Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles icon

Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles


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per se is the driving force behind these reactions simply misses the mark.

Comparisons are sometimes made, in the writings of American Jews, of the situation of Jews in Poland to that of Blacks in the United States. This analogy is simply devoid of legitimacy. Rather, the position of Blacks was occupied by Polish peasantry, at least up to the 1920s. Booker Washington, a prominent Black American leader and a representative of the last generation of Blacks born in slavery, made a tour of Europe in 1910 during which he had an opportunity to observe the condition of European labourers and peasants. He used those observations to illuminate the situation of African Americans, especially in the South. This was a witness who, more than Whites or Jews, had first hand experience and knew of what he wrote. While in Poland Washington saw peasants living in “weather-worn and decrepit” huts shared with cows, pigs, geese, and chickens. Every exchange of cash seemed to be in the hands of Jews:



wherever in Poland money changes hands a Jew is always there to take charge of it. In fact, it seemed to me that the Jew in Poland was almost like the money he handled, a sort of medium of exchange.


He noted that his Jewish guide “looked down upon and despised” the Polish peasants among whom he traded. He referred to them as “ignorant and dirty creatures.” He observed that, unlike Jewish immigrants who came to America,


Instead of seeking to make themselves look like the rest of the people among whom they live, they seem to be making every effort to preserve and emphasize the characters in which they are different from the people about them.


Washington concluded that


there was much the same life that I had known and lived among the Negro farmers in Alabama. … I am convinced that any one who studies the movements and progress of the Negroes in America will find much that is interesting by way of comparison in the present situation of the Polish people and that of the American Negroes.30


Any attempt by Poles to move out of their economic rung and venture into endeavours that were regarded as traditional Jewish economic “turf,” and thus off-limits to Gentiles, was met with hostility, communal resistance and even violence. Many examples can be cited. Stanisław Thugutt, a minister in the interwar Polish government, was threatened by Jewish merchants after he opened a food cooperative in Ćmielów near Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski in 1903. After the threats proved futile, he was falsely charged with assaulting a Jew, a charge that was thrown out by the court. Nonetheless, the constant harassment exerted by the Jewish community resulted in Thugutt’s departure from the town.31 When a group of Poles decided to open a business in Brańsk in 1913, local Jews tried to beat up the pharmacist who initiated the project in order to get him to abandon the idea.32 When a Polish company attempted to open a provision shop in Tarnobrzeg, they ran into a formidable obstacle. All the buildings in the centre of the town were owned by Jews who were adamantly opposed to the idea and would not rent or sell to Poles. When one Jew finally sold to the Poles, the Jews


made things very bad for the Jew who sold it, and offered to double the amount paid down in order to recover the place. It all came to naught. That evening the deed was signed after the seller left town. His family was the object of persecution, their windows were broken and for weeks they were not admitted to the synagogue.33


The opening of a Polish firm in Tarnobrzeg in 1899 turned out to be a very positive development for consumers:


The ‘Bazaar’ was a godsend to the county, for it set all prices. Up to that time traders asked what they would, and since they had everything in their hands there was nothing for it but to pay. From now on they had to keep in line with ‘Bazaar’ prices. So, too, up till then the Jews made fun of Christians, as I have often heard with my own ears. … For a time the others waged a price war with the new firm, trying to ruin it; but they soon gave that up, and things became quiet.34


At that time economic solidarity was completely foreign to Polish peasants and townspeople. It was something that had to be learned from the Jews. Meanwhile Jews were eager to expand into areas traditionally occupied by Poles.

