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The Jewish Question in Poland

Poland was home to one of the world’s most thriving Jewish populations before Nazi Germany invaded in 1939. It murdered nearly 3 million Jews in death camps set up in Poland, including such chilling places as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Holocaust survivors who returned to Poland after the war found themselves victims of further anti-Semitism. Some historians say many Poles collaborated with the Nazis in persecuting Jews. Poland suffered immense losses under Nazi occupation with an estimated 1.9 million non-Jewish civilian deaths. Its Jewish community of 3.2 million, one of Europe's largest at the time, was nearly decimated. According to Yad Vashem, only 380,000 survived.

During the 13th Century many parts of Poland began to be colonized by Germans, who did much for Poland by establishing industries and developing municipal institutions. Large numbers of Jews, persecuted in western Europe, took refuge about this time in Poland. In the 14th Century extensive privileges were conferred on the Jews at a time when the nations of western Europe were visiting on them the rigor of persecution.

One of the most important questions to be considered by the new Polish State in 1920 was that of the Jews. Numerically they formed roughly one-seventh of the population. In Warsaw a third of the population were Jews: in many provincial towns four out of every five inhabitants were Jews and in some nine out of ten, and of these the vast majority were Sephardic Eastern Jews who in language, religion and customs differed from the population. Their language was Yiddish, a Middle-High German dialect; for the purposes of writing, Hebrew characters were used. Their dress was peculiar to themselves and their habits and standards of conduct were neither European nor modern.

The Western Jews [Ashkenazi] were of thetype which was generally found in western Europe, speaking the language and conforming to the habits of Western civilization. The Eastern Jew was essentially a business or commercial man, but rarely a producer. He was usually a middleman or intermediary. In many areas the majority of the shops were owned by Jews, but they are a type apart, hated and despised by the rest of the population, devoted to their religion.

The Jews had been settled in Poland; between 800 and 1,000 years so that they can hardly be considered "strangers" in the land, in fact the Slavs cannot be considered very much more native than they. It was not, however, until the later part of the 19th Century that the quarrel between the Jews and the Poles began. The Tsarist Government moved the Jews out of Russia but gave them exceptional advantages ia Poland. These Litvaks (as they were called) openly professed themselves the partisans of Russia and founded the Jewish press which set to work openly to fight against Polish autonomy. The Poles attacked the Jews before the Great War by means of a national boycctt, the only means by which one subject group could attack another. During and after the Great War, the hostility to the Jews was increased by the fact that in the German occupation of Poland during the War the Jew was the willing tool of the invader, and by the seeming close connexion between the Jews and Bolshevism. The hostility to the Jew was marked in 1918 and 1919 by excesses in which hundreds of Jews were in fact killed, but which were said to have been exaggerated by the Jewish press.

From November, 1918, to April, 1919, one might almost say that the Jews were outlawed, if there had been much law. But there was not much law for anyone, and for the Jews only very much less than for anyone else. These excesses were assaults and batteries. They would range from rough horse-play, especially on railroads and stations, to blows and sometimes very severe beatings. Sometimes, of course, the most violent assaults, as throwing a Jew out of a moving train, would lead to death. In out of the way places there must have been some murders, and in some cases outrages on women and murders. For this first period it is difficult to judge; though rare, there were certainly some crimes of the sort. Overcrowded trains and soldiers on leave traveling were the most ordinary occasions, but the same sort of thing took place extensively in the streets on very slight pretexts. Beard cutting was an almost universal sport and still goes on largely, though this is often treatc1 as mere rough fun. But the long beard worn by the Orthodox Jew, though ridiculous to others, has a semi-religious meaning to him and is worn in accordance with Talmudic precepts, and his religious convictions are entitled to respect as much as those of anyone else.

The assaults were accompanied by a great deal of pilfering, robbery and petty blackmail from frightening an elderly Jew at a railway station into emptying his pockets, to entering Jewish shops and pillaging them, the main motive. In the military zone all these evils existed in a far worse form. In big towns, mostly Jewish, the Polish troops were more careful. Even there, in capitals like Lcmberg, pillaging and blackmailing went on incessantly. But in out of the way places, chiefly under the pretext of enforced labor, they very often reduced the Jews to a state of slavery. In the case of civilians, soldiers, and gendarmerie it was the habit of the Poles to insult Jews of every kind, including perfectly innocent Jewish ladies, in public places. This fashion was that of the Polish ladies and gentlemen as it was of the common people.

