To the Editors:
“Until 1939,” writes Professor István Deák [Letters, NYR, September 20], “although Jews suffered from discrimination, Jewish culture and politics thrived in interwar Poland as perhaps nowhere else.” As for “the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors in Jedwabne and elsewhere,” he says, they “must also be attributed, besides other factors, to the nearly complete absence from eastern Poland of [the country’s] elites,” including “much of the clergy,” wiped out by the Soviets and Germans.
I am afraid both statements reveal a serious misunderstanding of Jewish life in interwar Poland. True, the over three million– strong Jewish community in Poland was astonishingly dynamic. But under what conditions? From the moment Poland gained its independence, each of its succeeding regimes regarded the Jews as an alien and malevolent body that must eventually, as explicitly advocated by nearly all of the country’s political parties, be forced to emigrate. An insane idea, it was nevertheless pursued with an energy worthy of better causes by the country’s “best and brightest” almost until the day Hitler sent his armies sweeping into Poland. Poland’s Jews did not “suffer from discrimination,” as Professor Deák puts it rather anodynely. They were subjected to a series of escalating assaults designed to eliminate them from Poland’s social and economic life. The result was, as demographers agree, the pauperization of hundreds and thousands of Polish Jews. Under these circumstances, Jewish culture and politics did not so much “thrive” as wage a dogged and heroic battle for survival.
The anti-Jewish measures adopted by Poland’s governments, universities, professional organizations, and the like were also accompanied by a relentless and malodorous anti-Semitic campaign. It was from the ranks of the elites whose absence Professor Deák so deplores—and from virtually the entire Catholic clergy—that came the descriptions of Jews as sworn enemies of the Polish nation, “moral degenerates,” “leeches,” “pornographers,” “Bolsheviks,” “Christ killers,” and the like. It is a pity Professor Deák does not know Polish—if he did, I would urge him to read Czesl/aw Milosz’s splendid book Wyprawa w Dwudziestolecie (“A Voyage into Two Decades,” 1999), for mind-boggling examples of such hate literature, or Do Europy (“To Europe,” 2000), by the Polish literary historian Maria Janion, and many other volumes.
These impeccably documented histories make clear why during the war most Poles were either indifferent or fiercely hostile to the Jews, why even some organizations bravely engaged in aiding the Jews nevertheless continued to preach postwar mass emigration as the only solution of “the Jewish problem.” It is this poisonous hatred inundating Poland that is mainly responsible for numerous mass murders in 1941 and throughout Poland after the war—and not to any extent the “absence” of Polish elites.
In his review of Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors [NYR, May 31] Deák praises the author for having “awakened the Polish public to the need to address the dark episodes in their national history.” He is absolutely correct. And the most striking aspect of what he calls “the soul-searching that has swept Poland” is the refusal to engage in sophistry and in half truths but to accept history—to use a German saying—“as it actually happened.” (Even though, it should be noted, according to a recent survey, one third of all Poles still insist that the atrocity on Jedwabne was committed exclusively by Germans.) For this its authors deserve acclaim and admiration.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
István Deák replies :
It is quite true that I know no Polish; at least I cannot be called a professional Pole. I am, however, sufficiently informed about the history of anti-Semitism to know that the Polish case was by no means unique. It is this familiarity (which is not only academic because I grew up in pre–World War II Hungary) that makes me object to sweeping generalizations. Not all the Polish, or Hungarian, or Romanian political parties in the interwar years were anti-Semitic; not all of the political and social elite saw in the Jews “leeches” and “Christ-killers.” Marshal Pilsudski, whom many Polish Jews regarded as a new Emperor Francis Joseph, was not anti-Semitic, although several members of the coterie of officers and politicians that succeeded him were.
The Polish left wing, and even most of the center and peasant parties, did not clamor for anti-Jewish laws; doing so was the specialty of the increasingly large right wing, especially the followers and successors of Roman Dmowski’s Endek Party, which promoted the notion of “Poland for the Poles.” Such pernicious slogans and ideologies permeated all of Eastern Europe; they are still the rallying cry of nationalists everywhere. Polish nationalists engaged in propaganda and even violence against the Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and German minorities in Poland; of these, the Jews, lacking a neighboring power to take up their interests, were least able to defend themselves.
Historians must seek the causes of past events; they cannot be satisfied with the notion that Polish (or German, or French) anti-Semitism was a given, perhaps a national trait, and that anyone seeking further explanation is engaging in sophistry, or even worse. It cannot be stressed enough that the reason why half or more of the Diaspora Jewry lived in Poland was that the Polish king and nobility had offered them hospitality centuries before, while in Western, Northern, and most of Southern Europe Jews were generally not tolerated. We also might recall that the prosperous and famously tolerant Scandinavian countries admitted only a handful of Jews in the interwar period; Poland continued to be the home of three million of them. Nor can it be emphasized enough that when nearly all of continental Europe cooperated with the Nazis, the Poles said no.
Because Jews often served as middlemen between rich landowners and members of Polish and Ukrainian peasantry, among others, they often found themselves in a tragic situation, the object of the class resentment of the hopelessly poor toward those who had a minimally higher living standard. During the interwar years, moreover, there were increasing numbers of educated Christians in Poland who wanted the state forcefully to help them take over the business and professional positions occupied by Jews. The question for the Polish state, writes the historian Ezra Mendelsohn, was: “Should they [the Jews] be allowed to continue to predominate in Polish cities and in Polish commerce?”1 When Poland, like the rest of Eastern Europe, veered to the right in the 1930s, Jewish life in Poland became increasingly difficult. The masses of poor, unassimilated Jews were the main sufferers of the official and unofficial anti-Jewish campaigns. Reminiscences of the better-off Jewish survivors show that they often fondly remembered the carefree pre–World War II years.
With regard to Jewish culture, literature, and political parties in interwar Poland, the conclusion of the historian Ezra Mendelsohn is again worth quoting: “It is clear, in retrospect, that interwar Poland served as a laboratory for the crucial testing of the various modern Jewish approaches to the Jewish question. Never before had conditions been more favorable for the flourishing of Jewish politics and culture in the diaspora, and it is safe to say that they never will be again.”2 These activities took place in the open, something impossible in a radically intolerant state. Moreover, no matter how anti-Semitic were many members of the Polish elite—especially within the Catholic clergy—few of them shared the Nazis’ monomaniacal obsession with exterminating the Jews. No pogroms took place in places where the Polish elite was firmly in power. As the Axis military front advanced into Poland, any real local political authority collapsed; it was in that situation of social breakdown that the massacre of Jews took place at Jedwabne and elsewhere.
The horrors of the Jedwabne and other pogroms are as much a part of Polish history as the massacre at Katyn, where the Soviet NKVD murdered thousands of Polish reserve officers, among them many hundreds of Jews. To speak only of one aspect of this record and not the other is propaganda, not history.
Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars (Indiana University Press, 1983), p. 37.↩
Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars, p. 81.↩