The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium, but with a history burdened with atrocities towards the Jews. Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in Europe and served as the center for Jewish culture, ranging from a long period of religious tolerance and prosperity among the country’s Jewish population, to its nearly complete genocidal destruction by Nazi Germany in the 20th century during the German occupation of Poland and the Holocaust.
The first Jews arrived in the territory of modern Poland in the 10th century. Travelling along the trade routes leading eastwards to Kiev and Bukhara, the Jewish merchants (known as Radhanites) also crossed the areas of Silesia. One of them, a diplomat and merchant from the Moorish town of Tortosa in Spanish Al-Andalus, known under his Arabic name of Ibrahim ibn Jakub, was the first chronicler to mention the Polish state under the rule of prince Mieszko I. The first actual mention of Jews in Polish chronicles occurs in the eleventh century. It appears that Jews were then living in Gniezno, at that time the capital of the Polish kingdom of the Piast dynasty. The first permanent Jewish community is mentioned in 1085 by a Jewish scholar Jehuda ha-Kohen in the city of Przemyśl.
The first Jewish emigration from Western Europe to Poland occurred at the time of the First Crusade in 1098. Under Boleslaus III (1102–1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant regime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border in Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev. At the same time Poland saw immigration of Khazars, a Turkic tribe that had converted to Judaism. Boleslaus III for his part recognized the utility of the Jews in the development of the commercial interests of his country. The Jews came to form the backbone of the Polish economy and the coins minted by Mieszko III even bear Hebraic markings. Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided; they formed the middle class in a country where the general population consisted of landlords (developing into szlachta, the unique Polish nobility) and peasants, and they were instrumental in promoting the commercial interests of the land.
From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland (1025–1569) through the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for Jewish paradise) it became unique shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and a home to one of the world’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. By the mid-16th century 80% of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. With the weakening of the Commonwealth and growing religious strife due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation; Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century onward. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, primarily the increasingly anti-Semitic Russian Empire, but also Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia (later known as the German Empire). Still, as Poland regained independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was the center of the European Jewish world with one of world’s largest Jewish communities of over 3 million. Anti-Semitism, however, both political establishment and from the general population, common throughout contemporary Europe, was a growing problem.
The tolerant situation was gradually altered by the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and by the neighboring German states on the other. There were, however, among the reigning princes some determined protectors of the Jewish inhabitants, who considered the presence of the latter most desirable insofar as the economic development of the country was concerned. Prominent among such rulers was Boleslaus the Pious of Kalisz, Prince of Great Poland. With the consent of the class representatives and higher officials, in 1264 he issued a General Charter of Jewish Liberties, the Statute of Kalisz, which granted all Jews the freedom of worship, trade and travel. During the next hundred years, the Church pushed for the persecution of the Jews while the rulers of Poland usually protected them.
In 1334, King Casimir III the Great (1303–1370) amplified and expanded Bolesław’s old charter with the Wiślicki Statute. Casimir, who according to a legend had a Jewish lover named Esterka from Opoczno was especially friendly to the Jews, and his reign is regarded as an era of great prosperity for Polish Jewry, and was nicknamed by his contemporaries “King of the serfs and Jews.” Under penalty of death, he prohibited the kidnapping of Jewish children for the purpose of enforced Christian baptism. He inflicted heavy punishment for the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Nevertheless, while for the greater part of Casimir’s reign the Jews of Poland enjoyed tranquility, toward its close they were subjected to persecution on account of the Black Death. In 1347, the first blood libel accusation against Jews in Poland was recorded, and in 1367 the first pogrom took place in Poznań. Later the pogroms occurred at Kalisz, Kraków, and other cities along the German frontier, and it is estimated that 10,000 Jews were killed. Compared with the pitiless destruction of their coreligionists in Western Europe, however, the Polish Jews did not fare badly; and the Jewish masses of Germany fled to the more hospitable lands of Poland.
The early Jagiellon era: 1385–1505: As a result of the marriage of Wladislaus II to Jadwiga, daughter of Louis I of Hungary, Lithuania was united with the kingdom of Poland. Although, in 1388, rights were extended to Lithuanian Jews as well, it was under the rule of Wladislaus II and those of his successors that the first extensive persecutions of the Jews in Poland commenced, and the king did not act to stop these events. There were accusations of blood libel and riots against the Jews, and persecution gradually increased, especially as the clergy pushed for less tolerance. Hysteria caused by Black Death led to additional fourteenth-century outbreaks of violence against the Jews. Traders and artisans fearing Jewish rivalry supported the harassment.
The decline in the status of the Jews was briefly checked by Casimir IV the Jagiellonian (1447–1492), but soon the gentry forced him to issue the Statute of Nieszawa. Among other things it abolished the ancient privileges of the Jews “as contrary to divine right and the law of the land.” Nevertheless, the king continued to offer his protection to the Jews. Two years later Casimir issued another document announcing that he could not deprive the Jews of his benevolence on the basis of “the principle of tolerance which in conformity with God’s laws obliged him to protect them”. The policy of the government toward the Jews of Poland oscillated under Casimir’s sons and successors, John I Olbracht (1492–1501) and Alexander the Jagiellonian (1501–1506). The latter expelled the Jews from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495 when he was the Grand Duke of Lithuania but reversed the law in 1503 shortly after becoming King of Poland. A year later he issued a proclamation in which he stated that a policy of tolerance befitted “kings and rulers”.
Jewish world: 1505–1572 - Alexander reversed his position just as the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, as well as from Austria, Bohemia and Germany, thus stimulating Jewish immigration to the much more tolerant Poland. Indeed, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Poland became the recognized haven for exiles from western Europe; and the resulting accession to the ranks of Polish Jewry made it the cultural and spiritual center of the Jewish people.
In the first half of the sixteenth century the seeds of Talmudic learning had been transplanted to Poland from Bohemia, particularly from the school of Jacob Pollak, the creator of Pilpul (“sharp reasoning”). Shalom Shachna (ca. 1500–1558), a pupil of Pollak, is counted among the pioneers of Talmudic learning in Poland. He lived and died in Lublin, where he was the head of the yeshivah which produced the rabbinical celebrities of the following century. Shachna’s son Israel became rabbi of Lublin on the death of his father, and Shachna’s pupil Moses Isserles (known as the ReMA) (1520–1572) achieved an international reputation among the Jews as the co-author of the Shulkhan Arukh, (the “Code of Jewish Law”). His contemporary and correspondent Solomon Luria (1510–1573) of Lublin also enjoyed a wide reputation among his co-religionists; and the authority of both was recognized by the Jews throughout Europe. Heated religious disputations were common, and Jewish scholars participated in them. At the same time, the Kabbalah had become entrenched under the protection of Rabbinism; and such scholars as Mordecai Jaffe and Yoel Sirkis devoted themselves to its study. This period of great Rabbinical scholarship was interrupted by the Chmielnicki Uprising and The Deluge.
