Wladyslaw Gomulka
Wladyslaw Gomulka; drawing by David Levine

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.

What happened to the Tenth Department after Stalin’s death is important not only because it directly influenced political developments in Poland but also because it is often cited as evidence that the political activities of Jews incited Polish anti-Semitism. Less than a year after Stalin died, in 1954, one of the Tenth Department’s top officials, Jozef Swiatlo, a Jew, defected to the West and published a book revealing much about the department’s brutal and vicious activities. Swiatlo’s revelations produced an angry public reaction when they were heard on Radio Free Europe in Poland, and they helped bring about the anti-Stalinist “thaw.” By late 1954, demands for democratic reforms and for punishment of those responsible for the crimes committed during Stalin’s last years had become so strong that the regime was forced to act.

In early December 1954, the regime dissolved the Ministry of Public Security and promised to bring to justice officials guilty of “arresting and imprisoning innocent people” and of “shameful and infamous methods of investigation.” Soon after, the government lifted censorship, allowed “workers’ councils” to emerge, and promised serious economic reform. Finally, in October 1956 it reinstated Gomulka as the Party’s first secretary. But the promises to punish the worst of the security officials were not kept. Fejgin was quietly transferred; several of his associates were secretly tried. And when the Central Committee released a list of the criminals three years later, all of them, with one exception, were Jews—a malicious distortion of the facts.

Why didn’t the Polish leaders give a forthright account of the past? According to Checinski, Gomulka stopped this from happening, arguing that it would needlessly upset the “Soviet comrades.” Although we have only Checinski’s word for this, his account makes sense. Gomulka used the same excuse to justify all the other measures that canceled the reforms of the “thaw.” When he closed the independent newspapers and reimposed censorship, dissolved the “workers’ councils” and called off the proposed economic reforms, he always invoked the same “raison d’état“: liberalization would endanger Poland’s relations with the Soviet Union. The truth, of course, is that it would have led to radical changes in the communist system, whose authoritarian character Gomulka was determined to retain. Whatever his reasons, Gomulka hid the truth about the limited involvement of Jews in the security services and thus strengthened the belief that Polish Jews were themselves responsible for anti-Semitism in Poland.

As Checinski’s book amply shows, Polish anti-Semitism is closely tied to the history of communist rule. Since the war the “Jewish question” has been enmeshed in the politics of Party leaders, their rivals, and the opposition. During the struggle within the Polish Party following Stalin’s death, the hardline “Natolin” faction tried to undermine its more liberal rivals (who staked their hopes on Gomulka’s return to power and among whom were a number of Jews) by branding them as “Yids” and “Jewish Stalinists” who were responsible for all of Poland’s problems after the war.

Ten years later the same tactics were used by Gomulka’s new allies against his former supporters, the now disenchanted liberals. Many of these intellectuals still held leading positions in the universities and the press, but they were accused of being anti-Polish, of exaggerating the evils of anti-Semitism in their writings, and of ignoring Hitler’s Polish victims while making too much of Jewish sufferings during the war. After the Six Day War in 1967, Gomulka approved a full-fledged “anti-Zionist” campaign which spread far beyond the Jewish population itself. When students began protesting censorship in March 1968, they were accused of being agents of Zionist and Western intelligence services. “Anti-Zionist” rallies were staged across the country, thousands of people lost their jobs, and some were arrested and sentenced for such crimes as “wrecking” and “espionage.”

By 1969 nearly all the remaining Polish Jews, few of whom had ties to Jewish culture or religion, had been forced out of the country; Jews now comprised less than 1 percent of the population. Nonetheless, during 1980 and 1981 a number of “patriotic” groups sprang up, all charging that “Stalinist Jews” were at the root of Poland’s troubles; these Jews, they claimed, had somehow retained their power, all previous attempts to dislodge them notwithstanding.

