Between two worlds: The Jewish question in the nationality policy of the Second Polish Republic

The Jewish national minority that inhabited the lands of the Second Polish Republic was the largest in Central and Eastern Europe. According to the 1921 census, it had a population of 2.9 million persons, constituting 10.4 percent of the total number of residents of the Second Polish Republic. In the northeastern borderlands, it made up 10.6 percent of the total population. In the former Austrian-ruled Polish lands—9.7 percent; in the former Russian-ruled Polish lands—15.5 percent; and in the former Prussian-ruled Polish lands—1.7 percent. (According to the 1931 census, there were 3.11 million people in 1921. However, the Jewish population’s share of the total population of the country fell to 9.8 percent for various reasons.) Thus, the Second Republic of Poland became a multiethnic and multiconfessional state that had inherited a number of interethnic antagonisms from the various metropoles (mother countries), especially Polish-Jewish antagonism, which the government was unable to resolve during the interwar period.

On 21–22 October 1918, on the eve of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the proclamation of Poland’s independence, a group of Zionists held a conference in Warsaw to discuss the question of Jewish national autonomy within the restored Polish state and to outline the paths of struggle to achieve not just declarative but a constitutionally unified autonomy. The issue of Jewish autonomy on Polish territory was also raised during the work of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the initiators of which were the members of the Jewish delegation. On 28 June 1919, the so-called Little Treaty of Versailles was signed, guaranteeing that national minorities residing in Poland would be accorded rights and freedoms, granted broad autonomy, and protected from discrimination and violence. In keeping with Article 12, national minorities were permitted, in the event that their rights were violated, to appeal to the League of Nations, where these questions were to be resolved by the Permanent Court of International Justice. Thus, Yitsḥak Grünbaum, a member of the Constitutional Committee in 1920, drafted an article on the Jewish question for the future Constitution of Poland. This document, which represented the vision of the Union of Delegates of the Jewish People concerning the sociopolitical existence of this nationality in the Polish state, was submitted to the Constitutional Committee of the Second Polish Republic. It contained the following passage:

The lands of the Rzeczpospolita that are inhabited mostly by a non-Polish population should be autonomous districts with their own local governments and legislative, representative bodies which they elect independently through general, direct, and democratic elections. The Constitution guarantees to all national minorities broad rights in the choice of their language and religion, which are defined by separate normative acts and provisions.

It is worth noting that in 1919 the provisional Polish government issued a directive in support of the Jewish people, which legalized the activities of Jewish religious communities on the territory of Poland. This document thus had a favorable impact on the development of the Jewish community. However, the wave of anti-Semitism that swept through Poland during the First World War and subsequent revolutionary events did not abate. The catalyst of the new wave was the anti-Semitic agitation conducted by the Endeks, members of the National Democracy party. In 1920 the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were published. These fabricated texts, which supposedly exposed the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy, intensified anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland.

The Minorities Bloc was created in 1922 and headed by Grünbaum. Its members included representatives of the Jewish, Ukrainian, and German peoples, and the main goal of the bloc was united participation in the elections to the Sejm and the Senate. However, the members of the Jewish Bund and Po‘ale Tsiyon refused to join. Furthermore, Jewish politicians from Eastern Lesser Poland established a separate political organization, known as the Jewish Democratic People’s Bloc. Roman Dmowski, the ideologist of the Endeks, demanded that changes be made to the electoral law and that Jews be stripped of the right to vote and stand for election.  No such changes were made. During the parliamentary elections on 5 November 1922, the Minorities Bloc earned 16 percent of the vote, winning 66 seats. The other Jewish political parties combined earned 4.6 percent of the vote and won 18 seats. Altogether,  Jewish politicians won 34 mandates in the Sejm and 22 mandates in the Senate of the Second Polish Republic. During the parliamentary elections, the supporters of Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski conducted vigorous pre-election agitation. On the eve of the presidential elections they decided not to run but, instead, to put forward their own candidates, Gabriel Narutowicz and Maurycy Zamojski. The Jewish politicians in the first round of the presidential elections, held on 9 December 1922 (there were five rounds in total), actively supported the candidate Jan Baudoin de Courtenay, who condemned the Endeks’ anti-Semitism and advocated granting national-cultural autonomy to the Jewish community, especially the right to teach Yiddish in schools attended by Jews.