The most prosperous period for Polish Jews began following this new influx of Jews with the reign of Zygmunt I (1506–1548), who protected the Jews in his realm. His son, Zygmunt II August (1548–1572), mainly followed in the tolerant policy of his father and also granted autonomy to the Jews in the matter of communal administration and laid the foundation for the power of the Kahal, or autonomous Jewish community. This period led to the creation of a proverb about Poland being a “heaven for the Jews”. By the mid-16th century, eighty percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Jewish religious life thrived in many Polish communities. In 1503, the Polish monarchy appointed Rabbi Jacob Polak, the official Rabbi of Poland, marking the emergence of the Chief Rabbinate. By 1551, Jews were given permission to choose their own Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbinate held power over law and finance, appointing judges and other officials. Some power was shared with local councils. The Polish government permitted the Rabbinate to grow in power, to use it for tax collection purposes. Only thirty percent of the money raised by the Rabbinate served Jewish causes, the rest went to the Crown for protection. In this period Poland-Lithuania became the main center for Ashkenazi Jewry and its yeshivot achieved fame from the early 1500s.
Yeshivot were established, under the direction of the rabbis, in the more prominent communities. Such schools were officially known as gymnasiums, and their rabbi principals as rectors. Important yeshivot existed in Kraków, Poznań, and other cities. Jewish printing establishments came into existence in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. In 1530 a Hebrew Pentateuch (Torah) was printed in Kraków; and at the end of the century the Jewish printing houses of that city and Lublin issued a large number of Jewish books, mainly of a religious character. The growth of Talmudic scholarship in Poland was coincident with the greater prosperity of the Polish Jews; and because of their communal autonomy educational development was wholly one-sided and along Talmudic lines. Exceptions are recorded, however, where Jewish youth sought secular instruction in the European universities. The learned rabbis became not merely expounders of the Law, but also spiritual advisers, teachers, judges, and legislators; and their authority compelled the communal leaders to make themselves familiar with the abstruse questions of Jewish law. Polish Jewry found its views of life shaped by the spirit of Talmudic and rabbinical literature, whose influence was felt in the home, in school, and in the synagogue.
One the great talmudic scholars of the 1500s was Moses ben Israel Isserles (1525-1572). He founded a religious academy in Cracow. Beyond Talmudic study, he was also familiar with many of the Greek philosophers and was one of the forerunners of the Jewish enlightenment. Additionally, some Polish words may reveal that the exiled Jews coming from Spain brought with them onions (and possibly more then-exotic plants or foods), as onions are called “Cebula” in Polish (“Cebolla” in Spanish).
The Warsaw Confederation 1573: Following the childless death of Zygmunt II, the last king of the Jagiellon dynasty, Polish and Lithuanian nobles (szlachta) gathered at Warsaw in 1573 and signed a document of limited toleration in which representatives of all the major religions pledged each other mutual support and tolerance. The edict did not include the Polish Brethren, an anti-Trinitarian that would later become known as Socinians, who formed roots for the modern Unitarian church in the US.
Charles X of Sweden, (1648–1658) at the head of his victorious army, overran Poland; and soon the whole country, including the cities of Kraków and Warsaw, was in his hands. The Jews of Great and Little Poland found themselves torn between two sides: those of them who were spared by the Swedes were attacked by the Poles, who accused them of aiding the enemy. The Polish general Stefan Czarniecki, in his flight from the Swedes, devastated the whole country through which he passed and treated the Jews without mercy. The Polish partisan detachments treated the non-Polish inhabitants with equal severity. Moreover, the horrors of the war were aggravated by pestilence, and the Jews and townsfolk of the districts of Kalisz, Kraków, Poznań, Piotrków, and Lublin perished en masse by the sword of the besieging armies and the plague.
The rise of Hasidism: The decade from the Cossacks’ uprising until after the Swedish war (1648–1658) left a deep and lasting impression not only on the social life of the Polish-Lithuanian Jews, but on their spiritual life as well. The intellectual output of the Jews of Poland was reduced. The Talmudic learning which up to that period had been the common possession of the majority of the people became accessible to a limited number of students only. What religious study there was became overly formalized, some rabbis busied themselves with quibbles concerning religious laws; others wrote commentaries on different parts of the Talmud in which hair-splitting arguments were raised and discussed; and at times these arguments dealt with matters which were of no practical importance. At the same time, many miracle workers made their appearance among the Jews of Poland, culminating in a series of false “Messianic” movements, most famously as Sabbatianism was succeeded by Frankism.
The Cossack uprising and the Deluge: In 1648 the Commonwealth was devastated by several conflicts, in which the Commonwealth lost over a third of its populations (over three million people), and Jewish losses were counted in hundreds of thousands. First, the Chmielnicki Uprising when Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles in the eastern and southern areas he controlled (today’s Ukraine). It is recorded that Chmielnicki told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews”. The precise number of dead may never be known, but the decrease of the Jewish population during that period is estimated at 100,000 to 200,000, which also includes emigration, deaths from diseases and jasyr (captivity in the Ottoman Empire). The Jewish community suffered greatly during the 1648 Cossack uprising which had been directed primarily against the Polish nobility. The Jews, perceived as allies of the nobles, were also victims of the revolt, during which about twenty per cent of them were killed. Then the incompetent politics of the elected kings of the House of Vasa brought the weakened state to its knees, as it was invaded by the Swedish Empire in what became known as The Deluge. The kingdom of Poland proper, which had hitherto suffered but little either from the Chmielnicki Uprising or from the recurring invasion of the Russians, Crimean Tatars and Ottomans, now became the scene of terrible disturbances (1655–1658).
As soon as the disturbances had ceased, the Jews began to return and to rebuild their destroyed homes; and while it is true that the Jewish population of Poland had decreased and become impoverished, it still was more numerous than that of the Jewish colonies in Western Europe; and Poland remained as the spiritual center of Judaism, and through 1698, the Polish kings generally remained supportive of the Jews, despite a hostile clergy and nobility. It also should be noted that while Jewish losses in those events were high, estimated by some historians to be close to 500,000, the Commonwealth lost one third of its population — approximately three million of its citizens.
In this time of mysticism and overly formal rabbinism came the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, or BeShT, (1698–1760), which had a profound effect on the Jews of Eastern Europe and Poland in particular. His disciples taught and encouraged the new fervent brand of Judaism based on Kabbalah known as Hasidism. The rise of Hasidic Judaism within Poland’s borders and beyond had a great influence on the rise of Haredi Judaism all over the world, with a continuous influence through its many Hasidic dynasties including those of Chabad-Lubavitch, Aleksander, Bobov, Ger, Nadvorna, among others. More recent rebbes of Polish origin include Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (1880–1950), the sixth head of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, who lived in Warsaw until 1940 when he moved Lubavitch from Warsaw to the United States.
