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The Ghost in Poland

Anti-Semitism continues to haunt Poland, long after the country’s once populous Jewish community has ceased to exist. As a Polish Catholic writer once bitterly observed, “Polish anti-Semitism…succeeded in achieving something difficult as well as appalling—it out-lived the Polish Jews themselves.”1 Many Polish intellectuals—whether Catholic, liberal, social democratic—have condemned the hatred of Jews throughout recent Polish history and have tried to examine the reasons why it persists. In so doing, however, they have frequently ignored its roots in Polish society, preferring instead to explain it as deriving mainly from outside forces.

The tendency to look for alien sources of anti-Semitism has a long history in Poland. Around the turn of the century, for example, it was fashionable to point the accusing finger at the “Litvaks,” or Lithuanian Jews, thousands of whom had streamed into Poland after the bloody pogroms in Russia’s western provinces during the 1880s. They were seen as bearers of Russian culture and, worse, of Jewish nationalism and radical socialism—all of which, or so it was held, aroused the hostility of the Polish masses. Even today, this explanation—rather than one recognizing the extreme anti-Jewish feelings among the Polish middle classes, peasants, and clergy—is invoked not only by some Polish writers but also by distinguished Western authorities on Poland.2 During the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), when a series of violent attacks on Jews swept the country, General Jozef Pilsudski, who personally was disdainful of anti-Semitism, accused Jews of anti-Polish and pro-Bolshevik sympathies, and of thus contributing to the widespread animosity toward them.3

Between the wars, Jews in Poland made up a fairly large percentage of the small and virtually insignificant Communist Party, which was subservient to Moscow and contemptuous of Polish traditions.4 This was—and still is—often cited as an additional cause of anti-Jewish feelings. In 1939, Jews were attacked for the enthusiasm with which they supposedly greeted the Soviet troops occupying eastern Poland—a particularly obnoxious charge, as I can testify from my own experience. The Jews had good reason to prefer the Russians to the Germans; yet only small groups of pro-Communist sympathizers, including Poles, Ukrainians, and Belorussians, as well as Jews, welcomed the Red Army.

During the postwar period many Poles blamed Russia not only for encouraging anti-Semitic feeling but for some of its ugliest manifestations. These Poles—not official apologists, but people genuinely repelled by anti-Semitism—argued that by the end of the war popular anti-Semitism was no longer a serious force. Had history been allowed to take its normal course, they insisted, Poland would eventually have been freed of it. But because it was in Russia’s interests to stir up and exploit scattered resentments against the Jews, this did not occur.

First, according to this argument, Stalin filled the Polish security service in the 1940s with Jewish officials whose brutal methods were bound to provoke an anti-Semitic backlash. Later, Moscow organized the periodic campaigns designed to convince Poles that all their misfortunes were caused not by the Soviet Union or by Polish Communists, but by Jews or “Zionists” who had managed to worm their way into the highest positions of power and whose basic loyalty was not to Poland but to its enemies—in Tel Aviv, in Washington, in Bonn. Unhappily—the argument continues—these sordid tactics occasionally produced some small eruptions of anti-Semitism. But they never succeeded, as an anonymous anti-regime pamphlet put it, “in inciting Polish society to anti-Semitic excesses.”5

Part of this argument is true. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was promoted under the czars. Stalin and his successors made anti-Semitism an instrument of the Soviet government. Yet emphasizing these motives and tactics ignores the Poles who allowed themselves to be manipulated. That the Soviets benefited from exploiting popular anti-Semitism should not obscure the fact that many Poles did so as well.

Whatever its flaws, Michael Checinski’s Poland: Communism, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism is a singularly effective refutation of some of the conventional myths about anti-Semitism in communist Poland. Checinski, who left Poland in 1969 and settled in Israel, was himself employed for twenty years by the Polish military. For ten of those years he worked in counterintelligence, but he says little about his own activities. Moreover, although his analysis is based largely on interviews with eighty former Communist Party officials, intelligence agents, journalists, and “leaders of Jewish cultural and economic institutions in Poland” (the texts have been deposited in the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London), Checinski does not say under what circumstances these interviews were held; occasionally he fails to identify his informants. His account of the death of one of the most odious and complex Jewish figures of the Holocaust, Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Lodz ghetto, has recently been challenged. 6 Still Checinski has written a convincing and, I believe, generally accurate account of the close relationship between anti-Semitism and politics in communist Poland.

Checinski begins with the postwar period, when the estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust (out of a prewar population of 3.5 million) were joined by approximately 170,000 who had spent the war in the Soviet Union. Most of them wanted to emigrate to Palestine, Western Europe, or the United States. Others, encouraged by local Jewish communists, hoped somehow to rebuild their lives in Poland. This grim period was made all the more unbearable for these survivors by the hostility of large parts of the Polish population.