Unlike Polish attitudes toward Jews, about which there is an extensive and growing literature, the issue of Jewish attitudes toward Poles is a much neglected topic.35 In fact, the issue is largely shunned as if it provides no clues for understanding the long history of interaction between Poles and Jews. Historically, Polish-Jewish relations were multifaceted and developed in an entirely different setting than those which prevailed in the rest of Europe. Jews had been expelled from most of Europe over the centuries, starting in England (where the traditional blood libel charges originated) and followed by Spain, or butchered in large-scale massacres like those in Strasbourg, Prague and Lisbon. When they started to trickle back to Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, unlike in Poland, they sought cultural assimilation. In Poland they wanted autonomy and as little interaction with the Christian population as possible. As Eva Hoffman points out, there were mutual parallels in how the two groups viewed each other and interacted:


throughout much of Poland’s history, Jews were a highly visible and socially significant presence—a constituency that had to be reckoned with and one that could even pose challenges to the Poles themselves. In this respect, the nature of the Polish-Jewish relationship is exceptional. In contrast with Western European countries, where Jews were usually a tiny minority (below 2 percent of the population in modern Germany) and where, therefore, they were a mostly imaginary Other, in Poland, the Jewish community comprised a genuine ethnic minority, with its own rights, problems, and powers. We have become skilled nowadays in analyzing the imagery of Otherness, that unconscious stratum of preconceptions, fantasies, and projections we bring to our perceptions of strangers. Such subliminal assumptions and archetypes can and do have a very real impact on how we see and treat each other. But in the intergroup relations that were as extended in time and as complex as those between Poles and Jews, the material realities of economic competition and practical loyalties, of policy and political alignments, also played a vital role.36


What of Jewish attitudes toward the Poles? We tend to forget that minority groups are not powerless in the perceptions; that they, too, exercise judgment and gauge the character of others; and that, much as they may be the targets of prejudice, they are not themselves immune to it. That the Jews had their views of the people among whom they lived we cannot doubt, but their ordinary opinions, ideas, and preconceptions are largely inaccessible to us, since almost no secular Jewish literature is extant from the early period. We do know, however, that Jews had their exclusionary and monopolistic prescriptions, prohibiting rights of residence to outsiders in their quarters, and strictly guarding certain business practices and “secrets” from non-Jews. … We can take it for granted, moreover, that fierce religious disapproval traveled both ways. Just as Jews were infidel in Christian eyes, so Jews were convinced that Christians were wrong, deluded, and blasphemous. And from both sides of the divide, the conviction of the other’s wrongness created essential, and increasingly rigid, spiritual barriers. As the Jewish communities in Poland became more settled and began to establish stronger religious institutions, Polish Jews became more rigorously observant. They began to shun intimate contact with Christians, if only on account of the dietary laws.

The Poles, then, were the Jews’ radical Other, just as much as the other way round.37


Jewish separatism was also an active choice, and it also had its consequences. It meant that Jewish individuals and communities cultivated their own alienness, and that although they were willing to engage in contractual relations with the Poles, they did not wish to enter into a shared world with them.38


Although much has been written about “Polish anti-Semitism,” there is very little about the other side of this two-way relationship. Most commentators simply deny its existence or downplay it to the point of insignificance. For some scholars, like Joanna Michlic, “anti-Polish stereotyping” by Jews is essentially a reactive and insignificant postwar phenomenon that has little or nothing to do with actual Jewish attributes. In her estimation, it is hardly worthy of mention.


this stereotyping basically constitutes a reaction to the negative experience of Jews in modern Poland. This reaction takes on the form of biased and unjustified expressions and overgeneralizations. However, such stereotyping does not constitute an important and irreducible element of Jewish national identity and nationalism …39


This approach is ahistorical because it overlooks the historical context in which Polish-Jewish relations developed and hypocritical because it subjects Poles and Jews to two different moral standards. The situation is further compounded when Poland is compared to European countries which had no significant Jewish population, but not to those numerous countries which experienced (and experience) serious ethnic strife between rival ethnic or religious groups who happen not to be Jewish.