Decline under the Saxon dynasty: With the accession to the throne of the Saxon dynasty the Jews completely lost the support of the government. The szlachta and the townsfolk were increasingly hostile to the Jews, as the religious tolerance that dominated the mentality of the previous generations of Commonwealth citizens was slowly forgotten. In their intolerance, the citizens of the Commonwealth now approached the “standards” that dominated most of the contemporary European countries, and many Jews felt betrayed by the country they once viewed as their haven. In the larger cities, like Poznań and Kraków, quarrels between the Satins and the Jewish inhabitants were of frequent occurrence. Attacks on the Jews by students, the so-called Schüler-Gelauf, became everyday occurrences in the large cities, the police regarding such scholastic riots with indifference. In the XVI and XVII centuries Jews were expelled from the number of Polish towns, and victimized by pogroms usually organized by local merchants and artisans. By 1764, there were about 750,000 Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The worldwide Jewish population was estimated at 1.2 million.
There were three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and in 1795. Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria; Poland-Lithuania no longer existed. The majority of Poland’s one-million Jews became part of the Russian empire. Poland became a mere client state of the Russian empire. In 1772, Catherine II, empress of Russia, discriminated against the Jews by forcing them to stay in their shtetls and barring their return to the towns they occupied before the partition. Disorder and anarchy reigned supreme in Poland during the second half of the eighteenth century, from the accession to the throne of its last king, Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski (1764–1795). In 1772, in the aftermath of the Confederation of Bar, the outlying provinces of Poland were divided among the three neighboring nations, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Jews were most numerous in the territories that fell to the lot of Austria and Russia.
The permanent council established at the instance of the Russian government (1773–1788) served as the highest administrative tribunal, and occupied itself with the elaboration of a plan that would make practicable the reorganization of Poland on a more rational basis. The progressive elements in Polish society recognized the urgency of popular education as the very first step toward reform. The famous Komisja Edukacji Narodowej (“Commission of National Education”), the first ministry of education in the world, was established in 1773 and founded numerous new schools and remodeled the old ones. One of the members of the commission, kanclerz Andrzej Zamoyski, along with others, demanded that the inviolability of their persons and property should be guaranteed and that religious toleration should be to a certain extent granted them; but he insisted that Jews living in the cities should be separated from the Christians, that those of them having no definite occupation should be banished from the kingdom, and that even those engaged in agriculture should not be allowed to possess land. On the other hand, some szlachta and intellectuals proposed a national system of government, of the civil and political equality of the Jews. This was the only example in modern Europe before the French Revolution of tolerance and broadmindedness in dealing with the Jewish question. But all these reforms were too late: a Russian army soon invaded Poland, and soon after a Prussian one followed.
A second partition of Poland was made on July 17, 1793. Jews, in a Jewish regiment led by Berek Joselewicz, took part in the Kościuszko Uprising the following year, when the Poles tried to again achieve independence, but were brutally put down. Following the revolt, the third and final partition of Poland took place in 1795. The great bulk of the Jewish population was transferred to Russia, and thus became subjects of that empire, although in the first half of the nineteenth century some semblance of a vastly smaller Polish state was preserved, especially in the form of the Congress Poland (1815–1831).
Jews of Poland within the Russian Empire (1795–1918): Official Russian policy would eventually prove to be substantially harsher to the Jews than that under independent Polish rule. The lands that had once been Poland were to remain the home of many Jews, as, in 1772, Catherine II, the tzarina of Russia, instituted the Pale of Settlement, restricting Jews to the western parts of the empire, which would eventually include much of Poland, although it excluded some areas in which Jews had previously lived. By the late 19th Century, over four million Jews would live in the Pale.
Haskalah and Halakha: The Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah, began to take hold in Poland during the 1800s, stressing secular ideas and values. Champions of Haskalah, the Maskilim, pushed for assimilation and integration into Russian culture. At the same time, there was another school of Jewish thought that emphasized traditional study and a Jewish response to the ethical problems of anti-Semitism and persecution, one form of which was the Mussar movement. Polish Jews generally were less influenced by Haskalah, rather focusing on a strong continuation of their religious lives based on Halakha (“rabbis’s law”) following primarily Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, and also adapting to the new Religious Zionism of the Mizrachi movement later in the 1800s.
By the late 1800s, Haskalah and the debates it caused created a growing number of political movements within the Jewish community itself, covering a wide range of views and vying for votes in local and regional elections. Zionism became very popular with the advent of the Poale Zion socialist party as well as the religious Polish Mizrahi, and the increasingly popular General Zionists. Jews also took up socialism, forming the Bund labor union which supported assimilation and the rights of labor. The Folkspartei (People’s Party) advocated for its part cultural autonomy and resistance to assimilation. In 1912, Agudat Israel, a religious party, came into existence.
Jews were represented in the November Insurrection (1830 – 1831), the January Insurrection (1863), as well as in the revolutionary movement of 1905. Many Polish Jews were constrcipted in the Legions, which fought for the Polish independence finally achieved in 1918. The culture and intellectual output of the Jewish community in Poland had a profound impact on Judaism as a whole. Some Jewish historians have recounted that the word Poland is pronounced as Polania or Polin in Hebrew, and as transliterated into Hebrew, these names for Poland were interpreted as “good omens” because Polania can be broken down into three Hebrew words: po (“here”), lan (“dwells”), ya (“God”), and Polin into two words of: po (“here”) lin (“[you should] dwell”). The “message” was that Poland was meant to be a good place for the Jews. During the time from the rule of Sigismund until the Nazi Holocaust, Poland would be at the center of Jewish religious life.
Initially, Russian policy towards the Jews of Poland was confused, alternating between harsh rules and somewhat more enlightened policies. In 1802, the Tsar established the Committee on the Improvement of the Jews in an attempt to develop a coherent approach to the Empire’s new Jewish population. The Committee in 1804 suggested a number of steps that were designed to encourage Jews to assimilate, though it did not force them to do so. It proposed that Jews be allowed to attend school and even to own land, but it restricted them from entering Russia, banned them from the brewing industry, and included a number of other prohibitions. The more enlightened parts of this policy were never fully implemented, and the conditions of the Jews in the Pale gradually worsened. In the 1820s, the Cantonist Laws passed by Tsar Nicolas kept the traditional double taxation on Jews in lieu of army service, while actually requiring all Jewish communities to produce boys to serve in the military, where they were often forced to convert. Though the Jews were accorded slightly more rights with the emancipation reform of 1861, they were still restricted to the Pale of Settlement and subject to restrictions on ownership and profession. The status quo was however shattered with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, an act falsely blamed upon the Jews.
Pogroms within the Russian Empire: The assassination prompted a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots, called pogroms, throughout 1881–1884. In the 1881 outbreak, pogroms were primarily limited to Russia, although in a riot in Warsaw two Jews were killed, 24 others were wounded, women were raped and over two million rubles worth of property was destroyed. The new czar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the riots and issued a series of harsh restrictions on Jewish movements. Pogroms continued until 1884, with at least tacit government approval. They proved a turning point in the history of the Jews in partitioned Poland and throughout the world. The pogroms prompted a great flood of Jewish immigration to the United States, with almost two million Jews leaving the Pale by the late 1920s, they also set the stage for Zionism.
