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Poland and the Jews: An Exchange

In response to:

The Ghost in Poland from the June 2, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Abraham Brumberg’s “The Ghost in Poland” [NYR, June 2], by transcending the frame of a narrow book review, constitutes a thought-provoking study of anti-Semitism in Poland. I am impressed by the author’s appeal to Polish and Jewish historians “to try to confront their own myth and to examine the painful and complex question of the Polish Jews in a spirit of rigorous objectivity,” and would like to contribute a few comments. I feel that Brumberg’s general picture does not always have an ideal distribution of lights and shadows which accounts for some imbalance. Is it fair to speak of a “number of assimilated Jews” in the Polish Socialist Party rather than to stress that the party leadership included such great figures as Feliks Perl, Herman Diamand, Herman Lieberman and Emil Haecker—all of them Jewish? Is it justifiable to speak then of the Party as such not being “free of anti-Semitism?” To say that the Polish nationalist party “became increasingly racist” in the late 1930s may be true about its fringes, but if one uses the term “racist” in the way the Nazis used it, how could one explain that several prominent figures in the nationalist Endencja would not have passed the test of Nazi Nuremberg laws. The reader may be under the impression that Jews were totally eliminated from public life of prewar Poland, but that is not absolutely correct. Even in the elitist diplomatic service one could encounter such Jews as Mühlstein, Neuman or Bader—all holding ministerial rank—not to mention the first representative of Poland to the League of Nations, the great historian Szymon Askenazy. In the judiciary, for instance, Jewish judges were not an exception even on the Supreme Court level (Leopold Walfisz).

When one reads of “anti-Jewish laws” in Poland, he is likely to associate them with discriminatory legislation, introduced in Nazi Germany, or in Horthy’s Hungary, or in Vichy France. No such laws were ever adopted by any of Poland prewar parliaments. I, for one, do not share Brumberg’s view that the Catholic Church “openly backed the anti-Jewish campaign,” but even assuming that some of its hierarchy did, one needs to mention the other side of the coin: the Catholic movement “Odrodzenie” and the Laski center. Both opposed anti-Semitism, and it is interesting to note that the present-day Catholic Polish elite, both lay and ecclesiastical, largely stems from these centers and their tradition.

The question of Jews in the leadership of the Communist Party is a problem less of numbers and more of visibility. The average Pole could not but notice in the Stalinist era that the two most powerful men in the country—Berman and Minc—were both Jewish as was the most dreaded security official Rozanski. This state of affairs was allegedly deplored by a prominent Jew, Emil Sommerstein.

Brumberg cites several Polish intellectuals (Lipski, Klempski, Bartoszewski) who have been probing the painful past in “the spirit of rigorous objectivity.” One can only hope that in the future one will be able to cite more such voices on the Jewish side, for as Brumberg rightly points out there are many Jews who “hold the entire Polish nation to be intractably anti-Semitic.” A dialogue, as one recently held at Columbia University, can only be welcomed, and I think that the Poles are entitled to know why in view of blatant anti-Semitism which existed in large parts of Europe, they alone are being constantly singled out for condemnation. This of course is a larger issue which has less to do with Brumberg’s review and more with his appeal for a dispassionate study of the subject. In such a study the Jewish-Polish problem needs to be examined in a larger context.

Piotr S. Wandycz

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

To the Editors:

In concluding his review of Michael Checinski’s Poland: Communism, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, Abraham Brumberg states that many Jews “hold the entire Polish nation to be intractably anti-Semitic and stubbornly reject any evidence to the contrary…. A theory of collective Polish guilt traduces history as well as morality. Jewish and Polish historians must now try to confront their own myths and to examine the painful and complex question of the Polish Jews in a spirit of rigorous objectivity.”

In relating convincingly how the Polish Communist regime uses anti-Semitism for political purposes, Brumberg himself falls somewhat short of “rigorous objectivity.”

  1. In his lengthy comment on the shocking Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946, Brumberg completely ignores the timely provocation of the pogrom just five days after the fraudulent referendum. As Stefan Korbonski, then Deputy Prime Minister, wrote in his book Warsaw in Chains: “What had been the purpose of it all?… The pogrom had been organized in an effort to influence Western opinion. As a result of the dispatches sent by foreign embassies and foreign correspondents present in Poland during the referendum, the West was swept by a strong current of sympathy for the Polish people, victims of a cynical electoral fraud. Hence it was hoped that the West, hearing of such a horrible atrocity as a racial pogrom, would turn against the Poles and forget about the referendum.”

  2. Brumberg says he can “testify from my own experience” that Soviet troops occupying eastern Poland in 1939 were not greeted with enthusiasm by the Jews. Perhaps not in his home town (which he does not identify), but what of the hundreds of other towns between Lithuania and the Rumanian border? Even if it is true, as he claims, that the welcome involved only small groups of Communist sympathizers of every nationality, can one wonder that nothing could have caused more outrage throughout the country than such a rumor?

