Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles icon

Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles


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Kav hayashar, argued strongly against any contact with the society of non-Jews, which he saw as ‘full of idolatry, violence, and drunkenness’. Christians, lacking divinely taught ethics, were in the process of sliding steadily into chaos. A Jew could best save his soul by avoiding all contact with them. Historically, Ashkenazi Jewry’s categorization of Christians as idol worshippers had indeed created numerous legal barriers to Christian-Jewish interaction, at least from the Jewish perspective.50


Jews did express in prayers strong negative views of Christianity, and of Jesus and Mary, sometimes even calls for vengeance. Although passages offensive to Christianity were later removed [by censors] from Jewish prayers, an early sixteenth-century collection of penitential prayers published in Cracow still contained a few references to Christianity as a religion of the “hung-one,” an expression to denote the crucified Jesus, and references to “menstruating women.” According to medieval Jewish counternarrative of the Gospels, Jesus was born of a menstruating woman, in Jewish tradition a powerful and insulting denotation of impurity. Such prayers played on the contrast between Christian impurity and defilement and the ritual purity of the Jews. Christians were portrayed as the impure uncircumcised.51


Laws separating Jews from non-Jews (or “Israelites” from “non-Israelites”) appear in the Torah, or the Pentateuch. In the early postbiblical Jewish literature, the Mishnah—and especially the section ‛Avodah Zarah—delineated the boundaries and served as a foundation for subsequent rabbinic laws on contacts between Jews and non-Jews. … in the rabbinic law or halakhah, prohibitions appear against Jews celebrating non-Jewish holidays and attending non-Jewish weddings. There are laws attempting to limit friendly interaction between these two groups and to restrict the use of each other’s bathhouses and doctors. …

Jewish dietary laws of kashrut also would have limited contacts, at least to Jewish homes … But Jewish law was often about restricting actual socializing rather than simply about the observance of kashrut.

… the Mishanic prohibitions that forbid Jews to leave their animals with gentiles, because of the gentiles’ alleged inclinations to bestiality, and that disallow Jews from being alone with gentiles because they are suspected of easy bloodshed. These prohibitions present non-Jews as dangerous, as licentious sexual predators or as killers. …

Indeed, the Jewish leaders desired that Jews dress distinctly in order to prevent any possibility of intimacy …

… the ^ Shulḥan ‛Aruk, in Yoreh De‛ah 154.2, prohibited a Jewish woman from helping a gentile woman in childbirth unless she was known to the birthing woman and the help was performed for payment. … it was also prohibited to teach gentiles crafts. This prohibition comes from the Mishnah, and as the text states it was intended to prevent a Jewish woman from helping to bring an idolater into the world … The Shulḥan ‛Aruk, on the other hand, established professional boundaries between Jewish and Christian women, discouraging contacts based on friendship. To avoid such intimacy and friendship, rabbinic authorities made a payment part of the relationship.52


The mutual anxieties and mutually promoted attitudes of animosity added a level of distrust and suspicion of the Other and, therefore, a sense of vulnerability that such intimate contacts might bring. …

Because socializing and eating together could lead to simple friendships, then to emotional closeness, and eventually also to sexual relations, neither Jewish nor Church authorities wanted to encourage the crossing of boundaries. Both clearly saw contacts between Jews and Christians more as opportunities for corruption within their communities and as threats to religious loyalty among their co-religionists than as opportunities to gain converts.53


Much has been said about how Christians viewed Jews as the “wrong” religion, whose members might contaminate the faithful, and whose only merit was their potential for conversion. Salo Baron points out that Jews thought exactly the same of Christians, as exemplified by the teachings of the famed rabbi Moses Maimonides.


On account of their Trinitarian doctrine the Christians are legally in the category of heathens with whom one must not have any dealings on Sunday or, in Palestine, even during the preceding three days. Evidently, living in a Muslim environment, Maimuni could only indulge in the luxury of prohibiting commercial intercourse with the Christian minority during one to four days a week. On the other hand, in view of their qualified approval of the Jewish Scripture, they may be given instruction in its Jewish interpretation, in the hope that they may realize their error and join the ranks for full-fledged Jews.54


Based on a study of Hasidic sources, Jewish scholar Moshe Rosman provides the following historical perspective on this topic:


Based on their respective theologies, Jews and Christians shared an assessment of Jews’ fundamental otherness within dominant Christian society. … Rabbinic laws and communal ordinances attempted to restrict contact with non-Jews, and Jewish folklore often assigned a demonic role to its gentile characters.