An even bloodier wave of pogroms broke out from 1903 to 1906, and at least some of the pogroms are believed to have been organized or supported by the Tsarist Russian secret police, the Okhrana. Some of the worst of these occurred on Russian occupied Polish territory, where the majority of Jews lived, and included the Białystok pogrom of 1906, in which up to a 100 Jews were murdered and many more wounded.
Since Jews were discriminated against by the Russians, many Jews decided to become involved in the Polish anti-Russian insurrections, including Kościuszko Insurrection, January Insurrection (1863) and Revolutionary Movement of 1905. In 1897, 14% of Polish citizens were Jewish. Jews were represented in government, municipal councils and in Jewish religious communities. Jews developed many political parties and associations, ranging in ideologies from Zionist to socialist to anti-Zionist. The Bund, a socialist party, spread throughout Poland in the early 20th century. Many Jewish workers in Warsaw and Lodz joined the Bund.
In 1914, the German Zionist Max Bodenheimer founded the short-lived German Committee for Freeing of Russian Jews, with the goal of establishing a buffer state (Pufferstaat) within the Jewish Pale of Settlement, composed of the former Polish provinces annexed by Russia, being de facto protectorate of the German Empire that would free Jews in the region from Russian oppression. The plan, known as Judeopolonia, soon proved unpopular with both German officials and Bodenheimer’s colleagues, and was dead by the following year.
Zionism also became popular among Polish Jews, who formed the Poale Zion. The Folkists (People’s Party) supported assimilation and trade unions. The Polish Mizrahi, a Zionist orthodox political party, had a large following. General Zionists became popular in the inter-war period. In the 1919 election of the Sejm, the General Zionists received 50 percent of the votes for Jewish parties.
Interwar period 1918–1939: Independence and Polish Jews: Jews also played a role in the fight for independence in 1918, a significant number joining Józef Piłsudski, while many other non-Polish minorities were ambivalent or neutral to the idea of a Polish state. In the wake of World War I and the ensuing conflicts that engulfed Eastern Europe, the Russian Civil War, Polish-Ukrainian War, and Polish-Soviet War, many pogroms were launched against the Jews by all sides. As a substantial number of Jews were perceived to have supported the Bolsheviks in Russia, they came under frequent attack by those opposed to the Bolshevik regime. Anti-Jewish atrocities committed by the Polish army and its allies during the 1920 invasion into Ukraine and Belarus had a profound impact on the perception of Polish state among the local Jews.
Just after the end of World War I, the West became alarmed by reports about alleged massive pogroms in Poland against Jews. Pressure for government action reached the point where U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent an official commission to investigate the matter. The commission, led by Henry Morgenthau, Sr., concluded in its report that the reports of pogroms, albeit under-estimated, noted that the violence against Jews had been produced by a “widespread anti-semitic prejudice against Jews” in Poland. The Morgenthau Report identified eight major incidents in the years 1918–1919, and estimated the number of victims at 280. Four of these were attributed to the actions of deserters and undisciplined individual soldiers; none were blamed on official government policy. Among the incidents, in Pińsk a commander of a local Polish military garrison accused a group of Jewish civilians of plotting against the Poles (a claim the Morgenthau report found “devoid of foundation”) and ordered the execution of thirty-five Jewish men, women and children (Pinsk massacre). In Lviv (then Lemberg) in 1918, after the Polish Army captured the city, the report concluded that 64 Jews had been killed (other accounts put the number at seventy-two Jews who were killed by officers and soldiers of the Blue Army. In Warsaw, soldiers of Blue Army assaulted Jews in the streets, but were punished by military authorities. Serious abuses against the Jews, including pogroms, continued elsewhere, especially in Ukraine. The result of the concern over the fate of Poland’s Jews was a series of explicit clauses in the Versailles Treaty protecting the rights of minorities in Poland. In 1921, Poland’s March Constitution gave the Jews the same legal rights as other citizens and guaranteed them religious tolerance.
Jewish and Polish culture: The newly independent Second Polish Republic had a large and vibrant Jewish minority by the time World War II began, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe but most Polish Jews had a cultural and ethnic identity totally different from that of Polish Catholics. It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of Polish Jews were easily recognizable.
According to the 1931 National Census there were 3,130,581 Polish Jews measured by the declaration of their religion. Estimating the population increase and the emigration from Poland between 1931 and 1939, there were probably 3,474,000 Jews in Poland as of September 1, 1939 (approximately 10% of the total population) primarily centered in large and smaller cities: 77% lived in cities and 23% in the villages. They made up about 50%, and in some cases even 70% of the population of smaller towns, especially in Eastern Poland. Prior to World War II, the Jewish population of Łódź numbered about 233,000, roughly one-third of the city’s population. The city of Lwów (now in Ukraine) had the third largest Jewish population in Poland, numbering 110,000 in 1939 (42%). Wilno (now in Lithuania) had a Jewish community of nearly 100,000, about 45% of the city’s total. In 1938, Krakow’s Jewish population numbered over 60,000, or about 25% of the city’s total population. In 1939 there were 375,000 Jews in Warsaw or one third of the city’s population. Only New York City had more Jewish residents than Warsaw.
The overwhelming majority of Polish Jews at the time worked in commerce and industry and in some areas constituted a majority of shopkeepers or merchants, some being among the wealthiest citizens. Tailoring and shoemaking were typical Jewish occupations, but Jews also comprised 56% of all doctors, 43% of teachers, 33% of lawyers and 22% of journalists.
Jewish youth and religious groups, diverse political parties and Zionist organizations, newspapers and theatre flourished. In addition to small businesses, Jews owned real estate and export and manufacturing enterprises. Religious practices ranged from Hasidism to modern “Progressive” Judaism. Most Warsaw Jews spoke Yiddish, but Polish was increasingly used by the young who did not have a problem in identifying themselves fully as Jews, Warsavians and Poles. Polish Jews, such as Bruno Schulz, were entering the mainstream of Polish society, though many thought of themselves as a separate nationality within Poland. More than half the Jewish children attended special Jewish schools. Enrollment in religious school, in turn, discouraged mastery of the Polish language. Thus, in answer to a 1931 census inquiry, the overwhelming majority of Jews mentioned Yiddish as their native tongue (79 per cent) and only 12 percent gave Polish as their first language. The rest chose Hebrew. (In contrast, the overwhelming majority of German-born Jews of this period spoke German as their first language.) During the school year of 1937–1938 there were 226 elementary schools and twelve high schools as well as fourteen vocational schools with either Yiddish or Hebrew as the instructional language. The YIVO (Jidiszer Wissenszaftlecher Institute) Scientific Institute was based in Wilno before transferring to New York during the war. Jewish political parties, both the Socialist General Jewish Labor Union (The Bund), as well as parties of the Zionist right and left wing and religious conservative movements, were represented in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) as well as in the regional councils.