Checinski tells this story vividly11 but his interpretation of the events he describes is sometimes contradictory. He puts forward his own version of the standard conspiracy theory, emphasizing the responsibility of the Russians for keeping anti-Semitism alive in postwar Poland. The main villains, in this view, were apparatchiks of the Polish Communist Party who were closely linked to the Polish military and security services, and thus to the Soviet Union. These officials manipulated latent anti-Jewish “passions…in the service of Soviet interests,” and were, in Checinski’s opinion, behind every provocation designed to establish a connection in the eyes of the public between “Zionists,” liberals, and intellectuals. They planned the anti-Semitic campaign against Gomulka’s liberal supporters in the mid-1950s. Working with the security minister Mieczyslaw Moczar, a man notorious for his bigotry, they conceived and directed the anti-Zionist campaign in 1967 and 1968, and almost succeeded in toppling Gomulka and installing themselves in power. And in 1980 they formed the Grunwald Patriotic Association, whose main purpose was to implicate Solidarity in a Zionist conspiracy.

This ingenious theory is supported by solid evidence showing the links between the Soviet and Polish intelligence services, and proving that the Soviets strongly encouraged anti-Semitic policies. But it still fails to answer the central question raised by Checinski himself: namely, why did the “communist variety” of anti-Semitism find such fertile ground in Poland? Why “in no other country was Soviet anti-Semitic pressure…so successful”? Nor does it explain why Moscow used anti-Semitism to manipulate opposing factions within the Polish Party: if Gomulka was a loyal ally of the Soviets—and Checinski shows he was—why did the Soviet officials support his political enemies? The obvious answer to these questions is that, quite apart from Moscow, communist leaders in Poland came to recognize anti-Semitism as a natural and useful weapon of their own.

In his final chapter Checinski comes close to dealing with these contradictions. The current Party, he writes, is not a “direct descendant of the democratic and socialist currents in Polish history, or even of the prewar Communist party,” but instead bears a strong resemblance in ideology to the right-wing National Democratic Party—or Endecja—which was powerful in Poland before World War II. The Communist Party today reflects the mental outlook of an entirely new ruling class, largely composed of

…an amorphous mass of peasants [with a] parochial outlook and inherent xenophobia, strengthened by clerical and nationalistic prejudices, instinctive conservatism and suspicion or even hatred of the better educated strata….

This outlook is close to that of the extreme nationalists of the Endecja. Had Checinski pursued the comparison, he would have found the key to understanding not only much about communist rule in Poland, but also about Polish anti-Semitism.

Before the war the Polish Communist Party was radically Marxist. How did it transform itself into a group espousing, with superficial Marxist rhetoric, the ideas of a movement that, in the words of the British historian R.F. Leslie, “bequeathed to Polish nationalism the concept that the Nation is the pinnacle of all morality”?12 Similar developments have occurred in other communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, where communist rhetoric also hides a nationalist, conservative ideology.

In both countries Marxism had long been discredited for most of the population and so became useless as a means of enlisting popular support. A new ideology emerged to fill the void, or rather, a new mixture of long familiar ingredients: crude nationalism, xenophobia, an extreme reverence for the state as custodian of the nation’s wisdom, and—not least—anti-Semitism. In Poland the idea that the “true Pole” must be Catholic, and that Poland itself must not be contaminated by outsiders, first became popular near the end of the nineteenth century and was preached with increasing vehemence by the Endecja. During the years between the wars, the Endecja became increasingly racist and some of its members eventually formed a variety of protofascist groups, some not very different from the Nazis in ideology.13

Checinski points out an affinity between contemporary Polish communism and the Endecja but, consistent with his theory, he emphasizes that the Endecja leaders were also pro-Russian. This was true of the Endecja chiefly before World War I, when its leaders, especially its founder and principal theoretician, Roman Dmowski, held that Poland’s foremost enemy was Germany, and therefore Poles should ally themselves with Russia and seek to obtain—at least as a first step—a semi-autonomous status within the czarist empire. After 1918, however, not much remained of this pro-Russian sentiment in a movement which, while still bitterly anti-German, was even more violently anticommunist and thus anti-Soviet. What remained was the conviction that Poland could attain “greatness” only by ridding itself of all minority nationalities, above all of that most alien and despicable element, the Jews. The Endecja thus carried forward the tradition of what Jan Jozef Lipski, one of the founders of the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR) has called the Polish “national megalomania and xenophobia.”14 Their paramount goal was that of a “pure,” ethnically homogenous Poland in which Jews would have no place.15

The continuing attraction and tenacity of such ideas help to explain how the Polish communists succeeded in keeping anti-Semitism alive. No doubt outside forces incited anti-Semitism as well. Yet it is above all an indigenous phenomenon, and its appeal is comprehensible in a country long divided by national animosities and recently affected both by a mood of fervent nationalism and by a sense of impotence.