As early as 1918 Baudoin de Courtenay wrote:

I acknowledge the power of the “Jews”; in other words, the power of the influence of Jewish tradition on the mentality of other peoples. For the basis of our thinking, of our faith concerning fundamental questions, lies in Jewish sources [the Old and New Testaments]. We ourselves are “modified” Jews. That is why there is a “ruthlessness” toward Jewry, which has been raised to an ideological level even by those who dare call themselves servants of Christ, born in Bethlehem […] and all this so that the people could not understand the main thing: the origins of our thinking lie in Judaism […] Jews in the Polish land must have civil rights that no one will disrespect or persecute, no one should force them to transform themselves into “Poles” in order to feel at home in such a country, and with gratitude for such freedom, gradually, and, without considering their own needs, to become a “Pole,” if not in the national sense then at least in the territorial one. And this should be enough for us.

But the results of the first round made it clear that he would not be elected. Therefore, they gave their support to Narutowicz. Wincenty Witos tried to convince voters to support Stanisław Wojciechowski. But the Jewish side, remembering his friendliness to the Endeks in resolving the national question when he was minister, rejected this proposal. The 11 December 1922 issue of the newspaper Chwila published the following report:

Witos tried to convince Ozjasz Thon to vote for Wojciechowski, which, in his opinion, was the duty of the national minorities. But Thon reminded him of Wojciechowski’s uncertain position toward the national minorities when he was Minister of Internal Affairs and had refused to give his support to Jewish deputies. This refusal determined the fate of Wojciechowski’s candidature. When the question of supporting the candidature of the “Piasts”—Zamojski or Narutowicz—emerged, the Jewish deputies voted for Narutowicz.

Following the results of the fifth round of the elections, Narutowicz became the first president of the Second Polish Republic. The Endeks’ reaction was instantaneous, and a mass demonstration took place on the streets of Warsaw featuring such slogans as “Down with Narutowicz!” and “the Jewish choice.”

As the historian Paweł Brykczyński has observed, the main synthesis that spurred the Endeks into coming out against Narutowicz was the idea that a president had been imposed on “real” Poles whom they had not elected unanimously but with the participation of Jews, Ukrainians, and Germans. The Endek newspaper Gazeta Warszawska published a number of anti-Semitic messages sent by residents of Białystok to the newly elected president, urging him to resign his position. They noted, in particular:

On behalf of those who made a sacrifice on the altar of the Fatherland during the struggle for Poland, we are asking you to reject the Jewish hand that proposes the presidential mandate to you (Union of Clerical and Commercial Workers, Youth Group […] We are asking you to refuse the gift from Jewish hands, which has the blood of our brothers, husbands, and sons (National Women’s Organization) […] In favor of the country, of domestic peace, with faith in your patriotism, Mr. Narutowicz, do not accept the presidential mandate from Jewish hands (the newspaper Rozwoj, 5,200 signatures).

The reaction of the Jewish community was immediate. The Lviv-based newspaper Przegląd Poniedziałkowy reported:

…meetings against Narutowicz’s election, tens of thousands of nationalistically inclined residents of Warsaw organized mass demonstrations until late into the night. Also on Sunday strikers stepped up their actions when they learned that 105 enemy Jews, Ukrainians, and Muscovites had voted for the Polish president. As they report, protest meetings will be announced throughout Poland […] The left-wing and the Jews are preparing for pogroms. From the Endeks they are now awaiting the consequences of their Saturday choice.

Between 10 and 15 December 1922, the streets of Warsaw were the scene of mass protest actions that sparked anti-Jewish pogroms, including, for example, the mass beating of Jewish students of the University of Warsaw. One of the participants of these protest actions was General Józef Haller, who issued an appeal for an active armed struggle. The politician Stanisław Stroński urged Poles to take up vigorous political action against the “Jewish conspiracy” looming over Poland, citing the fact that

Jews at the head of national minorities, I think, will immediately go farther, they will form a Jewish government […] Therefore, the struggle for national minority rights is a catastrophe and a disaster that is based on lies and hypocrisy, which sheds a brilliant light on the criminals who are issuing a challenge to national feelings.

Despite these protest actions, the presidential inauguration took place on 11 December 1922. This presidency was the shortest in the history of the Second Polish Republic, for on 16 December 1922 Narutowicz was assassinated by the fanatic Eligiusz Niewiadomski, whose trial split Polish society down the middle. On 31 December 1923 Niewiadomski was shot in the Warsaw Citadel, and the Endeks turned his funeral into a huge demonstration that gathered up to ten thousand people. The murderer was proclaimed a national martyr whom the Jews had provoked into undertaking radical actions. The lawyer and Endek sympathizer Stanisław Kijeński wrote that the “killing was absolutely necessary, and Niewiadomski was the people’s avenger, who had paid back the Jews and the Masons.”