The Jewish cultural scene was particularly vibrant and blossomed in pre-World War II Poland. There were many Jewish publications and over 116 periodicals. Yiddish authors, most notably Isaac Bashevis Singer, went on to achieve international acclaim as classic Jewish writers, and in Singer’s case, win the 1978 Nobel Prize. Other Jewish authors of the period, like Janusz Korczak, Bruno Schulz, Julian Tuwim, Jan Brzechwa (a favorite poet of Polish children) and Bolesław Leśmian were less well-known internationally, but made important contributions to Polish literature. Singer Jan Kiepura, born of a Jewish mother and Polish father, was one of the most popular artist of that era and pre-war songs of Jewish composers like Henryk Wars or Jerzy Petersburski are still widely known in Poland today.
Scientist Leopold Infeld, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam or professor Adam Ulam contributed to the world of science. Others are Moses Schorr, Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, Georges Charpak, Samuel Eilenberg, Emanuel Ringelblum, Arthur Rubinstein just to name a few from the long list of Polish Jews who are known internationally. The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish-Jewish legal scholar. Leonid Hurwicz was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics. The Main Judaic Library and the Institute of Judaic Studies were located in Warsaw, religious centers had at their disposal Talmudic Schools (Jeszybots), as well as synagogues, many of which were architecturally outstanding. Yiddish theatre also flourished; Poland had fifteen Yiddish theatres and theatrical groups. Warsaw was home to the most important Yiddish theater troupe of the time, the Vilna Troupe, which staged the first performance of The Dybbuk in 1920 at the Elyseum Theatre.
Some future Israeli leaders studied at University of Warsaw: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir. There also were several Jewish sports clubs, with some of them, such as Hasmonea Lwow and Jutrzenka Kraków, winning promotion to the Polish First Football League. A Polish-Jewish footballer, Józef Klotz, scored the first ever goal for the Poland national football team. Another athlete, Alojzy Ehrlich, won several medals in the table-tennis tournaments.
Anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland was part of a larger European hostility towards Jews and all attitudes and behaviors associated with anti-Semitism in Poland could be found elsewhere in Europe. Polish attitudes regarding Jews and Jewish regarding Poles have been shaped by a complex and long history. Anti-Semitism in Poland had reached high proportions in the immediate years before the Second World War, although Jews enjoyed unprecedented liberties during the Middle Ages, at a time when their brethren suffered persecution in the rest of Europe.
Aggressive publications in the press, anti-Jewish squads, and excesses at universities contributed to the growing popularity of Zionist and socialist ideas in the Jewish community. Jews were often not identified as true Poles; a problem caused by both Polish nationalism, supported by the Endecja political party, and the fact that a substantial proportion of Jews lived separate lives from the Polish majority: 85% of Polish Jews listed Yiddish or Hebrew as their native language, for example. The matters improved for a time under the rule of Józef Piłsudski (1926–1935), who opposed anti-Semitism. Piłsudski countered Endecja’s ‘ethnic assimilation’ with the ‘state assimilation’ policy: citizens were judged by their loyalty to the state, not by their nationality. The years 1926–1935 were favourably viewed by many Polish Jews, whose situation improved especially under the cabinet of Pilsudski’s appointee Kazimierz Bartel. However a combination of various reasons, including the Great Depression, meant that the situation of Jewish Poles was never too satisfactory, and it deteriorated again after Piłsudski’s death in May 1935, which many Jews regarded as a tragedy.
With Endecja party influence growing antisemitism gathered new momentum in Poland and was most felt in smaller towns and spheres in which Jews came into direct contact with Poles, such as in Polish schools or on the sports field. Further academic harassment, such as the introduction of ghetto benches, which forced Jewish students to sit in section of the lecture halls reserved exclusively for them, anti-Jewish riots, and semi-official or unofficial quotas (Numerus clausus) introduced in 1937 in some universities halved the number of Jews in Polish universities between independence and the late 1930s. The restrictions were so inclusive that while in 1928 Jews made up 20.4% of the student population, by 1937 their share was down to only 7.5%.
Although many Jews were educated, they were excluded from most of the relevant occupations, including the government bureaucracy. A good number therefore turned to the liberal professions, particularly medicine and law. In 1937 the Catholic trade unions of Polish doctors and lawyers restricted their new members to Christian Poles (in a similar manner the Jewish trade unions excluded non-Jewish professionals from their ranks after 1918). A series of professional and trade unions, including those for lawyers and physicians, enacted “Aryan clauses” expelling Polish Jews from their ranks. The bulk of Jewish workers were organized in Jewish trade unions under the influence of the Jewish Labor Bund, which recognized the special cultural needs of the Jewish population, as well as special conditions arising from official descrimination against Jews in certain professions. Jews were virtually excluded from Polish government jobs during this period.
This discrimination was accompanied by physical violence: in the years between 1935 and 1937 seventy-nine Jews were killed and 500 injured in anti-Jewish incidents, there were also victims among anti-semites. National policy was such that jobless Jews, who largely worked at home or in small shops due to discrimination in employment, were excluded from welfare benefits.
The Endecja party promoted a national boycott of Jewish merchants. The term “Christian shop” was introduced, and, in the late 1930s, even some carriage drivers bore the inscription “Christian carriages” on their caps. Under the guise of animal rights there was a national movement to forbid the Jewish ritual slaughter or koshering of animals. Violence was also frequently aimed at Jewish stores and many of them were looted. At the same time, persistent economic boycotts and harassment including property-destroying riots, combined with the effects of the Great Depression that had been very severe on agricultural countries like Poland, reduced the standard of living of Poles and Polish Jews alike to the extent that by the end of the 1930s, a substantial portion of Polish Jews lived in grinding poverty. The result was that at the eve of the Second World War, the Jewish community in Poland was large and vibrant internally, yet (with the exception of a few professionals) also substantially poorer and less integrated than the Jews in most of Western Europe.
Poland was a fundamentalist Roman Catholic country and the Poles were passionately devoted to the Catholic religion which taught them that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. On the eve of World War II, many typical Polish Christians believed that there were far too many Jews in the country and the Polish government became increasingly concerned with the “Jewish Question.” The favored solution was mass Jewish emigration. By the time of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, antisemitism in Poland was escalating, and hostility towards Jews was a mainstay of the Catholic Church, right-wing political forces, and the post-Piłsudski regime. Discrimination and violence against Jews had rendered the Polish Jewish population increasingly destitute, as was the case throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe. Despite the impending threat to the Polish Republic from Nazi Germany, there was little effort seen in the way of reconciliation with Poland’s Jewish population. In July 1939 the pro-government Gazeta Polska wrote “The fact that our relations with the Reich are worsening does not in the least deactivate our program in the Jewish question-there is not and cannot be any common ground between our internal Jewish problem and Poland’s relations with the Hitlerite Reich.” Escalating hostility towards Polish Jews and an official Polish government desire of removing Jews from Poland continued right up until the Nazi invasion of Poland.
