Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles icon

Traditional Jewish Attitudes Toward Poles

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every body for identification (ID cards often indicated which soldiers were Jewish, as did circumcision). Altogether we reburied about fifty Jewish soldiers in the Jewish cemetery outside of town.73

Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin of Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago expressed the following thoughts on the complex topic of Polish-Jewish relations:

Similarly, it does not seem to occur to some Jews that manifestations of Polish anti-Semitism might be reactions to Jewish clanishness and parochialism. As a character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel ^ The Manor puts it: ‘How can anyone move into someone else’s home, live there in total isolation, and expect not to suffer by it? When you despise your host’s god as a tin image, shun his wine as forbidden, condemn his daughter as unclean, aren’t you asking to be treated as an unwelcome outsider? It’s as simple as that.’74

On a recent trip to Poland, Rabbi Sherwin describes the reception he received in a Warsaw synagogue where he was accompanied by his host, a Polish Catholic priest:

A young Orthodox Jew from New York interrupts my prayers, points to the priest, and admonishes me for bringing an ‘idol worshipper’ into the synagogue. The service ends abruptly. I introduce myself to the rabbi. A Gerer Hasid from Israel, he was born in Poland. His tenure had begun only the year before. … The rabbi says to me in Hebrew, ‘After everything that has happened to us here, you see how they still hate us. They are afraid that we might return.’75

The historical complexities of Polish-Jewish relations, however, escape many Western observers and scholars, who claim that all the Jews ever wanted was to be accepted into Polish Christian society, but were cruelly rejected by them. Therefore, the argument goes, the Jews felt rebuffed and only responded in kind. (Such statements abound even though no inclusive society existed even for the majority of Christian Poles, i.e., the peasants, until well into the twentieth century.) Sociologist Naomi Rosh White is an exponent of this facile but patently false school of thought:

The absence of Polish-Jewish contact was principally the result of a refusal by Poles to accept Jews into their circles. … Despite the desire of Jews to become integrated into Polish society, Jews were excluded from non-Jewish friendship groups and from participation in Polish political and bureaucratic life.76

However, the testimonies recorded in White’s study contradict this simplistic portrayal, as most of the Jews she interviewed expressed strongly defined tendencies of separateness.77 Among some German Jews, Polish Jews were known for their intensely nationalistic disposition. Walter Tausk, for example, deplored the “super Zionists” among them who he believed gave Jews a bad name.78

Robert Michael, a professor of European history at the University of Massachusetts, who fancies himself as being on the cutting edge of exposing Catholic anti-Semitism, claims that Jews developed anti-Christian attitudes only out of desperation. “Some powerless Jews,” he writes, “responded to anti-Semitism by stereotyping Gentile Poles as ‘dangerous, demonic, and devlish’; most Jews felt ambivalent toward Poles.” On the other hand, Michael states that Poles are responsible for all the failings in Polish-Jewish relations and goes so far as assuring us, without citing any proof, that: “Many Poles, including those well-educated, continue to insist that Jews caused World War II.”79 Can such “scholarship” be taken seriously? Seemingly, and incredibly, yes.

Influenced by such views such as those expressed by Naomi Rosh White, Robert Michael and many others of that ilk, non-Jewish historians have also endorsed this skewed picture of Jewish-Christian relations. For example, Eugene Davidson writes: “the Christian populations … were likely to avoid contact with Jews except for practical purposes like trade.”80 There is no inkling on his part that there may have been a bit more to the story, and that Jews may have displayed similar attitudes toward Christian Poles. Many commentators adamantly deny the possibility that there ever was any independent animus on the Jewish side. For example, Mark Raphael Baker, a lecturer in modern Jewish history at the University of Melbourne, writes:

Goyim was the generic term for Gentile used by my father and others of his generation. It was not used with hatred, but in a matter of fact way to describe the world out there, beyond his Polish shtetl, outside the confines of his closely-knit network of survivor-friendship. His Jewish world was a shell which protected him.81