There is little, if anything, that is novel about anti-Semitic views voiced by some Poles about Jews. (It is a separate question to what extent these views were shared by Polish society as a whole. The notion that anti-Semitism was a universal phememenon among Poles is symptomatic of Jewish projection rather than reflection of reality.) Poles inherited traditional Christian beliefs and prejudices regarding Jews from the Catholic Church, and some of the modern doctrines were brought from Western Europe (primarily France and Germany), where they developed. There is no evidence Poles invented anything original in this regard. As Theodore Weeks notes:


The Poles certainly had no monopoly on antisemitism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In fact, both “scholarly” and popular expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment were much more pronounced in Germany and France in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. … It is also clear that much of the rhetoric of Polish antisemites … was appropriated from German and French sources.


… no prominent Polish writer or scholar of the prewar [i.e. pre-World War One] period chose to publicly denounce the Jews as a threat to the Polish nation. Indeed before 1905 it was a rare Polish intellectual who made a carrer of denouncing the Jews. Instead, in that period prominent writers sucg as Bolesław Prus and Aleksander Świętochowski mercilessly mocked and reviled antisemites as hacks, careerists, and benighted fools.40


But the Poles were also saddled with a formidable problem—unkown in most of Europe—of having to cope, on a practical level and a day-to-day basis, with large numbers of Jews living in their midst as a separate community. Most of these Jews came to Poland because they were were expelled from or fled persecution in other parts of Europe. Continuously during Polish history, relations between Poles and Jews were exacerbated by the interference of outsiders: German settlers in the Middle Ages, the Cossack uprisings, the Swedish invasion in the 17th century, the dogmatic pressures of the Vatican, the autocratic rule of Czarist Russia, the Nazi Germany invasion, and the Stalinist occupation, to name the most significant examples.

Few people, even among Poles, are aware of the nature of the earliest contacts between Jews and Poles: Jews first came to Poland in the 10th century as traders in, among other commodities, Christian slaves,41 which certainly did not augur well for mutual relations. Unlike other countries in which they settled and unlike the waves of German migrants who came to Poland, Jews who migrated to Poland from the 13th century onward clung tenaciously to a German dialect rather than learning the language of their country of refuge. According to Jewish-American historian Robert Chazan,


In this regard, we must note the fascinating phenomenon of the emergence of Yiddish as the Jewish language of Polish Jewry. We have noted throughout this study Jewish adoption of the local vernaculars as the language of everyday communication. … What is clear, however, is that the importation of German into Poland by immigrating Jews represents a new development. In Poland, the migrating Jews did not adopt the language of their new environment. Rather, they held fast to the language and culture with which they had arrived. This linguistic tenaciousness seems to have been rooted in two factors. The first was the overall Germanic migration into Poland, which made the urban areas—within which the Jewish migrants first settled—heavily German in language and culture. Secondly, the Jewish migrants into Poland—unlike their predecessors in eleventh- and twelfth-century northern France and Germany—seem to have viewed their new environment as distinctly backward and to have clung to their prior language as a sign of cultural superiority.42


The chasm separating Jews from Polish peasantry, or the common people, was acutely felt well into the 20th century. The situation of Jews in Poland bore no resemblance to the harsh and inhumane conditions that Black slaves and their descendants, who were brought from Africa by the tens of thousands by the Dutch, Brirish, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, endured on the way to and in the European colonies in the Americas. Rather the Jews in Poland occupied a place between the nobility and the peasant serfs. They collected taxes for the nobility and managed their estates. They were known as pachciarz, or “commercial agent.” The Jew, on behalf of the nobleman, controlled the life of the village. Having lost legal protection in 1518, when the king ceased to consider their complaints against the nobles, the peasants remained virtually at the mercy of the nobles, who decided on the levies to be imposed upon them in the form of services and the use of monopolies and held jurisdiction over them. The nobles, with the Jews as their agents, often misused their privileges to exploit the peasants subject to their whims. Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries has often been described as “heaven for the Jews, paradise for the nobles, hell for the serfs.”43 The result was inevitable: strong resentment.