The murder of Narutowicz exacerbated the political crisis in the Second Polish Republic and led to the loss of the authority of democratic order and the May coup of 1926. One should not exaggerate the Judeophilism of the president, who did not manage to approve a single political decision in his new post. One way or another, the murder and its political consequences completely reoriented Jewish politicians to Piłsudski’s side. It was during his tenure that the Jewish minority enjoyed progress in the Second Polish Republic, thus leading researchers to call the head of the Polish state a philosemite; in other words, a politician who treated Polish Jewry with respect and on whom the Jewish community placed great hopes. Ozjasz Thon, one of the founders of the Zionist movement in Galicia, made this rather astute observation:

We have no fears that Piłsudski will harm the Jews; that is why we very much anticipate that he will do something beneficial for us; after all, when he was heading toward his goal, he deliberately avoided this topic, but now it’s a matter of time.

It is worth noting that Jewish politicians in 1924–1926 actively opposed the National Democracy camp because of its harsh assimilationist nationality policy. At the same time, they firmly supported Piłsudski’s ideas about federalism and the nationality policy in the Eastern kresy [borderlands] of the Second Polish Republic. Obviously, they welcomed the May 1926 Coup and the ascent to power of a government that was intent on “healing” (Pol. sanacja), which appeared to be a positive step toward settling Polish-Jewish interethnic relations and easing pressure. Thus, on 31 May Jewish politicians supported Piłsudski’s candidacy for the presidency of the Second Polish Republic. But after his refusal to take up this post, they threw their support behind Ignacy Mościcki and, finally, on 8 June 1926 behind Kazimierz Bartel for the post of prime minister and the cabinet members of his second government. Grünbaum called Józef Piłsudski the “best for the Jews.” However, we can assume that Jewish politicians were skeptical about the introduction of changes to the Constitution, citing the fact that “Jewry has no wish to destroy the parliamentary system.”  An especially critical attitude was expressed by the Galician Zionist Leon Reich, who was convinced that Piłsudski’s advocates should not be trusted too much.

Of course, the “Judeophilism” of the new government is somewhat of an exaggeration. Even though it was not as radical on the nationality question as its opponents and it advocated a move away from the national assimilation of the Jews in favor of state assimilation, the government viewed the Jewish question as the “most complex and most unresolved problem of Poland, while nonetheless considering it the least dangerous in comparison with other nationality problems,” as Waldemar Paruch observed. During a government meeting held on 18 October 1926, Interior Minister Kazimierz Młodzianowski presented a “Directive in the Matter of the Government’s Attitude to National Minorities,” which raised the issue of the Polish government’s reorientation in respect of the nationality question from the purely national assimilation of minorities to their state assimilation, which in the future would establish the groundwork for cultural and national assimilation. But this had no relation to the Jews, who were regarded as allies of the regime. Thus, the document contained the following passage:

The government considers it expedient to offer the Jewish population, as a separate national and religious ethnic unit, favorable conditions for access to state and juridical as well as economic institutions, guided by the principle of impartiality and justice […]. For this reason, the Government will immediately undertake the final settlement of the problems of the Jewish population. The government maintains a friendly attitude to the Palestinian idea and to that which in the process of implementing this idea has been developed in the Polish state […]. Furthermore, the government is ready to regulate uniformly the system of religious Jewish communities throughout the country, if the Jews will be ready for this.

The reaction was quick in coming. Speaking to an audience of Jewish politicians in November 1926, a leading Zionist named Maksymilian Hartglas urged them to cooperate with the government. That, in his opinion, was more rational than remaining in the opposition, which would not lead to anything positive. This decision was entirely natural and corresponded to the political realities of the time, especially considering that the Polish authorities sometimes struck compromises with the Jews. For example, in February 1927 Minister of Internal Affairs Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski issued a directive permitting the free use of Yiddish in Jewish cultural, educational, and religious organizations. In addition, Russian-Jewish refugees obtained Polish citizenship.