But in their otherness, Jews maintained a positive evaluation of themselves and their way of life, entertaining feelings of Jewish solidarity and rejection of, and even superiority to, the hegemonic culture.55


Alongside the belief in the non-Jews’ demonic nature and the fear and mistrust of Gentile society, some of these tales hint at a very different evaluation of the theological-moral standing of the non-Jews. According to Jacob Katz, given the religious rivalry between Judaism and Christianity, the members of each group adopted a double standard of morality towards each other. There was no religious rationale for treating outsiders according to ethical norms. Jews frowned on mistreating or cheating non-Jews not on moral grounds but from enlightened self-interest: such behaviour would bring Jews into disrepute and result in sanctions or even violence being brought to bear against them.56


Raphael Mahler writes in a similar candid vein about the theological prejudices the Jewish people inherently held against Christians (non-Jews):


The views of the Hasidim … were a direct outgrowth and development of the Weltanschauung of the Kabbalah. The Jewish people were not simply the chosen, but were the only people of God; “Israel and the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.” According to the Midrash, the whole world was created only for the sake of the Jews … Consequently, their feelings of social involvement did not reach beyond their own people.

The positive expression of this attitude was the principle of the unconditional solidarity of the Jews and the idea of ahavat yisrael (love of the Jewish people), [which became a main theme] in the stories and legends of the prominent Hasidic rebbes in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, a negative attitude toward Gentiles, which took the form of contempt, was also an unavoidable consequence of this position. As Mendel of Rymanów put it, “A Gentile does not have a heart, although he has an organ that resembles the heart.” Simon of Jarosław asserted that the Gentiles will be held responsible not for their evil decrees—these were actually divinely inspired and had been prophesied in order to “cleanse [the Jews] of their sins”—but for their “vengefulness and revelry in the distress of the Jews.” The symbol for the Gentile in the Hasid’s consciousness was the brutal landowner or the enslaved and boorish peasant.57


Mahler also mentions that the Rabbi of Izbica taught that Jews are innately good, even when they do evil deeds, simply because they are Jews. Gentiles are innately bad, even if they do good deeds.


These principles also apply to the Rabbi of Izbica’s teaching with regard to the Jews and the gentile nations … Just as God chose individuals from among the Jews in accordance with His will, bestowing the light of His Torah upon them in greater abundance than upon others, … so did He select the Jews to be His chosen people. … But all these differences among the gentile nations with regard to each other are as nothing when compared with the abyss which exists between them and the Jews. Even “the good qualities and the beneficent knowledge” of gentile nations, which are reflected in their wealth and possessions, are there in exile, since idol worshippers do “the reverse of God’s will”; but when the Jews have one of these qualities, then God’s will is fulfilled through it, for the Jews are the “instrument by which God’s will is implemented.” … So beloved are the Jews in the eyes of God that even if they do deeds like those done by the Gentiles, they are good precisely because they are the deeds of Jews. Even the wicked among the Jews have goodnesss at the root of their lives, for it is only their acts which are not good, and those can be amended through penitence. However, the root of the gentiles is bad and their acts are evil, even though they seem good “in their outer guise,” as in the outer shell of Amalek, who “stretches forth his cloven hoof, as if to say, I am a clean animal.” The quality of the Jewish people is that of Aaron, kind and peaceful, whereas the quality of Edom is one of murder, as it is written (Gen. 27:40): “And by the sword shalt thou live.” It is true that it is stated (in Mal. 1:12): “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?—but this resemblance is merely external, for “God is aware that they are not equal.” Also, ‘it seems that Esau and Jacob hated each other in the same way; but Esau’s hatred of Jacob is a deep-rooted hostility, since he hates him in his very essence,” whereas Jacob dislikes Esau for “the evil of his nature, because he is irate and cruel.”58


Thus Christians were inherently evil and, what is more, beyond salvation. At least in Christian theology Jews (and infidels) could redeem themselves by accepting Christ. Apparently this was not so in Judaism. Encumbered with such baggage, how could good relations with Christians possibly flourish? In a social order that mandated or encouraged separation (unlike those that mandated assimilation), how could Poles be seen—and judged—other than through the prism of their alleged innate anti-Semitism?

