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Jews in Poland

To the Editors:

I do not intend to offer a lengthy rebuttal of Mr. Deák’s letter [NYR, November 15, 2001], though I find some of his assertions baffling. (For instance, of what relevance to the situation of Jews in Poland in the last two centuries is the fact that their ancestors found a haven in that country six centuries ago?) Just two points, then:

First, I am well aware of anti-Semitism in other countries, some of whose records are far more dreadful than Poland’s (e.g. Germany and Romania); and I emphatically reject the notion of anti-Semitism as a “trait” of any national group whatsoever. I have made my views on this subject perfectly clear, and will be happy to provide references to apposite writings.

Second, Deák cites Ezra Mendelsohn to the effect that Poles asked whether the Jews “should be allowed to continue to predominate in Polish cities and in Polish commerce.” Fair enough. But he fails to cite Mendelsohn’s reply, which was that the “preponderant” majority of the Poles, including the ruling (nominally anti-Endek) party in 1938, accepted the “solution” preached by the “Endeks”—anti-Jewish policies including the exclusion of Jews from the country’s economy, “ghetto benches” for Jewish students in the universities, physical attacks, and eventually the “emigration”—that is, deportation—of Poland’s three and a half million Jews. The Endek “ideology” regarding “the Jewish question,” says Mendelsohn—this pace Mr. Deák—“was also adopted more or less by Pilsudski in the post-1926 era.” See pp. 37–42 in Mendelsohn’s The Jews of East-Central Europe, 1983.

Abraham Brumberg
Chevy Chase, Maryland

István Deák replies:

The safe haven for Jews in Poland that was begun six hundred years ago lasted not until the nineteenth century, as Mr. Brumberg writes, but until the German Nazis exterminated the Polish Jews. On the other hand, England, France, and Spain, to name only three countries, expelled their Jews in the Middle Ages and admitted only a select few until the nineteenth and, in the case of Spain, until the twentieth century.

There were, in recent times, many individual Poles, Polish political parties, and even Polish governments that wished to rid themselves of the Jewish minority; they mainly wanted to find employment for their new educated classes and to make Poland a nation-state. There were pogroms; there was unofficial discrimination in employment; and there were separate benches set up for Jewish students at the universities. But interwar Poland introduced no anti-Judaic laws; nor did the police arrest, torture, or kill Jews simply for being Jews. A similar situation prevailed nearly everywhere else in Central and East Central Europe, again mainly because governments were acting according to the modern Western European principle of nationalism, which held that every nation was entitled to its own state. The French had assiduously and successfully cultivated this principle since the Revolution. Although nineteenth-century liberalism caused them to admit and to give equal rights to Jews, it was always in the expectation that Jews and other minorities would become entirely French. But even this liberal trend was reversed during World War II when the Vichy government fell back on the old practice of not wanting to have any Jews.

Unlike the countries of Western and Northern Europe, Poland, Hungary, and the Habsburg and Ottoman empires acted as host to millions of Jews over the centuries. This was certainly not always a happy symbiosis but it was a symbiosis of sorts nevertheless. It was clearly better than not accepting any Jews, or accepting only a few and then claiming, with breathtaking hypocrisy, that, unlike the Eastern barbarians, the civilized West had always been racially and religiously tolerant.

Mr. Brumberg says that he emphatically rejects the notion of anti-Semitism as a “trait” of any national group, yet during the many years of his writing about Poland and its Jews he has dismissed attempts to draw a more nuanced picture of the situation. Because there are really no international standards for measuring prejudice, we will never know the extent of Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, or French anti-Semitism. In view of this, I suggest that we discontinue what can only be fruitless debate.

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