The Ghost in Poland

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…

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