As Rosa Lehmann notes in a regional study on Polish-Jewish relations,


We have seen that the Jews strongly marked themselves off from the Poles. The distinction between Jews (yidn) and non-Jews (goyim) reflected the Jewish fear of Gentile intrusion, as well as the Jewish disdain for the Gentile world. In communal and personal matters Jews kept strictly to Jews. Any involvement with Poles beyond what was strictly necessary (like work or commerce) was regarded as improper, since this would blur the community boundary and endanger the traditional Jewish way of life.59


Thus negative stereotypes coexisted with positive ones, and weren’t the exclusive provenance of either group. For instance, Poles had their folk tales about Jews using the blood of kidnapped Christian children, and Jews had their Hasidic teachings about such things as the Jews being God’s only people, and Gentiles having no hearts. Polish peasants at times thought of the exploitive usurious Jew, and at other times the benevolent usurious Jew.60 However, even when Jewish usury was benign, the lot of the poverty-stricken Polish peasant could only breed resentment: “This (like any other) form of involuntary dependence typically gave rise to feelings of hostility and frustration.”61

Jewish anthropologist Samuel Heilman notes that the Hasidic literalist movement, founded in the 18th century, became the dominant Jewish world-view in Eastern Europe. “In several generations,” he observes, the Hasidic movement “absorbed huge numbers—perhaps a majority—of the region’s Jews.”62 However, the longevity of Hasidic teachings can be seen in contemporary Israel. Heilman’s book about the Hasids in Israel shows that the Hasidic movement’s profoundly separatist and ethnocentric world-view is still reflected by 11- and 12-year olds in the Hasidic school system. Showing a school class a map of Israel, Heilman recounts,


I asked each boy if he could tell me what lay to the east, the south, the north, and the west [of Israel], each time pointing my pencil to the area in case they did not know the bearings of the compass. Again, no one knew … Next I asked each boy to tell me the names of the surrounding countries, without necessarily specifying where they were in relation to Israel. In response, one boy began to list cities in Israel … Perhaps the most revealing answer came from one youngster who, in reply to the question of what bordered on Israel, confidently answered that Israel was surrounded by chutz la’aretz. Chutz la’aretz is the Hebrew expression that most Israelis use to refer to the rest of the world. Literally, it means “outside of the Land (of Israel),” abroad. In this boy’s mind the world was neatly divided. Just as there were goyim and Jews, so similarly there was Israel and chutz la’aretz … It struck me that in the world they inhabited, the information I had asked them was simply not important. They had a different map of the world … The large territories were not Russia, Germany, or Poland. They were named after cities of importance to the hasidim of Zvil: Apta [Opsatów], Lublin, Mezerich, Berdichev, Chernobyl. Cities had become countries.63


Stephen Bloom’s book about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave (the Chabad Lubavitchers, a prominent Hasidic movement founded in Lithuania) in Postville, Iowa, gives a clear example of what relations must have been like between many Jews and Poles and Eastern Europe before the rise of the Nazis. Jews in the Iowa town, Bloom reports, do not want to touch Gentiles, they resist eye contact with them as they walk down the street, they have no knowledge or interest in Gentile life around them, they appear “obnoxious and imperial” to local people, they cheat local merchants, and they use oil in their candelabras because oil, which doesn’t mix with other liquids, symbolizes Jewish separateness from all non-Jews. “Wherever we go,” one Chabad leader said, “we don’t adapt to the place or the people. It’s always been like that and always will be like that. It’s the place and the people who have to adapt to us.” “Postville people, by and large, were tolerant,” says Bloom, “… [but the Hasidic Jews] were downright rude. They seemed to go out of their way to be obnoxious, especially when it came to business dealings … At first, the locals welcomed the Jews, but even the simplest offer—a handshake, an invitation to afternoon tea—was spurned. The locals quickly discovered that the Jews wouldn’t even look at them. They refused to acknowledge even the presence of anyone not Jewish.”64