In 1927 the Sejm and the Senate reached their term limits. On 4 March 1928 parliamentary elections were held to the Sejm of the Second Polish Republic, and on 11 March—to the Senate. The legal basis for these elections was the Electoral Law of 1922. The pre-election campaign revealed that some Jewish politicians had formed their own attitude to the government and the nationality question. Grünbaum thus became the initiator of the National Jewish Alliance, which advocated the granting of rights and freedoms in the conditions of the healing existence of the Second Polish Republic. Hartglas declared that the “overthrow of Piłsudski’s comrades in arms will signify the return of political forces that gravitate toward the Endeks.” However, Galician Zionists did not join the alliance because, as Leon Reich noted, “it would be madness to create a separate Jewish party and work against a government that might do a lot of good for us.” The Zionists believed that cooperation with Piłsudski’s people during the elections would determine a return to the idea of Polish-Jewish concord. Ozjasz Thon urged cooperation with the sanajca, the motive behind his appeal being that it was still possible to revert to the agreement of 4 July 1925, which anticipated the neutralization of Jewish opposition to the government by granting Jews certain rights and freedoms from the government of Władysław Grabski. Grünbaum wrote the following about the agreement: “The conclusion of the agreement declares mutual benefit and understanding between the government of the Rzeczpospolita and Jewry […], although, of course, no one was overestimating the significance of these negotiations; however, concessions to the Jewish community in the future were declared.”

The agreement was very advantageous to the Jews because it offered the possibility of the unhindered development of self-rule and granted state status to educational institutions. The government also promised to promote the “Palestinian idea.” However, as a result of the deepening political crisis and the May Coup, the agreement was not implemented. It was for this reason that they threw all their support behind the government.

For Orthodox Jews grouped around Agudat Yisrael, the religious question and the issue of gaining rights for Jewish communities were of paramount importance. Therefore, in their declaration they expressed their full support for the sanacja regime, emphasizing that “Jewry, in accordance with their religious traditions, will support Piłsudski and his fellow thinkers and will carry out his decisions.” On 22 December 1927 the Non-Party Bloc for Cooperation with the Government, formally regarded as being non-partisan, was created. Until Piłsudski’s death, it remained the ruling party, one for which the Jews were urged to vote because among the members of this bloc were two representatives of the Jewish community: the economist Waclaw Wiszlicki and the vice-president of Agudat Yisrael, Eliyahu Kirshbraun, who appealed to Jews to support the bloc, emphasizing that “you and your children need to forget about superstitions and chauvinism.” As a result of the elections, the Minorities Bloc received 12.6 percent of the vote (55 seats) and the National Jewish Alliance of Lesser Poland—2.1 percent (6 seats). The list of new parliamentarians included the following distinguished Jewish figures: Szmul Brot, Maksymilian Hartglas, Karol Ajzenshtein, Yitsḥak Grünbaum, Hirsch Geller, Maurycy Zeller, Chaim Rasner, Leon Reich, Jerzy Rozenblat, Henryk Rosmarin, Ozjasz Thon, Aaron Wolf, and Jakub Wygodzki.

In mid-1928 Jewish politicians launched intense negotiations with the sanacja government, which, in their opinion, as Jakub Wygodzki maintained, “was better than all the pre-sanacja ones because it was linked with the great and pure name of Piłsudski, on whom [rest] all our expectations.”  Nevertheless, he forcefully criticized the measures adopted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education for its sluggishness in resolving Jewish educational and religious problems in the country. Thus, the regulation of Jewish life on the state level was an indispensable condition. The question of the Jews’ political and cultural-religious existence lay within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education as well as local administrations of voivodes and starostas. The first regulation that revealed the basic principles of Jewish life in Poland was an ukase issued in 1916 by the Regent Council: the decree “On Changes to the Organization of Jewish Religious Municipalities [gminy] in the Former Polish Kingdom,” which was based on a decree that had been issued by the German command during the occupation period. In 1925–1927 the Polish government extended the effect of the decree to all the voivodeships of the Rzeczpospolita.

On 5 April 1928 a modified and supplemented law was passed, regulating political life (the activities of kahals [Jewish community councils]), the organization of education, and the religious life of Polish Jews. The law prescribed the need to create a religious union (Związek Religijny), to which would belong all Jewish religious communities of the Second Polish Republic. It was to be headed by a Religious Council that would serve as the main representative body of Polish Jews. In 1930 the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education issued a directive establishing rules governing the organizing of elections to the kahals and elections of rabbis. Some Jewish municipalities were granted legal subjectivity in spheres of a civic or juridical character, while the jurisdiction of a municipality was limited exclusively to resolving religious questions.