World War II and the destruction of Polish Jews (1939–45): The number of Jews in Poland on September 1 1939 amounted to about 3,474,000 people. One hundred thirty thousand soldiers of Jewish descent served in Polish Army at the outbreak of the Second World War, thus being among the first to launch armed resistance against the Nazi Germany. It is estimated that during the entirety of World War II as many as 32,216 Jewish soldiers and officers died and 61,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans; the majority did not survive. The soldiers and non-commissioned officers who were released ultimately found themselves in the ghettos and labor camps and suffered the same fate as other Jewish civilians.
At the start of World War II, Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). The war resulted in the death of one-fifth of the Polish population, with 90% or about 3 million of the Polish Jewry killed along with approximately 3 million non-Jewish Poles. Although the genocide occurred largely in German occupied Poland there was little Polish collaboration with the Germans, who made almost no attempt to set up a collaborationist government in Poland, and rejected overtures by Polish fascists and anti-semites. Collaboration by individual Poles with the Nazis has been described as being less than that in other European countries. The attitude of non-Jewish Poles ranged from extreme cases of participation in massacres through extortion, indifference to Jews’ plight to risking one’s life to save Jews.
In the postwar period, many of the approximately 200,000 Polish Jewish survivors chose to emigrate from the communist People’s Republic of Poland to the nascent State of Israel and North or South America. Their departure was hastened by the destruction of most Jewish institutions, post-war pogroms and the hostility of the communist party to both religion and private enterprise. Most of the remaining Jews left Poland in the late 1960s as the result of the Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign. After the fall of the communist regime in Poland in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews became normalized and those who were Polish citizens before World War II were allowed to renew Polish citizenship. Religious institutions were revived, largely through the activities of Jewish foundations from the United States. The contemporary Polish Jewish community is estimated to have approximately 20,000 members, though the actual number of Jews, including those who are not actively connected to Judaism or Jewish culture, may be several times larger.
In 1939 Jews constituted 30 percent of Warsaw’s population. In the face of the common enemy, earlier conflicts receded into the background. In 1939 citizens of Warsaw, Poles and Jews jointly dug trenches, jointly put out fires, and jointly defended the city against the German invaders. For the duration of the war, many Jews were in the Polish Armed Forces in the West, in the Polish People’s Army formed in the Soviet Union, as well as in civilian resistance movements and guerilla detachments. Many lost their lives or were wounded; very many received the highest combat distinctions.
Territories annexed by the USSR: On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany entered into a Nonaggression Pact, so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact with a secret protocol providing the partition of Poland. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939 and the Soviet Union on September 17, 1939. In newly partitioned Poland 61.2% of Polish Jews found themselves under German occupation while 38.8% were in the Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union. Based on population migration from West to East during and after the Invasion of Poland the percentage of Jews in the Soviet-occupied areas was probably higher than that of the 1931 census.
The Soviet annexation was accompanied by the widespread arrests of government officials, police and military personnel, teachers, priests, judges, border guards, etc., followed by executions and massive deportation to Soviet interior and forced labour camps were many perished as a result of harsh conditions. 1.450 million people inhabiting the region were deported by the Soviet regime. The largest group of all those deported (63.1%) were ethnic Poles but Jews accounted for 7.4% of all the prisoners.
Jewish refugees from Western Poland who registered for repatriation back to the German zone (people in the Soviet occupation zone had little knowledge of what was going on in the German occupation zone since the Soviet media did not report on their Nazi ally’s misdeeds), wealthy Jewish capitalists, prewar political and social activists were labelled “class enemies” and deported for that reason. Jews caught for illegal border crossings or engaged in illicit trade and other “illegal” activities were also arrested and deported. Several thousand, mostly captured Polish soldiers were executed on the spot, some of them were Jewish.
Private property, land, banks, factories, businesses, shops, and large workshops were nationalized. Political activity ceased and political prisoners filled the jails, many of whom were later executed. Zionism was designated as counter-revolutionary and forbidden. All Jewish and Polish newspapers were shut down within a day of the entry of the Soviet forces and anti-religious propaganda was conducted mainly through the new Soviet press which attacked religion in general and the Jewish faith in particular. Although the synagogues and churches were not shut down, they were heavily taxed. Sovietization of the economy affected the entire population.
However, the Jewish communities were more vulnerable because of their distinctive social and economic structure. Red Army also brought with them new and different economic norms expressed in low wages, shortages in materials, rising prices, and a declining living standard. The Soviets also implemented a new employment policy that enabled many Jews to find jobs as civil servants while Poles were denied access to them and former Polish senior officials and leading personalities were arrested and exiled to remote regions of Russia together with their families.
While most Poles of all ethnicities had anti-Soviet and anti-communist sentiments, a portion of the Jewish population, along with ethnic Belorussians, Ukrainians and few communist Poles had initially welcomed Soviet forces. The general feeling amongst Polish Jews was a sense of relief in having escaped the dangers of falling under Nazi rule, as well as from the overt policies of discrimination against Jews which had existed in the Polish state, including discrimination in education, employment and commerce, as well as antisemitic violence that in some cases reached pogrom levels. The Polish poet and former communist Aleksander Wat has stated that Jews were more inclined to cooperate with the Soviets. Norman Davies claimed that among the informers and collaborators, the percentage of Jews was striking, and they prepared lists of Polish “class enemies” , while other historians have indicated that the level of Jewish collaboration could well have been less than that of ethnic Poles. Holocaust scholar Martin Dean has written that “few local Jews obtained positions of power under Soviet rule.”
The issue of Jewish collaboration with the Soviet occupation remains controversial. Some scholars note that while not pro-communist, many Jews saw the Soviets as the lesser threat compared to the Nazis. They stress that stories of Jews welcoming the Soviets on the streets, vividly remembered by Poles from eastern part of the country are impressionistic and not reliable indicators of the level of Jewish support for the Soviets. Additionally, it has been noted that ethnic Poles were as prominent as Jews in filling civil and police positions in the occupation administration, and that Jews, both civilians and in the Polish military, suffered equally at the hands of the Soviet occupiers. Whatever initial enthusiasm for the Soviet occupation Jews might have felt was soon dissipated upon feeling the impact of the suppression of Jewish societal modes of life by the occupiers.The tensions between ethnic Poles and Jews as a result of this period has, according to some historians, taken a toll on relations between Poles and Jews throughout the war, creating until this day, an impasse to Polish-Jewish rapprochement.