What should be clear is that the rhetoric of Endecja emerges again and again when Poles want to discredit their opponents. During the late 1970s, the regime attempted to turn popular sentiment against KOR by hinting that it was “dominated by Jews.” When Solidarity challenged the government in 1980, the Grunwald Patriotic Association’s nationalistic anti-Semitic campaign, reminiscent in its tone of Endecja propaganda, was supported by important elements in the bureaucracy, most notably by Politburo member (and now foreign minister) Stefan Olszowski. An obscurantist group known as Samoobrona Polska (Polish Self-Defense), set up in 1978, continued to publish poisonous anti-Semitic tracts throughout the period of Solidarity’s popularity and was obliquely praised in a broadcast by Radio Warsaw on December 15, 1981—two days after Jaruzelski’s Putsch. (The same broadcast claimed that Bronislaw Geremek, Solidarity’s chief adviser, was a Jew who had made it his business to “ruin every scholar who showed any sign of sympathy for Polishness.”)

Solidarity itself was not free of anti-Semitism. A small group of Solidarity members in Warsaw, calling themselves “genuine Poles,” conducted a vigorous campaign against “aliens” (i.e., Jews) who had wormed their way into the union’s highest councils, especially its board of advisers. And in the late summer of 1981 Marian Jurczyk, the head of the Szczecin Solidarity chapter, openly speculated in one of his speeches about the preponderance of zydki (“kikes”) in the country’s ruling elite. Apparently, the only way Jurczyk could explain why the Communist Party had brought Poland to the brink was by resurrecting the old, familiar Jewish conspiracy. Those who are convinced that the enemies of the Polish nation must, by definition, be outsiders have thus had a ready-made “ideology” at their disposal: the ideology of the Endecja adapted for the postwar period not only by the communist regime but by some of its opponents as well.

It is to these native roots that one must look for an explanation of Polish anti-Semitism, and not to the conspiracy theories favored by Checinski and by some Polish intellectuals. Still, although anti-Semitic feelings persist, they should not be exaggerated. They have become feeble and are no longer capable of being organized into an effective political force. The Grunwald Association, for example, not only failed to attract a large following, but was mercilessly derided in the Polish press. Marian Jurczyk was denounced by Walesa and censured by the editors of the union’s Solidarity Weekly. The military junta’s early attempts to exploit anti-Jewish feelings had to be abandoned.16 The new generation of Poles is by and large deaf to if not contemptuous of the sporadic efforts to blame the country’s troubles on the Jews. The recrudescence of official or officially tolerated anti-Semitism during 1980 and 1981 was condemned by Solidarity, and angrily denounced by some of the country’s leading intellectuals.

In his concluding chapter, Checinski quotes a letter signed by a group of Polish intellectuals which appeared in December 1980: “For at least 700 years,” it said, “the Jewish minority, which has made a lasting and valuable contribution to the national culture, has lived on this soil…. Therefore the so-called ‘Jewish question’ cannot be regarded as concerning only the Jews…. We hope that now…it will be possible to present Polish-Jewish relations honestly, without omitting the sensitive questions this involves.” This, Checinski adds, is “a moral obligation of the Polish younger generation.”

The moral obligation, in my view, applies not only to Poles, but also to Jews, many of whom hold the entire Polish nation to be intractably anti-Semitic and stubbornly reject any evidence to the contrary. This view ignores the nobility of those Poles who, in the 1930s, when official anti-Semitism was at its height, dared to defend the rights of their fellow citizens, including Jewish students who were subjected to humiliating practices (e.g., special “ghetto benches”) and physical assaults in the Polish universities. It ignores as well numerous Poles who risked their lives to save some of Hitler’s victims. (Hundreds of trees have been planted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to honor such Poles as “righteous Gentiles.”) 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. Only by doing so can the ghost of Polish anti-Semitism be truly put to rest.

This Issue

June 2, 1983