After laying all of the blame for the mutual antagonism on Christians, Jewish-American author Anne Roiphe concedes grudgingly, albeit for a rather specious reason: “It is true that Jews in the privacy of their houses have for centuries taken revenge on the anti-Semitism of their neighbors by portraying them as dumb. Jews have long thought of Poles as less intelligent.”82 That reality is reflected in the realistic fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who “in story after story … makes it clear that Jews historically regarded themselves as superior to their Slavic neighbors.”83 Unfortunately, that legacy was transposed to North America where it also poisoned Polish-Jewish relations.84

Other historians, who had had first-hand experience, are more cautious in their assessment. Zvi Gitelman, for example, writes:

Perhaps there was antecedent Jewish distrust of Poles or contempt for them, but Polish hostility bred a Jewish reaction of distrust and reciprocated hostility … But there may have been other sources of Jewish negative attitudes toward Poles. Jews may have regarded Poles (and most other east European peoples) as culturally inferior. … Religious Jews held that Poles believed in a false and pernicious doctrine.85

Paradoxically, anti-assimilationist attitudes were promoted in Poland by Jews who had settled in the United States and Western Europe, even though they would never have advocated the same stance there. Lucy Dawidowicz, who paid an extended visit to Wilno before the war, where most Jews spoke Yiddish and knew little, if any, Polish, wrote: “Not knowing Polish, I didn’t get to meet many of those Polish-speaking university-educated Jews. That didn’t bother me, for I had somehow come to believe that they weren’t my kind of people and didn’t live in my kind of world. … The other Polish speakers whom I met, yet barely knew, I labeled as ‘assimilated,’ even ‘assimilationist,’ that is, advocates of assimilation. Those were a Yiddishist’s pejorative words, darkly intimating that to speak Polish instead of Yiddish was a public act of betrayal, an abandonment of one’s people.”86 In was enough not to look Jewish or to be dressed in non-traditional garb to be labelled a “shaygets” or “shikse” (a pejorative Yiddish term for a Christian boy or girl), even if one was Jewish.87

How all this impacted on the day-to-day life of many Jews in Poland, right up to the Second World War, is illustrated by the following candid testimonies. Nechah Hoffman-Shein recalls her childhood formation in the village of Serafińce near Horodenka, in Eastern Galicia:

At home they tried to implant within us elevated feelings. They emphasized morning and evening that we were different—better, more elevated than the goyim. What was theirs was non-kosher, disgusting, and despised. … And in the house meanwhile they would tell me, “Don’t play with the shiksas, the non-Jewish girls, with their colored eggs, and don’t taste their giant Easter bread, and don’t go into their homes which are absolutely non-kosher.” … However, [my mother] added, “When we go by the statue of Jesus, we need to spit three times and say, ‘It is an abhorrence,’ but make sure that the goyim don’t see you…”88

The custom of spitting when a crucifix or church came into view was transported by Jews to North America, as recalled by Moshe Rozdzial:

my clearest memory of anything that relates to churches was the way my grandmother would spit three times, you know, tu! tu! tu!, like in Fiddler on the Roof, to ward off evil spirits, every time she would walk past a church steeple. … I remember walking down the street with my hand in hers, feeling that tug and knowing, almost instinctively that if I look up I’d see a cross atop a roof, as she reflexively crossed the street to avoid walking directly in front of the church. Muttering, Nevelah! Nevelah!

Do you know what that means? The impurity of the dead. Any dead thing. Any dead thing, that by Jewish law, could not be touched in any way, so as not to be defiled by spiritual purity. That’s what Bubbe thought of the crucifix and ultimately, the church ... She’d spit three times, more if she was in a dark mood, and walk out of her way to avoid the site. The dead Jew on the cross was a Nevelah to her, a presence that has always defiled her life, Jewish life. A symbol of death and human corruptness, to my people. I know it’s not politically correct to say these things to you. We Jews are always watching our tongues, when it comes to Christianity.89

As we shall see, the Jewish tradition of spitting at Christian symbols, and even at Christians, is alive and well in contemporary Israel.