  3. He quotes Checinski and a “distinguished historian” (Lucjan Dobroszycki) as stating that 1,500 Polish Jews were murdered or died in pogroms between the end of the war and the summer of 1947.” But these victims of diehard remnants of the wartime Home Army (AK) were not killed because they were Jews but because they were held to be traitors to Poland for serving in various capacities the Soviet-imposed Communist regime!

  4. In stating that “virtually all of the Polish political parties in interwar Poland were infected with anti-Semitism to one degree or another.” Brumberg repeats the vicious Stalinist “amalgam” myth. To cite as an example of “anti-Semitism” in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) political differences with the Jewish socialist Bund on issues is really too much. It would not be possible to find in the history of Europe a political party with a more distinguished record in opposition to anti-Semitism than that of the (pre-war) PPS. Like Celia Heller in On the Edge of Destruction, Brumberg also ignores the fact that the largest political party of pre-war Poland, Wincenty Witos’ Peasant Party (Stronnictwo Ludowe) steadfastly rejected participation in any anti-Semitic movement. And there were other philo-Semitic parties.

The political use of anti-Semitism by the Warsaw Communist regime (continuing under Jaruzelski) has had international repercussions, especially in the United States where since the forced exodus of 1968 anti-Polonism has become a “must” in all films and television productions dealing with the Jewish Holocaust. This anti-Polonism on the part of misinformed novelists, script writers and film directors is revealed in shameful and slanderous distortions of history (Poles shown collaborating with the Nazis, assistance being withheld from the heroic Ghetto freedom fighters, etc., etc.). Besides the ghost of Polish anti-Semitism, should not that of Jewish anti-Polonism also be laid to rest?

John Switalski

Berkeley, California

Abraham Brumberg replies:

Most of the points raised by Mr. Switalski do not deserve the dignity of a reply. However, I cannot resist citing a passage from an article written some time ago by the Polish poet and literary critic Konstantyn Jelenski (Kultura, Paris, May 1968)—this apropos Mr. Switalski’s outrageous claim that Jews were butchered in Poland after the Second World War not “because they were Jews but because they were held to be traitors to Poland for serving in various capacities the Sovietimposed Communist of the regime”:

Poles have never come out against Jews “because they are Jews” but because Jews are dirty, greedy, mendacious, because they wear ear-locks, speak jargon, do not want to assimilate, and also because they do assimilate, cease using their jargon, are nattily dressed, and want to be regarded as Poles. Because they lack culture and because they are overly cultured. Because they are superstitious, backward and ignorant, and because they are damnably capable, progressive, and ambitious. Because they have long, hooked noses, and because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from “pure Poles.” Because they crucified Christ and practice ritual murder and pore over the Talmud, and because they disdain their own religion and are atheists. Because they look wretched and sickly, and because they are tough and have their own fighting units and are full of Khutspah. Because they are bankers and capitalists and because they are Communists and agitators. But in no case because they are Jews.

The letter from the distinguished historian, Professor Piotr Wandycz, is another matter entirely. I am grateful for his compliments, and I admit, in retrospect, that there is some merit to his criticism of my article as not always having “an ideal distribution of lights and shadows.” Yet with one important exception I am afraid his own attempt to strike a more proper balance leaves something to be desired.

The exception is the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Whatever the prejudices of some of its members, I should have made it clear that the “assimilated Jews” within its ranks did include, as Dr. Wandycz rightly notes, a number of its most illustrious leaders. Far more important, the policy of the PPS was consistently to resist and combat anti-Semitism, whatever its shape or provenance.

But what of the other political parties in interwar Poland? The somber truth is that the PPS was unique, and that anti-Semitism—by which I mean a policy aimed at depriving the 3.5 million Polish Jews of equal political, economic, cultural, and civil rights, and eventually of expelling them physically from Poland—was espoused, with varying degrees of vigor, by all other political movements. That there were several “prominent figures” in the Endecja who “would not have passed the test of Nazi Nuremberg laws” may be true, but it did nothing to inhibit that party’s insistence that Jews had no place in Poland’s new “nation state,” nor did it diminish the Endecja‘s role in the numerous bloody pogroms that swept Poland between 1918 and 1920 and again in the mid-1930s. Of similarly little comfort to Poland’s Jewish community was the fact that the diplomatic service was not entirely Judenrein. I might mention in passing that the “great historian Szymon Askenazy” was indeed the first Polish representative to the League of Nations. After relinquishing his post in 1923, however, he was unable—because of the existing anti-Jewish bias—to secure a position at Warsaw University. (See The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars by Ezra Mendelsohn [Indiana University Press. 1983, p. 42.)