Even though only a small percentage of the Jewish community had been members of the Communist Party of Poland during the inter-war era, they had occupied an influential and conspicuous place in the party’s leadership and in the rank and file in major centres, such as Warsaw, Lodz and Lwow. A larger number of younger Jews, often through the pro-Marxist Bund (General Jewish Workers’ Union) or some Zionist groups, were sympathetic to Communism and Soviet Russia, both of which had been enemies of the Polish Second Republic. As a result of these factors they found it easy after 1939 to participate in the Soviet occupation administration in Eastern Poland, and briefly occupied prominent positions in industry, schools, local government, police and other Soviet-installed institutions. The concept of “Judeo-communism” was reinforced during the period of the Soviet occupation (Żydokomuna).
There were also Jews who demonstrated loyalty toward Poland, assisting Poles during brutal Soviet occupation. Among Polish officers killed by the NKVD in 1940 in the Katyń massacre there were 500–600 Jews. From 1939 to 1941 between 100,000 and 300,000 Polish Jews were deported from Soviet-occupied Polish territory into the Soviet Union. Some of them, especially Polish Communists (Jakub Berman), moved voluntarily; however, most of them were forcibly deported or imprisoned in Gulag. Small numbers of Polish Jews (about 6,000) were able to leave the Soviet Union in 1942 with the Władysław Anders army, among them the future Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin. During the Polish army’s II Corps’ stay in the British Mandate of Palestine, 67% (2,972) of the Jewish soldiers deserted, many to join the Irgun. General Anders decided not to prosecute the deserters and emphasized that the Jewish soldiers who remained in the Force fought bravely. The Cemetery of Polish soldiers who died during the Battle of Monte Cassino contains also headstones bearing a Star of David.
The Holocaust: German-occupied Poland: The Polish Jewish community suffered the most in the Holocaust. About six million Polish citizens perished during the war, half of them (three million) Polish Jews—all but about 300,000 of the Jewish population—who were killed at the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór, Chełmno or died of starvation in ghettos. Poland became the largest site of the German Nazi extermination program, since this was where most of the intended victims lived. In 1939 several hundred synagogues were blown up or burnt by the Germans who sometimes forced the Jews to do it themselves. In many cases Germans turned the synagogues into factories, places of entertainment, swimming-pools or prisons. By the end of the war, almost all of the synagogues in Poland have been destroyed. Jewish rabbis were ordered to dance and sing in public with their beards cut or torn. Some rabbis were set on fire or hung.
The Germans ordered all Jews to register with them and the word “Jude” was stamped on their identity cards. Numerous restrictions and prohibitions targeting Jews were introduced and brutally enforced. For example, Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, use public transport, enter places of leisure, sports arenas, theaters, museums and libraries. On the street, Jews had to lift their hat to passing Germans. By the end of 1941 all Jews in German occupied Poland, except the children, had to wear an identifying badge with a blue Star of David. The German-controlled Polish language press ran anti-Jewish articles that urged people to adopt an attitude of indifference towards the Jews.
Following Operation Barbarossa, many Jews in what was then Eastern Poland fell victim to Nazi death squads called Einsatzgruppen, which massacred Jews, especially in 1941. Some of these German-inspired massacres were carried out with help from, or active participation of Poles themselves: for example, the massacre in Jedwabne, in which between 300 (Institute of National Remembrance’s Final Findings) and 1,600 Jews (Jan T. Gross) were tortured and beaten to death by members of the local population. The full extent of Polish participation in the massacres of the Polish Jewish community remains a controversial subject, in part due to Jewish leaders’ refusal to allow the remains of the Jewish victims to be exhumed and their cause of death to be properly established. The Polish Institute for National Remembrance identified twenty-two other towns that had pogroms similar to Jedwabne.The reasons for these massacres are still debated, but they included anti-Semitism, resentment over alleged cooperation with the Soviet invaders in the Polish-Soviet War and during the 1939 invasion of the Kresy regions, greed for the possessions of the Jews, and of course coercion by the Nazis to participate in such massacres.
Some historians have written of the negative attitudes of Poles towards Jews during the Holocaust. Anti-Jewish attitudes also existed in the London-based Polish Government in Exile. Some Holocaust survivors have rather negative attitudes toward the Poles based on their experiences. They claim that the vast majority of Christian Poles were passive witnesses, sometimes even glad that the Jews were being removed, and did nothing to aid their neighbours. It is hard to know how many Christian Poles, who were also victims of Nazi crimes, had sympathy for their Jewish neighbours but were paralyzed into inaction by fear. Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote in 1944 in his Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War of the indifferent and sometimes joyful responses in Warsaw to the destruction of Polish Jews in the Ghetto. However despite that, as another scholar (Gunnar S. Paulsson) in his work on the Jews of Warsaw has demonstrated, Polish citizens of Warsaw managed to support and hide the same percentage of Jews as did the citizens of cities in Western European countries.
By the spring of 1942, the German Nazis had established six killing centers (extermination camps) in Poland: Chelmno (Kulmhof), Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz located near railway lines so that Jews could be easily transported daily. A vast system supported the death camps. The purpose of these other camps varied: some were slave labor camps, some transit camps, others concentration camps and their subcamps, and still others the death camps. All the camps were intolerably brutal. Many healthy, young strong Jews were not killed immediately. The Germans war effort and the “Final Solution” required a great deal of manpower, so large pools of Jews were reserved for slave labor in German munitions and other factories. People were worked from dawn until dark without adequate food and shelter and thousands perished, worked to death.
The Germans also established a number of ghettos in which Jews were confined, slowly starved and cruelly offered hopes of survival but eventually ended up being killed. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people and the Łódź Ghetto, the second largest, holding about 160,000. Other Polish cities with large Jewish ghettos included Białystok (Białystok Ghetto), Częstochowa, Kielce, Kraków (Kraków Ghetto), Lublin, Lwów (Lviv Ghetto), and Radom. Ghettos were also established in smaller settlements. Living conditions in the Ghettos, most hermetically sealed and without ability to leave, were terrible. Overcrowding, dirt and lice resulted in lethal epidemics such as typhoid. Hunger was also a permanent fixture and resulted in countless deaths.
Jews who tried to escape were shot to death with their bodies to be left in public view until dusk as a warning. Many of those who fled to the Aryan side without connections with Christian Poles willing to risk their lives in order to help, returned to the ghettos when they were unable to find a place to hide. Since Nazi terror reigned throughout the Aryan districts, the chances of remaining successfully hidden undoubtedly depended on a fluent knowledge of the language and on having close ties with the community. Generally Poles were not willing to hide Jews who might have escaped ghettos or who might have been in hiding due to fear for ones own life. The murder of Polish inhabitants by the Nazis was common even for lesser infractions, let alone for rendering assistance to Jews. The criminal ruthlessness of the Germans towards the Jews, regardless of sex or age, was accompanied by the very same ruthlessness towards the Poles who helped them, no matter for what reasons. In any apartment block or area where Jews were found to be harboured, everybody in the house was immediately shot by the Germans. Hundreds of Polish families died as a result of helping Jews.