Leon Weliczker Wells, adviser to the Holocaust Library in New York, who hails from Eastern Galicia, recorded:

Our small town, Stojanow [Stojanów], had about a thousand Jews and an equal number of Poles and Ukrainians. … We looked down on the small farmer, whom we called ^ Cham, which was an old traditional way of saying Am Haaretz (people of the earth), which to us meant simpletons. …

We lived in a self-imposed ghetto without walls. The Jewish religion fostered our living together in groups which separated us from non-Jews. … All of these [religious] restrictions caused the Jews to live in ghetto-like societies so that they could maintain their Jewish way of life. … We had virtually no contact with the outside world, surely not social contact, as our interests and responsibilities were completely different from the goish’s. … We young Jewish boys did not take part in any sports as this was considered goish. … We Jews even tried to avoid passing a church, and if that was impossible, we muttered an appropriate curse as we hurried by. …

We Jews felt superior to all others, as we were the “chosen people,” chosen by God Himself. We even repeated it in our prayers at least three times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening … The farmers, who, even considering their low living standards, couldn’t support an entire family, sent their daughters to town to become servants in the Jewish households. I never knew a Jewish girl to be a servant in a Polish household, but the reverse was the norm. The gentile maid was referred to in negative terms as the “shiksa” (Hebrew for “a vermin like a cockroach”). [In Polish, the term had the added etymological connotation of “urine-dripping” girl.—M.P.] There was a repertoire of jokes about these girls. For example, there was the joke about how Jewish mothers made sure that the servants were “clean,” because their sons’ first sexual experience was usually with this girl.90

We were strangers to the neighboring gentiles because of our religion, language, behavior, dress, and daily values. Poland was the only country where a nation lived within a nation. … In Poland the Jew dressed completely different from others, had beards and peyes (side curls), spoke a different language (Yiddish), went to separate religious schools, and sometimes even to different public schools … Since every meal on Sabbath and holidays started with the blessing of the wine, there was no possibility of a pious Jew sharing a festive meal with a gentile because the wine, once opened, became nonkosher if a gentile merely looked at it. The laws of kashruth prevented a Jew from eating at a gentile’s nonkosher table. Thus, there was very little social intercourse between Jews and non-Jews. We never spoke Polish at home, only Yiddish. Polish was negatively called goish. When we spoke Polish we had a Yiddish accent. The newspapers and books in our homes were in Yiddish. … We lived in a strictly self-imposed ghetto, and it suited our requirements and wishes. … Our parents not only praised that time [i.e., Austrian rule] as being better for the Jews, but spoke with pride about the superiority of German culture and its people compared to the Polish culture. This attitude was very badly received by the Polish people. … The belief that German culture was superior continued even to the time when Germany occupied Poland in 1939, and in its eastern part in 1941. I remember when the Jews spoke among themselves about the future under the Nazi regime: “Under the Germans it couldn’t be so bad as the press wants us to believe because they are the leading civilized nation.”91

Farming was an occupation that Jews in Poland generally eschewed and held in low esteem. Some Jewish historians maintain that this was because of restrictions imposed on this occupation. However, Jews were offered a farming colony in Bolechów near Stanisławów in the late 1700’s, which they refused owing to their lack of interest in farming. (Instead, the colony was given to German colonists.)92 The pro-German sentiments mentioned by Weliczker Wells should not be underestimated.93 Nor should the bonds of religious and ethnic loyalty and solidarity among Jews. Wolf Mendelsohn (Willy Melson), the son of an industrialist from Stanisławów, shares Weliczker Wells’s views:

But I wouldn’t say the Jews were completely innocent. They didn’t behave like guests, they behaved like a separate nation, with another language, another dress, another culture—completely different. And, really, they looked down on the Poles. If they admired anybody, it was the Germans. And the Poles understood this.94

Professor Yacov Talmon, who hails from the Russian partition of Poland, acknowledged:

… many important factors infused in the Jews a spirit of contempt and hatred towards the Poles. In contrast to the organizational activity and capacity of the Germans, the Jews saw the Poles as failures. The rivals most difficult to Jews, in the economic and professional fields were the Poles, and we must not underrate the closeness of Yiddish to the German language as well. I still remember that during my childhood the name “goy” sounded to me as referring to Catholic Poles and not to Germans; though I did realize that the latter were obviously not Jews, I felt that the Germans in the vicinity were not simply Gentiles.