The reaction of the Jews caught up in this vicious cycle was to “dehumanize” the Christian peasants, and to view themselves as superior. As Jonathan Krasner points out,


The dehumanization of the peasants was also ‘an instrument for sustaining a social and political order in which the Other is a victim’. In central and eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Ukraine, the Jews were frequently cast in an exploitative role in relation to the peasants. Although they were often acting as agents of the aristocracy, whether as estate managers, tax-collectors, or merchant capitalists, the face of the victimizer was Jewish. Peasant outbursts directed at Jews [and also magnates—M.P.] in the form of pogroms were more often than not fomented by perceived Jewish exploitation. The Jew could not escape awareness of his position, but rather than question the social and political order, he unconsciously justified that position by labelling the lower classes as subhuman, as animals. The occasional violence on the part of the peasants only served to reinforce this image.44


On the other hand, Jews enjoyed prerogatives which were by and large respected, and had recourse to higher authorities when faced with occasional attempts to violate their rights. For example,


the Jews of Pinsk [Pińsk] enjoyed freedom to trade, lend money, lease customs rights and estates, and maintain the [Christian] serfs attached to them. They also seem to have been permitted to engage freely in crafts. Their privilege rights assured them of a significant degree of security for their lives and property. In a case of murder or injury, Jews insisted on compensation and punishment of the perpetrator. Usually, with the help of the administrative authorities and the courts, they prevailed. …

Pinsk Jews sued for large amounts of money in cases of bodily injury where the defendant was a nobleman. When a Jew was the attacker such cases were fairly frequent), he would also be summoned to court in the same manner as a nobleman, and on the basis of the same law. … Lawlessness and violence were prevalent generally, in the Christian community too; the primary victims were peasants subject to the nobility. The fact is that sometimes Pinsk Jews were accused of attacking Christians. …

The sources also show that sometimes Jews who were sued by Christians were given preferential treatment by the judicial authorities. … It can be assumed that bribery played a crucial role in such instances. …

In 1646, David Jakubowicz, one of the most important of the Pinsk arrendators, appealed a verdict reached by a nobility court in Pinsk. David, together with his nobleman lord, Lukasz [Łukasz] Olkowski, had been accused of killing a peasant who worked in Olkowski’s distilleries. The nobleman was fined sixty-four kopy for damages, but the Jew claimed that according to the Jews’ privilege the nobility court was not competent to judge him. The judges (who included the podstarosta) accepted this argument, and his case was referred to the podstarosta’s court sitting in its capacity as the sad [sąd] zamkowy, which was empowered to judge Jews. …

As arrendators, they dealt with the nobility and clergy who gladly leased their latifundia to Jews. They also, in line with the economic realities of the period, profited by the feudal labor and tax obligations of peasant serfs bound to leased properties. …

In this period, the peasant serf of the Pinsk region did not display any particular hostility toward the Jews. … They were indifferent as to the question of who would exploit them. … The only recorded cases of serfs acting against Jewish arrendators in particular involve incitement by their nobleman master who fell out with the arrendator, or instances where the Jew committed some egregious injustice that clearly went against custom or law.45


However, when a Jew was attacked or robbed by a serf, the situation was radically different and the serf could expect no mere fine or mercy.


On the night of September 6 and 7, [1648], while they were camped in a field near the village of Osowiec, they were attacked by a gang of local [Orthodox] men posing as Cossacks, who broke open four of the trunks in the wagons and stole cash, silver utensils, and valuables. …

The kopa investigation, done with summary severity, succeeded in identifying the guilty parties. They turned out to be four serfs of the nobleman Buchowiecki, the owner of Osowiec, who were interrogated by the kopa. … the case was brought for judgment before the nobleman Buchowiecki, the lord of the accused serfs.

