, the case of celebrated featherweight boxer Spepsl Rotholc (1912-1996), is instructive. He was convicted of collaboration with the Nazi enemy precisely because of his continued service in the Jewish ghetto police during the Great Deportation on and after September 1942. The court ruled that Rotholc knew, or should have known by then, that he was dispatching Jews to their deaths. (pp. 549-550). The guilty verdict also implied, of course, that the circumstances did not vitiate his responsibility for his conduct.

On the subject of postwar Polish courts dealing with both Poles and Jews who collaborated with the Nazis, Gabriel N. Finder suggests that Poland’s postwar Soviet-imposed government was less interested in bringing collaborators to justice, and more interested in punishing political enemies. (p. 559). (What implications does this salient fact have for the credibility of the 1949 convictions of the Polish Jedwabne defendants?)
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