It would be shocking to think of it to-day, but the pre-Hitlerite relations between Jews and Germans in our vicinity were friendly. … In the twenties, Jews and Germans stood together on election lists. Out of those Germans rose such who, during the German invasion, helped in the acts of repression and extermination as experts, who had the experience and knew the secrets.

It is not surprising, then, that in the mixed loyalties of the time Jewish unity grew stronger and deeper, and consciousness in this direction burned like a flame. … the actual motherland was not a temporal one, but a heavenly one, a vision and a dream—to the religious it was the coming of the Messiah, to the Zionists it was a Jewish country, to the Communists and their friends it was a world revolution. And the real constitution according to which they lived was the Shulhan Aruch, code of laws, and the established set of virtues, or the theories of Marx, and the rules of Zionism and the building up of a Jewish country.95

Awe for German culture persisted among many Jews, and not just the older generations, in the early period of the German occupation. Adam Adams, who was a schoolboy in Lublin in 1939, recalled:

A German officer was allocated to our house. He was dressed like a god in a beautiful uniform; he was a highly educated man from Vienna. I remember him playing our piano, always beautifully dressed in a fantastic uniform, and I would look at him and admire him.96

Ironically, German Jews generally felt contempt for Ostjuden.97 Jews who fled to Poland from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution mirrored the arrival of the “Litvaks” in the 19th century. Paradoxically, like their predecessors, they were overtly pro-Russian culturally and manifested a negative attitude toward Polish statehood.98 Thus inter-ethnic antagonism and conflict had firm roots in tradition and reality, and were not just a display of Polish chauvinism and xenophobia.

Theodore S. Hamerow, who grew up in Warsaw and Otwock, states that

Many Jews regarded the Poles with the same resentment which many Poles displayed toward the Jews. This resentment was partly rooted in religious exclusiveness or intolerance. Pious believers in each community regarded members of the other as infidels, as enemies of the true faith who deserved scorn and reprobation. The refusal of those stubborn believers to recognize divine truth had led to their spiritual decline and moral corruption. Devout Poles often regarded the Jews as devious, cunning, and unprincipled, while devout Jews reciprocated by characterizing the Poles as ignorant, coarse, and dissolute. Hateful stereotypes on each side poisoned relations between them. Forced to live side by side, often dependent on each other economically, they managed as a rule to maintain at least minimal civility in dealing with one another. But inwardly they often shared a profound mutual hostility.

Their antagonism was reflected in language even more clearly than in behavior. The Polish word “zyd” [żyd], meaning a Jew, did not simply define a religious identity or affiliation. It also carried connotations of cringing sycophancy and sly dishonesty. Ethnic prejudice could be found just as easily in Yiddish, the everyday language of the Jewish masses. The word “goy,” for example, meant more than a gentile. It carried overtones of ignorance, dissipation, and mindless pugnacity. To describe a Pole who did not conform to this stereotype, some modifying adjective would generally be added. That is, so-and-so was a “decent goy” or an “educated goy” or a “tolerant goy” or sometimes simply a “Christian,” a term which had no serious pejorative overtones.

Similarly, “shikse” had implications extending beyond its literal meaning of a young woman who was not Jewish. It carried a suggestion of immodesty or coarseness, even promiscuity. Thus the term was often applied to Jewish girls who failed to display sufficient diffidence or reserve, who seemed too bold or assertive or mischievous. By the same token, “shegetz” meant more than simply a boy who happened to be gentile. It also had connotations of rudeness, belligerence, and dissipation, so that a young Jew who was insufficiently pious or modest could be described as a “shegetz” as well. Polish-Jewish hostility was thus as common in daily speech as in popular conduct. [In fact, the Hebrew word shegetz or sheketz which was commonly used to refer to a Christian boy means “abomination.”—M.P.]