In addition, the Jewish community was granted the right to provide material assistance to impoverished Jews and to establish and manage charitable funds. This right was granted in keeping with a directive passed in 1931, which regulated the Jewish community’s financial questions. Nevertheless, these measures did not lead to any real improvement in the life of Polish Jewry. Furthermore, the political and socio-economic situation in the country in the late 1920s–early 1930s began to worsen, and gradually led to Jewish politicians’ disenchantment with the “healing” regime. Nevertheless, Jewish politicians balked at cooperating with the Center-Left founded in 1929, a political alliance of centrist and left-wing parties whose main goal was proclaimed as a struggle against the sanacja regime, convinced as they were that the opposition was incapable of opposing Piłsudski’s people. Most importantly, however, was that Jewish politicians did not see any difference between “healing” and the Center-Left, which, in their view, was simply the antipode of the regime.     It could, though, lead to its overthrow and to the rise to power of the Endeks. Thus, they supported the dissolution of the Sejm and the Senate on 25 June 1930, initiated by President Ignacy Mościcki, and the arrests of the members of the Center-Left. During the 1930 elections, Jewish politicians ran on the Minorities Bloc list, which won 33 seats in the Sejm and 7 in the Senate. Most Jewish politicians positively assessed the “Brest trial” of the Center-Left members, which took place from 26 October 1931 to 13 January 1932. Their assessment was as follows: “An indispensable and socially beneficial condition of stability and order.” They fully supported the prosecution, which described the opposition’s activity as one “whose goal was to carry out a state coup d’état for the purpose of toppling the existing order and usurping power.”

Jewish politicians considered it advisable to cooperate with Piłsudski’s supporters, whom they viewed as a source of support for the normal development of the Jewish community in Poland. Therefore, they opted for a neutral position, which lay in backing the authorities and condemning the opposition. They also adopted a partial stance of political passivity that in fact led to the government’s positive treatment of them. It also contributed, albeit not in full measure, to the advancement of the Polish Jewish community.

However, the largest Jewish community of Central-Eastern Europe resided on the territory of the Second Polish Republic. Thus, the government a priori had to create optimal conditions for the development of this community’s national and cultural autonomy, which did indeed happen. Some representatives of the Polish political forces, particularly the Endeks headed by Dmowski, promoted anti-Semitic slogans. An analysis of Dmowski’s position on the Jewish question reveals that he was the ideologist of Polish anti-Semitism. Dmowski characterized the Jews as the initiators of an anti-Catholic conspiracy of communists and other opponents of the restored Second Polish Republic, an idea that was closely connected with his notion of “national egoism.” The Jews were thus viewed as an undesirable element in the Polish state, because they were the allies of its enemies, above all Germany. Dmowski formulated the theory of an “international Jewish conspiracy,” in which Jews established the world order and governed. One example that he cited was the Balfour Declaration, which, in his opinion, would give Zionism a chance “to rule the world” from Palestine. He also cited the Paris Peace Conference, which he described as an undisputed victory of Jewry over the entire political life of the world. Accordingly, he urged his supporters to counteract the Jews vigorously and to carry out anti-Jewish actions, explaining that the Jews were impeding the socio-economic development of the Second Polish Republic.

Dmowski’s anti-Jewish views became more radical, especially during the first half of the 1930s, which may be explained by the socio-economic crisis that was unfolding in the Second Polish Republic. The anti-Semitism of the Endeks was thus grounded in socioeconomic issues. In other words, the Jews, in his view, were the main source of the state’s economic and social instability. In his book, The Jewish Question, Dmowski, operating within the context of the “national egoism” theory, reveals its economic factor, in which the Jews had emerged as the antipode of the Poles’ national economic prosperity precisely because

the Jews cannot stop at attempts to get their hands on all commercial and industrial affairs, which is leading to the rule of a few, in accordance with the Talmud. Today they are actively working on a plan for the agrarian colonization of Poland, and our priority is to halt this process as quickly as possible. It is precisely the development of national economic egoism that conceals a danger to the Jews’ future, inasmuch as today they are acting more and more as a separate nation, and the Poles are demanding its partition as such. The nation is increasingly forced to recognize this division: If their concept spreads to the sphere of economic rivalry, this will be a great catastrophe for the Jews.