Historian Bernard Weinryb makes the point that the negative images Jews held of Christians were based on ideas “about the superiority of [their own] community, the chosenness of the Jews in comparison with the idolatry (paganism) of the others.” In ancient times, Jews were required to keep their distance from idol-worshippers. During the Middle Ages, rabbis insisted that those laws be applied to Christian practices even though they recognized differences between the idol-worshippers of ancient Greece and Rome and the Christians of medieval Europe.65 Significantly, 18th century Polish scholarship was well aware of Jewish beliefs and practices, and of the writings of the Talmud which, as we shall see, was replete with disgusting and spiteful references to Jesus, Christians, and Christian beliefs.66 For God’s “Chosen People” the “rival” Polish messianistic movement which developed in the 19th century proved to be particularly unpalatable and met with scorn. Unlike the situation in countries where Jews formed a tiny presence, given their large numbers in Poland they felt little or no compunction to rein in their negative feelings toward the surrounding population.

One can find the same theme of mutual religious-based animosity in some memoirs from the interwar period. Leon Berkowicz, the son of a successful timber merchant from Baranowicze, writes:


The deep intolerance and hatred was caused by the poverty and ignorance which prevailed for centuries, and to no less a degree by the clergymen of all three denominations [i.e., Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish] who spent more time emphasising the superiority of their own creed and the certainty of preferential treatment by the Almighty than they did in teaching the Ten Commandments or the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.


Many religious practices and traditions associated with Judaism seemed strange to Christians, just as Christian rituals did to Jews. Some Jewish customs became known to Christians, and vice versa.


The practices surrounding Tisha Ba’av were much more to my liking. … this holiday was a mournful one indeed. Commemorating as itdid the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem … Jews generally observed Tisha Ba’av by denying themselves anything that gave pleasure, by debasing themselves, sitting, for example, not on chairs but on special low boxes, placing ashes in their hair, and not eating or drinking for twenty-four hours. Throughout the entire day my father wore torn clothes specially set aside for this time. Understand this and try to explain why it was that children were allowed to do what they did.

At this time of year [summer] a certain kind of prickly thistle grew abundantly in our region, which we proceeded to collect. In short order these thistles were being used as missiles within the synagogue, children taking aim at the long beards of the congregants and then throwing them. When accurately thrown they became entangled in the beards and were very hard to remove. Here were men absorbed in mournful prayer forced to be on the alert for annoying thistles aimed at them! Women were considered to be off limits, but not young girls. It was also “permitted” to sneak up on a girl and rub a thistle into her hair. Once in, it was not easily removed; at times girls were forced to cut off parts of their hair. …

You would think such disruption would tax the limits of everyone’s patience, but there was more. On Tisha Ba’av in the synagogue, children threw bricks! In the midst of solemn prayers, bricks were sent skidding along the floor! Naturally when things got out of hand people complained bitterly, but never did anyone insist that such doings ought not to be tolerated. It was accepted; it was tradition.


The year-round pieces [of dishes and utensils] remained in our house, but they no longer belonged to us. As was the custom, they were temporarily “sold,” together with the chumetz food [i.e, food forbidden during Passover], to a non-Jew, a handshake usually confirming the transaction. With the chumetz dishes, utensils, and food no longer ours, the laws of Passover were thus upheld.


So much did matzohs symbolize Passover that we used them as gifts for Polish friends, who considered them treats—ironically enough, given the ancient Christian charge that Jews baked their matzohs with blood from Christian children. I was the one selected by my father to deliver these gift matzohs, usually two or three packed together. It was customary for Jewish children to bring matzohs for their favorite teachers in public school.


All this might have been all right if the town’s dentist had not been a woman. That in itself was sufficient to keep all the orthodox Jews away from her door.67


Nonetheless, there as in most places, day-to-day relations between Christians and Jews remained proper and entirely civil.68 Acts of kindness were also not uncommon. A famous incident occurred in Wilno in April 1931, when an 18-year-old Polish youth drowned after jumping into the Wilejka River in an unsuccessful attempt to save a 4-year-old Jewish boy from drowning. The Polish authorities commemorated this heroic deed by erecting a monument to the Pole, who became a source of pride—not shame—for the Polish community. The Jewish representatives on the municipal council chose not to support the erection of the monument.69

At the Polish state-run high school Leon Berkowicz attended in Baranowicze,


nobody was handicapped because of his origin or his religion. The Jewish boys excelled academically, but if they were usually first in maths and science they were nearly always last in sports. Physical education was a low priority in Jewish upbringing. Somehow, I was an exception and … the sports-master always gave me top marks. … I was very proud when the captain from the 78th Polish infantry regiment asked me to join their soccer team and play for them in Wilno … I had two Christian friends at school … Our relationship was based on mutual respect and understanding. On a few occasions I went to their homes and they came to mine; I had the impression that the parents of both sides raised their eyebrows.70


Among more traditional Jews, however, interaction was carefully guarded and openness to non-Jews was rare to the “Other,” as was the case in Kolbuszowa, except for those few Jewish professionals who broke out of the confines of the accepted social norms.