It could even be found in popular humor, in the jokes and stories which circulated among the Jewish as well as the Polish masses. Those directed against the Jews generally made fun of their greed, servility, and cunning. Those making fun of the Poles focused on their obtuseness or dissoluteness or combativeness. Sometimes the humor was relatively harmless, but more often it revealed a deep underlying antipathy. I remember some of the pupils in my school singing a bitter parody of the opening lines of the Polish national anthem: instead of “Poland is not yet lost,/As long as we live,” a derisive “Poland is not yet lost,/But it soon will be.” …

And besides, isolation and ghettoization were more than symptoms of oppression; they were also a source of faith, a reinforcement of religious identity. Jews and Poles were so different, so far apart, that the only contacts between them should remain impersonal, confined to economic transactions and governmental affairs. Segregation was not only unavoidable but desirable.99

The author goes on to add, “This was the view of only a minority, however, a large and influential minority, but a minority nevertheless.” In fact, the reality was that this was the cultural norm, though in everyday life these attitudes were not displayed openly and were often tempered.

Ben-Zion Gold, a yeshiva student from Radom, writes:

Relations between Poles and religious Jews were burdened by prejudices on both sides. Just as our self-image was shaped by our religious tradition, so was our view of Poles. We were the descendants of Jacob, who, according to tradition, studied Torah and lived by its commandments. Poles, on the other hand, were the descendants of Esau, with all of the vile characteristics that our tradition ascribed to him: a depraved being, a murderer, a rapist, and an inveterate enemy of Jacob. This image of Esau, which developed two thousand years ago in reaction to the oppressive domination of the Romans, was transferred onto Christians …

Traditional Jews responded with contempt for both the people and their religion. We viewed Catholicism as idolatry. Poles were stereotyped as lechers and drunkards, given to brawling and wife-beating. I remember a popular Yiddish folk song about Jacob, the Jews, who rises in the morning and goes to the Beit HaMidrash to study and pray, and Esau, a Pole, who goes to the tavern. The refrain exclaims: “Oy! Shiker is a goy, a goy is drunk! And he must drink because he is a goy.” …

Religious Jews looked on assimilationists with a mixture of pity and contempt. We felt that they lost their self-respect as Jews and were still treated by Poles with contempt. We used to say, “Pol Zydem I pol Polakiem jest calym lajdakiem” [Pół Żydem i pół Polakiem jest całym łajdakiem] (“Half a Jew and half a Pole is a whole scoundrel”).100

The portrayal of Poles, which applied not only to peasants but also extended to the entire Polish society, sometimes took on very extreme forms. Coupled with the stereotype of the mythical Endek (a member or supporter of the National Democratic party), a mindset steeped in the abhorrence of Esau (Jews commonly referred to Christendom as the realm of “Esau”) concocted the following allegorical account of Polish atavism—passed off as fact. An anonymous Jewish boy, a hunchback, is lured to a gathering of Poles by his neighbour, a Polish officer—”a confirmed anti-Semite, and one of the leaders of the Endeks”—and subjected to string relentless humiliations and physical abuse culminating in a mock crucifixion of this hapless victim. The account, however, reveals more about the would-be victim than his cruel—but fictitious—tormentors.

One day the officer approached me and invited me to a musical evening he was holding at home. He said he had invited several couples, friends of his who were music lovers and who wanted to meet me, having heard that I had a good understanding of music and also knew a lot about literature. … This was the first time I was to be in enlightened Christian society and I was afraid I might fail. …

Now I started to take in the whole parlor … Suddenly the doors of all four rooms opened, and dozens of couples burst out gleefully. Very quickly, with refined, elegant movements, they came to the tables and took their places, without honoring me with even the slightest glance. … I felt lost and miserable. I got up, wanting only to leave this place.

At that moment a young man who held a soda siphon in his hand approached me and suggested I have a drink. I refused politely. In response, he started spraying me with soda from the siphon, first on my face and then on my clothes. A roar of laughter, wicked and malicious laughter, burst out all around. And the entire company, some forty in all, men and women, charged upon me and surrounded me in a narrow circle, screaming savagely, “Dance a bit,

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