His next work of this kind was the anti-Semitic novella “Heritage” (1931). Below is a fragment from this work:

You love Jews? — No, no? They disgust me  […] It is the shame of a woman for such an offspring and an insult to a man’s honor. That’s why Jewish males do not know what honor is, and [Jewish]  women—what shame is. They do everything so that these two great traits will disappear today in all people.

In 1934 Dmowski’s article “The Coup” was published, in which he writes that the “large Jewish community in Poland was a catastrophe for it in all periods,” because

had there not been so many Jews in Poland, it would never have lost its independence […], for the Polish soul was always alien and incomprehensible to them. For they thought only about prosperity and world domination.

Illuminating the question of the “enemies” of the Second Polish Republic, the author focuses on Marxism and Bolshevism, viewing these ideologies as the creation of the Jews, describing it thus:

A fruit like Marxism could have been born only in the Jewish bosom […] in the Russian Revolution it was enough to be a Jew in order to make a career, having become a Bolshevik commissar; that is precisely why they welcomed the victory of Bolshevism.

Dmowski also blamed the Jews for the global economic crisis of the late 1920s–first half of the 1930s. In connection with this, he outlined the “mental features” of Jewry which had led to the economic collapse, particularly their dishonesty, lust for money,  intolerance toward gentiles, interference in international politics for their own benefit, the spread of sexual demoralization throughout society, as well as support for the regime of Piłsudski, who had become a puppet of the Jews. Dmowski writes the economic crisis will therefore lead to the loss of the Jews’ political and economic leadership, especially in Poland.

Anti-Jewish protests intensified after the signing in 1934 of a ten-year Non-Aggression Pact between Poland and the Third Reich, in which anti-Semitism is proclaimed on the state level in the document. Polish anti-Semitism intensified with the death of Piłsudski in 1935, a fact is confirmed in Shimon Redlich’s memoirs:

Galician Jewry would eventually become the most Polonized part of the Jewish population in Poland before the Second World War […] Piłsudski’s takeover and his semi-autocratic rule were regarded by Polish Jews as a lesser evil, compared with the National-Democratic, semi-fascist alternative. They mourned his death in 1935. A distinct rise in both formal and popular anti-Semitism occurred in the latter part of the decade. Anti-Semitism became now more pronounced within Polish society at large as well as within the governing elite and the church. […] Besides traditional “indigenous” Polish anti-Semitism, some sections of Polish society, particularly young Endek nationalists, were affected by extremist Nazi attitudes and policies against Jews. Surprisingly, however, anti-Semitism was more pronounced in the western regions of the country, which was less populated by Jews, than it was in its eastern borderlands.

Polish Jews mourned the politician, and funeral services were held in every synagogue in Poland. In his eulogy, entitled “Remembrance of the Father of the Native Land,” Rabbi Samuil Babad, declared:

Through his actions, Piłsudski reminded us, Jews, of the age of the Maccabees. Like the Maccabees, Piłsudski and a handful of madcaps rushed into the maelstrom of a struggle against more powerful enemies, in order to attain the peoples’ greatest treasure: freedom.

Jewish newspapers splashed information on their front pages about Piłsudski and ceremonies bidding farewell to him. For example, the Lviv-based newspaper Chwila published a proclamation from the Jewish Agency (Sokhnut), which noted:

Marshal Piłsudski‘s noble attitude and his taming of anti-Semitism gave Polish Jews a chance to breathe freely, despite the economic crisis. Marshal Piłsudski has earned eternal gratitude from Judaism […] We express the hope that the traditions which Marshal Piłsudski initiated will endure for the glory of Poland. Palestinian Jews, half of whom are Polish citizens or come from Poland, deeply mourn the death of Mr. Piłsudski.

The newspaper Nasz Przegląd published an article by Ozjasz Thon, in which he identified the marshal with the Second Polish Republic:

When Louis XIV shouted proudly, L’État, c’est moi, this speech truly was [an act of] great courage and therefore had dominion over France, but he was not her figurative symbol. About Marshal  Piłsudski, it could almost literally be said that Poland is He, and He is Poland. He was immersed in Poland so deeply, with all the roots of his great soul, and Poland gazed and listened so intently to his orders and instructions.

In an article devoted to Piłsudski’s death, especially its consequences for the country’s political existence, Józef Wużel made this rather apt observation:

It is too early to talk about the political consequences of this misfortune. Just think: the 12th of May 1935 became one of those historical moments that will never leave one’s memory […] Piłsudski was a man without vice, a patriot without egoism, without superstitions and vain illusions […] A statesman who devoted his political life to Poland […] Gone from the cloudy horizon is the light that for many years pointed the way […] Will there now be such successors like Piłsudski in Poland? Let’s hope that there will be! Many laugh at the pretenders to his legacy, saying that they are incapable of preserving his heritage. It would be terrible if this death will be a tribute to the triumph of the enemies! Let’s hope that this will not be a return to darkness.