Native anti-Semitic prejudices had not—as some Polish writers maintain—died out during the Nazi occupation; if anything, they had become more implacable. Nor was the main cause for this, as some claim, the disproportionately large number of Jews in the Polish army under Soviet control who entered the country after July 1944. Checinski shows that most Poles weren’t even aware that many officers, particularly political commissars, were Jewish, since the latter had been instructed to assume Polish names (and those with evidently Jewish features—or Jewish accents in Polish—were not allowed to join in the first place). But anti-Semitism was widespread and violent. Checinski cites a study by the distinguished historian Lucjan Dobroszycki showing that 1,500 Polish Jews were murdered or died in pogroms between the end of the war and the summer of 1947.

Checinski devotes one chapter to the massacre that took place in the town of Kielce on July 4, 1946, when a crazed mob armed with axes, knives, and hammers attacked a tiny community of 250 Jewish survivors. With the help of local army units, the mob killed nearly seventy people and seriously injured 100 more. The Kielce pogrom shocked people throughout Poland. Some of the killers were tried, sentenced, and executed. In 1981, thirty-five years later, Solidarity’s weekly journal published a long article analyzing what had taken place. The Catholic Church tried to atone for its shameful silence during the massacre by celebrating a mass in memory of the victims at the Kielce cathedral. But many contemporary Polish writers still pin the responsibility for the tragedy not on the actual killers but on “Soviet and Polish security officers” who allegedly circulated rumors that the Jews of Kielce had abducted a Christian child for the purpose of ritual murder.

The Soviet and Polish communists may have invented such rumors to discredit opponents of the regime, many of whom were violently anti-Jewish. At the 1946 trial the prosecutor himself called the pogrom “an organized provocation,” but he ignored evidence of the complicity of either the Polish or the Soviet authorities, and such evidence was later stripped from the official records. Instead the government took the opposite tack, blaming “anticommunist forces” for having instigated the outrage—an accusation that provided the regime with an excuse for further repression.

About Soviet involvement in the massacre itself, Checinski’s conclusion is guarded: “The ancient Roman adage id fecit cui prodest cannot be regarded as irrefutable evidence of guilt on the part of the Soviet and Polish Communist authorities.” But, he writes, “there is no doubt that they exploited” the massacre for their own political purposes. Compare this judgment with the one recently made by the prominent Polish writer and journalist Andrzej Szczypiorski:

In 1946, a pogrom at Kielce, undoubtedly a provocation organized by the political police, was meant to start anti-Jewish demonstrations in the whole country and thus be followed by a stern intervention by the Protector of the Peoples. The plan misfired, although many Jews throughout the world believe to this day that this pogrom was the work of Polish anti-Semites. [My italics.]7

An astonishing view, since the guilt of the political police has never been proved, and since the killers were not Russians in disguise, but natives of Kielce.

Checinski also carefully examines the charge that the disproportionately high numbers of Jews in the Communist Party and particularly in the police caused the Jews generally to be seen as agents of an odious ideology. In prewar Poland the Communist Party was the only political organization that welcomed Jews as members. Even the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which had a number of assimilated Jews, was not free of anti-Semitism; it frequently rejected offers of collaboration from the Jewish socialist Bund. During World War II few of the combat groups of the Home Army (AK) accepted Jews, and until late 1942 the AK did virtually nothing to alert the world to the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of Polish Jews or to provide assistance to the inhabitants of the ghettos.8 Some guerilla units killed Jews along with Nazis.

In fact, as Checinski and others have shown, only a small number of Jews were drawn to communism, and most of them were not so much making a political statement or declaring a political loyalty as expressing a hope for equal participation, a possibility that had been largely denied to them within the Polish political system before the war.9 After the war most Jews were either neutral politically, or Zionist; only a small number remained members of the Bund, which was soon dissolved.

There were, however, a number of Jews in the Polish security services, as well as disproportionately high numbers of other minorities such as Ukrainians and Belorussians. In much the same way, Poles, Letts, Georgians, and Jews were recruited to serve in the Soviet Cheka during its early years. In both cases the Soviet authorities were exploiting the resentments of minority nationalities against the “natives.”10

Checinski shows that popular belief notwithstanding, neither Jews nor any other minority ever amounted to more than a small fraction of the security forces; their superiors, moreover, were almost always Poles or Russians. In the military counterintelligence Russians predominated; during the period between 1949 and 1954, Checinski writes, “out of almost 120 senior posts in the entire Informacja network there were at most 15 to 20 Poles, among them 5 to 7 were Jews.”

