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Polish-Jewish Relations Before and After the Holocaust. M. Benjamin Thorne, Jan. 14, 2009. Contemporary Poland . Today, Poland’s Jewish population numbers only 3,200 out of 38, 116,000. Most Poles know little about the history of Polish Jews, or even ever met a Jewish person.

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Polish-Jewish Relations Before and After the Holocaust

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Polish jewish relations before and after the holocaust

Polish-Jewish Relations Before and After the Holocaust

M. Benjamin Thorne, Jan. 14, 2009

Contemporary poland

Contemporary Poland

  • Today, Poland’s Jewish population numbers only 3,200 out of 38, 116,000.

  • Most Poles know little about the history of Polish Jews, or even ever met a Jewish person.

  • Attitudes towards Jews in Poland run the gamut from extremely positive to overtly anti-Semitic, with many somewhere in the middle.

The polish lithuanian commonwealth paradise for jews

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—Paradise for Jews

  • While Polish-Jewish relations came to experience an escalation in tension during the interwar years and the Communist regime, there was a time when Jews enjoyed considerable prestige and freedom: that of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795).

  • During this period Poland was known as the “Paradise of the Jews” and Jewish culture experienced remarkable growth. By 1764, the Jewish population of the Commonwealth was around 750,000 out of a total world population of 1.2 million.

Partitioning of poland

Partitioning of Poland

  • By the late eighteenth century a series of wars as well as the interference of the nobility severely weakened Poland-Lithuania.

  • Three rival countries (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) carved up Poland during a series of partitions, finally wiping Poland-Lithuania off the map in 1795.

  • Poland-Lithuania’s Jewish population was also divided, the majority living in the part of the Russian partition called the Pale of Settlement.

Reunification in 1918

Reunification in 1918

  • During WWI Polish Jews took an active role in the struggle to create a united Polish state , despite a number of pogroms resulting in the deaths of ca. 300 Jews.

  • By 1939, the Jewish population of Poland was around 3, 474,000 or 10% of the total population.

  • Warsaw’s Jewish population numbered 375,000, roughly a third of the entire populace.

Polish jewish relations before and after the holocaust

Józef Piłsudski (1926-1935)

Born in what is today Lithuania, Piłsudski was committed during World War I to reuniting the lands of partitioned Poland.

Recognizing the threat faced by a multiethnic state during the age of nationalism, Piłsudski

Flowering of jewish culture

Flowering of Jewish Culture

  • During the interwar years Polish Jews experienced a tremendous cultural renaissance.

  • By 1938 there were: 226 Yiddish or Hebrew-language elementary schools;

  • fifiteen Yiddish-language theatres;

  • 116 Jewish newspapers in a variety of languages;

  • and six major Jewish political parties (with several other smaller factions) representing a variety of viewpoints.

  • On the eve of the Holocaust, Poland’s Jewish population figured at 3,474,000.

Reverse assimilation

Reverse assimilation

  • Contrary to Jewish populations in Western Europe, during the interwar period Polish Jewry became increasingly less assimilated to Polish society, as represented by census statistics:

  • Eg: in 1921, 74.2% claimed Yiddish or Hebrew as their mother tongue; by 1931 this had increased to 87%.

  • This can partially be explained by the steady stream of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union

Tensions mount from the death of pi sudski to 1939

Tensions Mount: From the death of Piłsudski to 1939

  • After Piłsudski’s death, overt expressions of anti-Semitism increased in frequency:

  • Jewish students suffered abuses in schools;

  • Anti-Jewish riots during the years 1935-1937 left 79 dead and over 500 wounded;

  • In 1937 Catholic trade unions representing doctors and lawyers excluded Jews from their membership;

  • That same year, a numerusclausus law limited the number of Jewish students allowed to attend university.

Jewish support for communism fact and fiction

Jewish Support for Communism: Fact and Fiction

  • During the interwar years, some Jewish intellectuals saw Communism as the only political movement that could effectively combat anti-Semitism and establish a society equal to all. After the war, Jews like the poet Julian Tuwim helped in the effort to create such a society.

  • Such involvement, however, should be differentiated from the myth of Żydokomuna, which asserts that the establishment of communism in Poland was part of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate Polish society. This myth has hindered Polish-Jewish dialogue in the postwar era.

Returning home the kielce pogrom

Returning Home—The Kielce Pogrom

  • Jews returning back to their former homes after the Holocaust often encountered resentment—and sometimes violence from their neighbors, who in many instances had occupied the houses.

  • The most infamous incident was the Kielce Pogrom (July 4, 1946).

  • Of the town’s 200 Holocaust survivors, 42 were killed.

  • Such events prompted many Jews to leave Poland for the US or Israel.

Competitive victimization

Competitive Victimization

  • Dialogue between Poles and Jews regarding the Holocaust remains difficult in part due to the differing memories of the Nazi occupation.

  • To many Poles, the war years were a period of extreme violence in which six million Polish citizens (half of them Jews) died.

  • To those unaware of Hitler’s plans to exterminate all Jews, then, the Holocaust does not stand out as a unique aspect of the war.

  • Still others believe that the Nazis intended to exterminate all Poles as well, challenging the notion of the Holocaust as unique phenomenon (this idea in particular is prominent among some Polish émigré communities in the United States).

Auschwitz as a site of contested memory

Auschwitz as a Site of Contested Memory

  • Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than at Auschwitz itself.

  • In addition to being a killing center for Jews, Auschwitz housed many kinds of prisoners, including Poles suspected of being Communists or members of the resistance.

  • Roughly 150,000 Poles were deported to Auschwitz, including the famous author Tadeusz Borowski.

The cross controversy

The Cross Controversy

  • To emphasize the Polish dimension of the camp, an order of Carmelite nuns established a convent near Auschwitz in 1984, and erected a large cross in front of Barack 11, which housed political prisoners.

  • The convent is forced to leave the site in 1993, but the cross remains.

Polish jewish relations before and after the holocaust

The most recent controversy is the theft of the “ArbeitMachtFrei” sign above the main gate into Auschwitz, which occurred on December 18, 2009.

The theft provoked anger and condemnation from Jews, Poles, and general world opinion.

The sign—like Auschwitz itself—remains a symbol with very different meanings for Poles and Jews.

Polish jewish relations before and after the holocaust

  • Thank you for your attention, and enjoy your trip!

  • If you any further questions about the history of Polish Jewry, please don’t hesitate to ask:

  • mbthorne@indiana.edu

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