Jewish politicians had misgivings about the reorientation of Piłsudski’s successors with regard to the Jewish question. A number of articles appeared in May 1935, in which the marshal was characterized as a Judeophile who had appealed to Polish society to adopt a tolerant attitude toward Jewry. For example, Mateusz Mieses wrote:

The moral ideal in Judaism is a “just dictator,” like Caesar, who earned praise in Israel and was “mourned long and bitterly,” as the ancient ruler of Israel said. The head of the Polish state is my ideal. He earned the contemporary liberum veto of the party, triumphed over the spirit of the Endeks in the country. He sincerely sympathized with the Jews. In him, Israel instinctively felt reigning “justice, civil order, discipline, and strength, which curbs all arbitrariness.” It is a shame that he has disappeared like a meteor from the grand arena of state-building. He is an inimitable genius. Jews will continue to live on the territory of Poland, as long as his memory lives on, of the one who found the fatherland in ruins and left it strong. The prayers in all synagogues and articles filled with pain in the entire Jewish press are the result of profound respect and the people’s love for a great man, who became a messiah for Poland.

Piłsudski’s death marked the gradual departure from the policy of national tolerance toward the Jews. The new government, formed on 13 October 1935 and headed by Marian Zyndram-Kościałkowski, announced the continuation of the policy of tolerance toward national minorities, particularly the Jews. The prime minister declared that the main task of his government was the “security of all citizens irrespective of their nationality and confession, which is the basic foundation of a state ruled by law; the main enem[ies] of the state are the communists and nationalists, who are leading the country to stagnation and anarchy.”

However, as a result of vigorous counteraction to the government on the part of both its opponents and supporters, Zyndram-Kościałkowski resigned on 15 May 1936. That same day a new government was headed by Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski, whose cabinet radically changed the treatment of Polish Jews. In 1935–1937, as a result of pogroms (the largest ones occurring in Przytyk and Brest), the goal of which was to rob Polish shops, 97 Jews died and 500 were wounded. The Endeks called for a boycott of the Jews, who went from being a prosperous class with a high birth rate to the poorest Jewish community in the world, with a high mortality rate. The authorities introduced a number of new regulations that discriminated against Jews. For example, in 1936 the government issued a decree ordering all Jewish shops to display a sign indicating the nationality of their owners. This, in turn, meant that shops owned by Jews became perpetual targets of pogromists and looters. In January 1937 the ritual slaughter of animals (shechita) was banned, a prohibition that violated Jewish religious traditions. Starting in May 1937, the Council of Physicians of the Polish State began dismissing Jews and refusing to hire them. A similar decision was subsequently adopted by the Association of Lawyers, which began stripping Jews of their licenses en masse.

On 21 February 1937, the Camp of National Unity was founded, and its members determined the main course of the Second Polish Republic. In Stanisław Mackiewicz’s interpretation, this boiled down to conservative “economic egoism,” which was based on Endek principles and viewed the Jews as “foreigners” and “alien” elements, whose numbers in Poland had to be reduced. Thus, after the signing on 5 November 1937 of the Declaration of Poland and Germany about the treatment of national minorities, the Jews’ situation did not change for the better.  On the contrary, the wave of anti-Semitism intensified.

In April 1938 the Bank of Poland began breaking contracts with all its Jewish clients. The Senate confirmed a citizenship law stating that all persons not resident in the country for longer than five years and who did not maintain relations would no longer be citizens of Poland. Even though the law did not violate the rights of Jews de jure, it struck a blow at Jewry, inasmuch as that same year Germany launched operations to deport Polish Jews. In October 1938, fifteen thousand Polish Jews were deported from Germany, as a result of which they became stateless, and when they arrived on Polish territory, they were instantly interned in a camp in Zbąszyń. The new law also meant that 75,000 people were stripped of their citizenship. As Israel Gutman has written,

Polish government officials established close relations with Nazi Germany; they gave their blessing to discrimination and an economic boycott of the Jews. They declared that there are too many Jews in Poland, insisting that the expulsion of masses of Jews is one of the most important questions in Polish politics. Such actions caused an explosion of popular hatred toward the Jews. Now Jews were not simply strangers; they were also considered too large a group. One way or another, Polish anti-Semitism of the 1930s by its depth and consequences did not reach a level that was demonstrated by Nazi Germany. […]   In fact, a comparison is neither possible nor expedient: During the greater part of this period, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were not completely under the rule of totalitarian state systems. Furthermore, the Third Reich was a unique case of the domination of racist anti-Jewish sentiment as the main ideological principle.