Jews, however, were prominent in one branch of the security services, the infamous “Tenth Department” of the Ministry of Public Security which was established in 1949 to weed out “subversion” and “treason” within the ruling apparatus itself. This was directed by a Jew named Anatol Fejgin; among his subordinates, who were known for their sadistic methods of investigation, were a number of Jews. But ironically, as Checinski makes clear, the Tenth Department’s activities were directed largely against Poles of Jewish background, victims of the “anti-Zionist” campaign that was carried on throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The campaign was planned in Moscow; but the officials in Warsaw who were in charge of it—Fejgin’s direct superiors—were almost all Poles of impeccably “Aryan” background, a fact that was conveniently overlooked several years later, when the Party was ready to settle scores with its Stalinist past.

  1. 1

    Tymoteusz Klempski, “Matka Swietych Polska” (The Mother of Sacred Poland), Kultura (Paris), no. 3 (1981). Klempski (a pseudonym of a writer living in Poland) singles out the Catholic Church in Poland between the wars as one of the most powerful sources of anti-Semitism in the country. He recalls a somber incident from his childhood: “I remember the shock I experienced as a boy before the War, when I went to confession. I recited all my paltry and insignificant sins, and when I finished, the priest asked: ‘Is that all?’ ‘All,’ I replied abjectly. ‘And didn’t you buy anything from the Jew?’ ‘Yes, candy at Feigel’s.’ ‘And this, you rascal, you fail to confess?”’

  2. 2

    See, for example, God’s Playground—A History of Poland by Norman Davies (Columbia University Press, 1982), vol. II: 1795 to the Present, pp. 251-252: “The influx [of the Litvaks] seriously damaged the Polish Orientation, hindered the process of assimilation into Polish culture, and accelerated a wide variety of radical political programs.” In other words, had it not been for the Lithuanian Jews, Marxism in Poland might not have taken root, Jews would have been gradually assimilated into the Polish culture (“the Polish Orientation”), and anti-Semitism would have disappeared.

  3. 3

    Celia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars (Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 52.

  4. 4

    In 1934, the KPP’s (Communist Party of Poland’s) strongest year, its membership was between 9,000 and 10,000; an estimated one-fifth to one-quarter of members was Jewish. In other words, fewer than 1 percent of the total Jewish population of 3.5 million belonged to the Communist Party. Figures and estimates according to Jozef Kowalski, Komunistyczna Partia Polski, 1935-1938 (The Communist Party of Poland, 1935-1938), Warsaw, 1975, cited by Checinski, and Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego (Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute), no. 55, Warsaw, 1965, cited by Heller, On the Edge of Destruction.

  5. 5

    Polacy-Zydzi (Poles-Jews), an unsigned pamphlet published by the PPN (Polish League for Independence, Warsaw), no. 32 (April 1979), p.1.

  6. 6

    In his article “How Rumkowski Died” (Commentary, May 1979), Checinski claimed that he witnessed the murder of Rumkowski by a Jewish inmate in Auschwitz. Many survivors and students of the Holocaust wrote letters disputing his account. For the letters and Checinski’s replies, see Commentary, August and September 1979.

  7. 7

    Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Polish Ordeal: The View from Within (London: Croom Helm, 1982), p. 76. Szczypiorski’s works appeared in the 1970s in the “uncensored” quarterly Zapis, founded by writers associated with the Committee for Self-Defense (KOR).

  8. 8

    For a carefully balanced assessment of the attitude of the AK and the Polish Government in Exile to the extermination of Poland’s Jews, see Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943—Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Indiana University Press, 1982), especially chapter 8, pp. 250-268. In late 1942, after most of the Jewish population had already been killed, the Council for Aid to Jews (Zegota) was established in Warsaw. Zegota later acquired funds from the Polish government in London, and did its utmost to rescue and provide shelter for thousands of fugitive Jews in Warsaw and other Polish cities. For the activities of Zegota, see Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, eds., Righteous Among Nations: How the Poles Helped the Jews, 1939-1949 (London: Elscort Publishers, 1969).

  9. 9

    Virtually all of the Polish political parties in interwar Poland were infected with anti-Semitism to one degree or another. The Jews had their own political parties, ranging from the socialist Bund to the ultra-orthodox (and anti-Zionist) Agudat Israel. See A. Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939 (Oxford University Press, 1972), and Pawl Korzec, “Antisemitism in Poland as an Intellectual, Social and Political Movement,” in Studies on Polish Jewry, 1919-1939, edited by Joshua A. Fishman, New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (1974).

  10. 10

    This practice has been continued to this day. In some parts of Poland, for instance, such as Bialystok, the UB (Security Office) has a large number of Ukrainian officers.

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