A number of recommendations for the future treatment of the Jews in Poland were made by Sir Stuart Samuel in his report on his mission to Poland (Cmd. 674, 1920). That the Polish Government be urged to carry out the clauses of the Minority Treaty of June 28 1919, in a spirit of sympathy with its Jewish subjects. That a genuine and not a "masked' equality be accorded to the Jewish population of Poland. That all outrages against the person and propety of the subject, irrespective of race or religion, should be promptly punished and the names of the delinquents published. That the Jews in E. Galicia be restored to their official positions in the same manner as non-Jews have been. That no restrictions should be placed upon the number of Jews admitted to the universities. That a decree be published declaring boycotts illegal, and ordering all publications advocating boycott to be suspended. That all prisoners in internment camps be brought to immediate trial, and that humane treatment be assured to all interned prisoners. That facilities be afforded for the introduction of new industries into Poland with a view to converting a larger proportion of the Jewish population into producers.

Samuel recommended that the British Government should assist Jews wishing to migrate from Poland by providing facilities to proceed to countries inch as Palestine, Canada, S. Africa, Algeria and S. America, or any other country desiring to receive them. That banks be established possessing the confidence of the Jewish public, so that money might be deposited therein instead of being carried on the person or concealed in dwellings. Finally, that the desirability of a secretary who understands and speaks Yiddish being added to the staff of H.M. Legation at Warsaw be considered.

Capt. Peter Wright, in his very interesting report stated (Cmd. 674. 1920, pp. 17-36), as reported in the 1922 Encyclopedia Britannica (vol. XXXII, p. 123) that "the great majority of the poor Jews are of the Eastern type and extreme orthodoxy (Chassidin). They form an immense mass of squalid and helpless poverty." Capt. Wright's only recommendation is that "the richer Jews should Rally the condition of the poor Jews who either trade as small middlemen, as hawkers or touts, or labour as unskilled, or almost unskilled, and the sweating dens as sweaters or sweated when they emigrate. They are driven into all sorts of illicit and fraudulent practices and in England, in the East End of London, too large a proportion of convictions for such offence can be laid to their account. Tbey are unfit for the modern economic world for want of education - : for Western society because of their habits and want of cleanliness. They are devoted to their strange old religion but as they grow rich their piety," as the Chief Rabbi told Capt. Wright, "is destroyed ir wealth ana they take too little interest in their poorer brethren. No one who knows Poland can be surprised at the Polish attitude or the desire of the Poles to be rid of this corrupting influence."

Poland’s senate approved a law that would penalize suggestions of Polish blame for Nazi crimes committed inside the country during the Holocaust. Lawmakers passed the measure 27 January 2018 by a vote of 57-23. Poland’s lower house of parliament gave its approval days before. The law would make it a crime to call the Nazi genocide of Jews a Polish crime, or the Nazi death camps Polish death camps, even though some of the most brutal Nazi atrocities took place on Polish soil. Some experts fear the new Polish law could also mean jail for Holocaust survivors when talking about their ordeals. The measure exempts artistic and research work. To become law, it needs only the signature of President Andrzej Duda. Polish President Andrzej Duda said there was no institutional participation by Poland in the Holocaust, but he did recognize criminal actions toward Jews by some individual Poles. "There were wicked people who sold their neighbors for money. But it was not the Polish nation, it was not an organized action," Duda said 31 January 2018. He pointed out that some Poles sacrificed their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis, and that the Polish underground and government in exile resisted efforts to wipe out European Jewry. The contentious law caused a diplomatic spat with Israel, which complained that it could deny the responsibility of some Poles in crimes against Jews, even in cases where their guilt has already been proven. Ahead of the Polish vote, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, debated amendments to its own law on Holocaust denial, so that denying or minimizing the involvement of the Nazi's helpers and collaborators will also be a crime.

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Page last modified: 04-02-2018 19:13:00 ZULU