Buchowiecki gave up his claims to the escaped serfs, thereby giving the aggrieved Jews the right to catch them and bring them to trial. Buchowiecki sentenced to death the two serfs who had been captured and imprisoned. Since the Jew did not have an executioner on hand, the prisoners remained in jail in the Jews’ custody and were later brought to Pinsk.46


Social interaction between Christians and Jews was, until the modern period, minimal and superficial. For most Poles and Jews it simply did not exist. Almost all dealings were on the economic level, and mostly in the marketplace. The non-Jews


were seen by the Jews primarily instrumentally, as the source of parnose (livelihood) through everyday economic exchange. However, as with the peasants, their everyday interaction, purely functional as it was, together with their differences in appearance, language, and customs, reinforced rather than diminished the sense of ‘otherness’ felt by the Jews towards their economic partners. Underlying this sense among the Jews of the otherness of the peasants were feelings of scorn and suspicion. But if similar feelings among the peasants towards the Jews were prompted by their perception of the latter as endowed with characteristics beyond their grasp, the Jewish perceptions of peasants were the reverse: they represented the uncivilized and uncultured. The term goy, referring generally to non-Jews, was actually used to denote ‘peasant’ in the everyday Yiddish idiom across the Polish territories. It denoted people and things that were backward, ignorant, driven by unrestrained animal instincts and physical aggression—everything that a Jew did not want to and should not be. This value-laden distinction was inculcated in Jewish children from infancy, and their sense of superiority emerged even more forcefully from Jewish religious convictions. Because of their cult of icons, statues, and other ‘graven images’, the Jews held Christians to be idolatrous, especially the rituals observed by the peasantry.47


Here [i.e., in the town’s marketplace] the peasants of the neighboring villages came to sell their products, buy urban products from the Jews, and use the services of the Jewish artisans. In the course of centuries this contact was seldom of lasting duration or of profound value. The relationship usually remained on the level of mutual distrust. To the Jew, the non-Jew was the symbol of raw instinct, of physical power and primitive reflexes. To the peasant, the Jew represented slyness, brains, and, most of all, religious heresy.48


In fact, although many Jews do not admit it, religion also had an enormous impact on how Jews perceived non-Jews. In his study ^ Exclusivenss and Tolerance,49 Jacob Katz acknowledges that both Jews and Christians had stereotypical views of each other (p. xiv), and Jewish views of Christianity were just as unflattering as the reverse. Katz comments: “The biblical name of Edom was, in Talmudic times, applied to Rome. In medieval poetry, however, it is synonymous with Christianity.” (p. 16.) Throughout history, Jews had tended to see Christians as idolaters (e.g., pp. 27, 53, 100). Following Talmudic law, this would have forbidden Jews from having business dealings with Christians. Consequently, “Practical considerations required the dissociation of Christianity from idolatry, and this was rationalized by means of halakhic casuistry. But this rationalization cannot be assumed to imply that, from a theological point of view, Christianity was no longer regarded as a ‘pagan’ religion.” (p. 162; see also p. 108.). The 16th-century seminal Jewish thinker Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loeb of Prague) thought that: “However, his criticism [of Jews] did not affect his basic conception that Jews were, essentially, of a superior religious and moral caliber to others. Their inadequacies were incidental only, and attributable to the trials of the Exile; at a different level, Jewish deficiencies had a direct relationship to the Jews’ superior spiritual nature.” (p. 141.) Until the 11th century, and sometimes later, Jews could own slaves (p. 41). As for usury, both Christians and Jews employed a double standard. Christianity forbade usury among Christians, but regarded Jewish conduct as outside its jurisdiction. For its part, Judaism forbade Jew-on-Jew usury, but allowed Jew-on-gentile usury (p. 57). Since time immemorial, Jews had preferred to live among their own kind. Compulsory ghettoization came much later. Katz comments: “But contrary to what might be expected, the institution of the closed Jewish quarter was not in itself resented by Jews. It was accepted as a provision appropriate to a group of their status, and as corresponding to their social and religious needs; moreover, it provided a measure of security. Jews were content to be recognized as a socio-religious unit, distinct from the general population.” (pp. 132–33.)

According to other Jewish scholars,


As Gershon Hundert has put it, ‘the norms of both the Church and the Synagogue were strongly segregationist in intent, and … each faith taught that the other was spiritually and morally inferior’. The preacher and moralist Tsevi Hirsh Koidonover (d. 1712), in his




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