In this small town of ours we lived together while we remained separate and apart. Practical necessities brought us into daily contact, but these encounters were specific and brief and rarely produced mutual understanding or respect. We needed each other, often complemented each other, and so there was reason for tolerance; but there was not much incentive for eliminating the barriers that separated us.

Poles dominated the government and administration of Kulbuszowa; Jews operated nearly all of the businesses. The Jews lived largely in and around the marketplace, the Poles in an area known as New Town. Most Poles were devout Catholics, and we Jews followed in the path of orthodox Judaism. … In look, in dress, in behavior, there was usually no mistaking the Pole and the Jew. Then, too, Poles all spoke Polish, Jews mostly Yiddish. …

Acquaintances among Poles and Jews were common, indeed nearly inevitable in a town the size of Kolbuszowa; but close friendships were practically nonexistent. Poles married Poles, and Jewish boys sought out Jewish girls. The one or two exceptions proved the point. Though my father had many Polish acquaintances from business, never were any invited to my sisters’ weddings. Practically every Jew in town came, but not any Poles, nor was he ever invited to their celebrations. Organizations like the Scouts, the fire department, and the Kolbuszowa soccer team were exclusively Polish. [Later, as we shall see, the author contradicts himself on this point.—M.P.]. No Jew in town had ever set foot in the Catholic church of Kolbuszowa; Catholic priests would not look at Jews, much less talk to them. [Later the author contradicts himself on this point—M.P.: “It was my father, for example, who supplied Catholic churches in our area with candles and other items used in various church ceremonies.” In another book the same author writes: “Most Jews had absolutely no contact with the Catholic Church. Whenever they saw a priest coming down the street, they would cross over to the other side to avoid him. The Church was deeply mistrusted and was looked upon as the spawning ground of anti-Semitism. How many plots against Jews, we wondered, were hatched in the dark halls of the old stone church buildings on the edge of town?”71] … Only on the rarest occasions had a Pole been to the Jewish synagogue. Catholics celebrated their holidays throughout the year and Jews theirs, neither group much concerned with what the other was about.

On each side the separateness was seen as desirable. A coming together, a mixing—no one saw any need for it, any point to it. Best to let things stay the way they were. “We could be spoiled”—that’s what Jews said would happen if we mixed with Poles. It could be threatening, could challenge the way it had always been. … Some Jews, not many, did attempt to move in the other direction. These were the modern men, professionals mostly, who wore their Judaism casually, if at all, and sought out friendships among the Poles. Dr. Leon Anderman was a notable exception …

Anderman and a few other men mingled almost exclusively with Poles, were invited to their social gatherings, seemed to move among them with ease. …

There were certain times when Poles and Jews came together in Kolbuszowa. When disaster hit, whether fire or flood, the relief committees were organized, both Poles and Jews did what they could to aid in the recovery. Jews … participated in the celebration of Polish national holidays; a portion of the festivities took place in the synagogue, where the rabbi offered remarks on the occasion before an audience that included local Polish dignitaries. Always in the municipal government a Pole served as mayor and a Jew as deputy mayor. The municipal council was equally divided between the two. On the Kolbuszowa all-star soccer team were two Jews (from the town Gymnasium) …72


In September 1939, the Germans ordered that the Polish troops who fell in the battle for Kolbuszowa be buried together in a mass common grave in the Catholic cemetery. This incensed the Jewish community.


The fact that Jewish soldiers had been so interred was deeply offensive to many of us. When Berish Bilfeld and Leib Lampel told the Germans of our distress, the authorities agreed that we could, if we wished, remove the Jewish dead to our cemetery. For two weeks that is precisely what we did, checking




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