During this period one of the forms of discrimination against the Jewish population of the Second Polish Republic was the so-called “ghetto bench,” which was used in universities to segregate students in lecture auditoriums: Christians sat on the right side, and Jews on the left, although in small auditoriums such separation was impossible. This idea was initially proposed in 1933, and the first time this type of segregation was instituted on the territory of Eastern Galicia was in 1935, in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Lviv Polytechnic. On 5 November 1937, the rectorate of Lviv University held a plebiscite on the “ghetto bench.” This sparked discontent among the 450 Ukrainian students, who decided on 8 November 1937 to boycott it, which led to their own persecution by the Poles.

Some professors of Jewish and Polish background, as well as students, condemned the innovation, but the majority supported it. This led to vigorous protests by Jews and reinvigorated radically inclined students and supporters of the Endeks. The unrest partly disrupted classes because there were constant fights among the students. In some cases, they culminated in the death of one of the participants, which in no way hindered the implementation of this practice. Nearly every university in the country began to introduce the “ghetto bench.” These events culminated in a decision approved by the Minister of Religious Affairs and Education to introduce the “ghetto bench” throughout the country. The decision sparked protests among the Jewish deputies of the Sejm. One of them, Emil Sommerstein, delivered a speech before his fellow deputies, emphasizing that the law had the markers of Nazism and discrimination against citizens of the Second Polish Republic. His speech failed to remedy the situation. On the contrary, it worsened, and the membership of the national organizations All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp decided to introduce the principle of numerus nullus (Lat. “no [Jews] at all”), which stripped Jews of the right to a higher education. The proposal found support among some lecturers and students. Even though it was not ratified on the official state level, it operated silently in many universities. The system of numerus clausus (Lat. “closed number”) was revived in several other universities, reintroducing the ten-percent limit on Jewish students in higher educational institutions, which the Poles had tried to introduce as early as 1923, in keeping with the Lex Grabski law. At the time, however, this gradation was abolished as a result of the interventions of the League of Nations and protests on the part of intellectuals.

In 1937 some universities introduced a limit officially restricting the number of Jewish students to ten percent; heretofore their share had ranged from twenty to forty percent. In May 1938 the Camp of National Unity approved a resolution noting that the “solution of the Jewish question in Poland can be achieved only on the condition that the size of the Jewish population is fundamentally reduced. That is why we have approved the decision and will continue to promote this process.”

The idea of Jewish immigration to Palestine took root among Polish politicians, which they sought to implement thanks to the Zionists. For example, the Second Department of the General Staff was secretly training Jews for subversive work in Palestine for the purpose of carrying out terrorist acts and waging a struggle against the British and the Arabs. This gave rise to Jewish immigration to Palestine. Between 1921 and 1925 alone, 184,500 Jews who professed Zionism and advocated the restoration of the Jewish state emigrated from Poland. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s an average of between 50,000 and 60,000 persons emigrated from the country every year. Between 1936 and 1938 nearly 13,300 Jews from Eastern Galicia immigrated to Palestine during the Fourth Aliyah (also known as the Grabski Aliyah) and the Fifth Aliyah.

The development of the Jewish community in the political life of the Second Polish Republic revealed some special features. On the one hand, it was marked by positive changes in the socio-economic sphere. On the other, there was a bitter struggle against nationalistic Polish forces that denied Jews the right to any kind of progress, which ultimately led to an acute interethnic struggle. Yet despite the intensification of anti-Semitism in the last years of the political existence of the Second Polish Republic, Poland during the interwar period became a unique oasis for the formation of the Jewish national political idea, which, after the Second World War ended, was embodied in the State of Israel.

Vitaliy Lysenko

Tuesday, 3 December 2019 – 21:55
Source:  Krytyka Magazine, Year XXIII, Number 3-4, pp. 14–24

© 1997-2020 Krytyka, Inc. All rights reserved. May be copied only with the permission of Krytyka, Inc.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @krytyka.com

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.