True, anti-Jewish laws similar to those enacted in Nazi Germany, Horthy’s Hungary, or Vichy France were not passed by the Polish parliament. The distinction is not without significance: it accounts, for instance, for the fact that during the war the Catholic Church tried to protect Jewish converts from the Nazi gas chambers. But to those Jews who were excluded from the civil service and armed forces of Marshal Pilsudski’s Sanacja regime, for Jewish businessmen increasingly hard pressed to obtain state loans, for Jewish workers unable to find jobs in Polish-run factories, for students denied access to universities and teachers to jobs in state-run high schools, and for religious Jewish shopkeepers forced to keep their stores closed on Sundays (that is to say two days a week, which meant a measurable decline in their meager income)—for all of them, the fact that these discriminatory measures—some formalized in legislation—were not based on racial principles à la Nuremberg made precious little difference.

Furthermore, in the late 1930s the government, while decrying violent or “Nazi” methods as contrary to Polish traditions and Christian ethics, nevertheless embarked on a policy virtually indistinguishable from that advocated by the Endecja and its pro-Nazi offshoots. In 1937 the Supreme Council of the ruling party, the OZN (Camp of National Unity), published a document called “Theses on the Jewish Question,” which spelled out the course the government intended to follow, and did indeed follow, right up to the outbreak of World War II:

The Communist party of Jewry is the open enemy of our Nation and State: the conservative portion is, through its cultural and ethical differences, a heavy burden upon our national and state life. It is a foreign body, dispersed in our organism so that it produces a pathological deformation. In this state of affairs it is impossible to find a way out other than the removal of this alien body, harmful through both its numbers and its uniqueness. [Quoted from Edward D. Wynot, Jr., ” ‘A Necessary Cruelty’: The Emergence of Official Anti-Semitism in Poland, 1936-39,” American Historical Review, no. 4, October 1971, p. 1048. My documentation is drawn both from this article and from Ezra Mendelsohn’s book mentioned above.]

Of the opposition parties, the Endecja ridiculed the “Theses” as far too lenient. The Peasant Party passed over it in silence. (Two years earlier it had passed a resolution describing the Jews as “a consciously alien nation within Poland…. We shall aim to solve the Jewish problem through the emigration of Jews to Palestine and other places.”) The Christian Democrats had adopted their own resolution in March 1937, calling for “the removal of the harmful influences of Jewry and Masonry, which cannot be done without the intervention of the State”—i.e., the “de-Jewification of cities, commerce, industry and the professions as well as the removal of those Jewish influences injurious to Polish culture”—all this “through legislation compatible with the principles of Christian justice.”(!) The only ones to raise their voices against this program of open warfare on the Jews were the PPS, a number of former Pilsudski followers, and groups of intellectuals, some of them Catholic.

Among the last, there were the Catholic movement Odrodzenie and the Laski center, mentioned by Dr. Wandycz. Yet to describe them as “the other side of the coin”’ of the Catholic attitude toward the Jews is to conjure up a very oddly shaped coin indeed. The Odrodzenie movement emerged in the late 1930s. It was composed of several dozen outstanding Catholic lay intellectuals who were dismayed by the rising tide of anti-Semitism as well as by the Church’s reluctance to take a more aggressive stand on social and economic matters. The Laski center was a charitable institution which survived the war and its aftermath. Dr. Wandycz is correct in noting that the present Catholic Polish elite stems “largely from these centers and their traditions.” The major (and salutary) changes of the past twenty years in the Vatican no less than in the Polish Church reflect the social philosophy of the Odrodzenie movement (shared, if only implicitly, by the Laski center).

In the 1930s, however, the Odrodzenie movement was but a voice in the wilderness—courageous, noble, and lonely. The Church hierarchy, which opposed it, as well as the overwhelming part of the lower clergy, were virulently anti-Semitic, and many priests were among the Endecja‘s most prominent activists. The odious “pastoral letter” by the primate, Cardinal Hlond, which I cited in my article, was merely one of many vituperations preached from the pulpits and filling the Catholic press at that time. I am astonished to find Dr. Wandycz denying that the Catholic Church “openly backed the anti-Jewish campaign”: it is a fact acknowledged not only by standard historical texts but—to their credit—by some of the most reputable Catholic scholars and writers in contemporary Poland.

Finally on Dr. Wandycz’s last two points. The problem of Jews in the Polish Communist Party is one which I treated extensively in my piece, and see no need to elaborate. As for Poles “alone being constantly singled out for condemnation,” surely the current Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust does not ignore its perpetrator, Nazi Germany? Still, it is true that many Jews, especially in the United States, seem “fixated” on Polish anti-Semitism. There are perhaps some psychological and sociological reasons for this, among them that the over-whelming majority of Jewish immigrants to this country came from Eastern, not Western, Europe, and that their searing experiences with anti-Jewish violence in the towns of Poland and the Ukraine have been recounted to the present, ethnically assertive generation. Whatever the reasons, I regard this attitude as an egregious distortion of truth and deplore it no less than Dr. Wandycz. Perhaps the recent Columbia University conference “Poles and Jews.” to which Dr. Wandycz alludes and in which I participated, will indeed pave the way for a more dispassionate, more just, and more honest examination of a complex and painful historical legacy.

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