For Jews to hide in Christian society was a daunting task. A new identity required being familiar with Christian religious customs of which Jews had no knowledge. Jews with the physical characteristics of curly black hair, dark eyes, dark complexion, a long nose were in special jeopardy and most Jews spoke Polish with an accent or used expressions derived from Yiddish which gave them away. Money or items of value were needed to pay those rescuers who required payment, to purchase food on the black market (hidden Jews did not have ration books), to purchase counterfeit documents or to pay bribes to blackmailers. Some individuals took advantage of a hiding person’s desperation by collecting money, then reneging on their promise of aid—or worse, turning them over to the Germans for an additional reward. The Gestapo routinely offered a bounty for those who turned in Jews who were hiding. This bounty consisted of a quart of liquor, four pounds of sugar, a carton of cigarettes, or, at times, small cash payments. Many Jews were robbed and handed over to the Germans by “szmalcownik”s many of whom practiced blackmail as an “occupation”. Those criminals were condemned by the Polish Underground State and a fight against these informers was organized by Armia Krajowa (Underground State’s military arm), with the death sentence being meted out on a scale unknown in the occupied countries of Western Europe.
Hidden Jewish children were kept in cellars and attics, where they had to keep quiet, even motionless, for hours on end. In rural areas, hidden children lived in barns, chicken coops, and forest huts. Any noise—conversation, footsteps—could arouse neighbors’ suspicion and perhaps even prompt a Gestapo raid. During bombings, Jewish children had to remain hidden, unable to flee to the safety of shelters. Under these conditions, the children often suffered from a lack of human interaction and endured boredom and fear. Some religious Jews believed that their suffering was preordained and would bring about the Messiah. There were also many religious Jews involved in heroic acts. One famous leader was Janusz Korczak, the director of the Jewish orphanage, who chose to accompany the children he cared for when they were deported.
Poland was the only occupied country during World War II where the Nazis formally imposed the death penalty for anybody found sheltering and helping Jews. This penalty was widely announced by the occupying authorities and was quite often imposed not only on the rescuer, but also on his or her family, neighbors, and on whole towns or villages. Failure to inform on a neighbor hiding Jews was punished by deportation to a concentration camp.
The Germans believed in collective responsibility, making Poles the most terrorized population after the Jews and the Gypsies. Food rations for Poles were very small (669 kcal per day in 1941) and black market prices of food were high, factors which made it difficult to hide people and almost impossible to hide entire families, especially in the cities. Despite these draconian measures imposed by the Nazis, Poland has the highest number of Righteous Among The Nations awards at the Yad Vashem Museum (6,066).
The Polish Government in Exile was the first (in November 1942) to reveal the existence of Nazi-run concentration camps and the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, through its courier Jan Karski and through the activities of Witold Pilecki, a member of Armia Krajowa who was the only person to volunteer for imprisonment in Auschwitz and who organized a resistance movement inside the camp itself. One of the Jewish members of the National Council of the Polish government in exile, Szmul Zygielbojm, committed suicide to protest the indifference of the Allied governments in the face of the Holocaust in Poland. The Polish government in exile was also the only government to set up an organization (Żegota) specifically aimed at helping the Jews in Poland.
Warsaw Ghetto and its uprising: The Warsaw Ghetto and its uprising in 1943 represents what is likely the most known episode of the wartime history of the Polish Jews. The ghetto was established by the German Governor-General Hans Frank on October 16, 1940. Around 138,000 Jews were forced into the ghetto from various districts around the city of Warsaw, whilst 113,000 Poles were forced to leave the area and were assigned quarters in so-called ‘Aryan’ districts. The German authorities allowed a Jewish Council (Judenrat) of 24 men, led by Adam Czerniaków, to form its own police to maintain order in the ghetto. Some Jewish policemen distinguished themselves with their fearful corruption and immorality. Judenrat was also responsible for organizing the labour battalions demanded by the Germans. At the beginning the Judenrat served as a representative of the Jewish community, trying with bribes and submission to soften the Nazi blows. With the passage of time the Germans imposed new and more brutal demands on the Judenrat. The slightest sign of insubordination by the Judenrat was punished by death. In many towns the Judenrat refused cooperation and were subsequently executed, with another group taking their place. The President of Warsaw Judenrat Adam Czerniakow, cooperated with the German authorities until he was ordered to compile daily lists of Jews destined for “resettlement”. Knowing what resettlement meant, he refused and committed suicide.
At this time, the population of the ghetto was estimated to be about 380,000 people, about 30% of the population of Warsaw. However, the size of the Ghetto was about 2.4% of the size of Warsaw. The Germans then closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world, on November 16 of that year, building a wall around it. During the next year and a half, Jews from smaller cities and villages were brought into the Warsaw Ghetto, while diseases (especially typhoid) and starvation kept the inhabitants at about the same number. Average food rations in 1941 for Jews in Warsaw were limited to 253 kcal, and 669 kcal for Poles, as opposed to 2,613 kcal for Germans. On July 22, 1942, the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants began; during the next fifty-two days (until September 12, 1942) about 300,000 people were transported by train to the Treblinka extermination camp. The deportations were carried out by fifty German SS soldiers, 200 soldiers of the Latvian Schutzmannschaften Battalions, 200 Ukrainian Police, and 2,500 Jewish Ghetto Police. Employees of the Judenrat, including the Ghetto Police, along with their families and relatives, were given immunity from deportations in return for their cooperation. Additionally, in August 1942, Jewish Ghetto policemen, under the threat of deportation themselves, were ordered to personally “deliver” five ghetto inhabitants to the Umschlagplatz train station. On January 18, 1943, some Ghetto inhabitants, including members of ŻOB (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Jewish Combat Organisation), resisted, often with arms, German attempts for additional deportations to Treblinka.
The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which reverberated throughout Poland and the rest of the world as an example of courage and defiance, was followed by other failed Ghetto uprisings in Nazi occupied Poland. As late as the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, when the Poles rose up against the Germans in anticipation of the entry of the Soviet Army, there were still a few Jews eking out an existence in the ruins of the former ghetto. Some of the survivors of 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, still held in camps at or near Warsaw, were freed during 1944 Warsaw Uprising, led by the Polish resistance movement Armia Krajowa, and immediately joined Polish fighters. Only a few of them survived. The Polish commander of one Jewish unit, Waclaw Micuta, described them as some of the best fighters, always at the front line. It is estimated that over 2,000 Polish Jews, some as well known as Marek Edelman or Icchak Cukierman, and several dozen Greek, Hungarian or even German Jews freed by Armia Krajowa from Gesiowka concentration camp in Warsaw, men and woman, took part in combat against Nazis during 1944 Warsaw Uprising. During 1944 Warsaw Uprising as many as 17,000 Polish Jews, who either fought with the AK units (Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński) or had been discovered in hiding, lost their lives. After the failed 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the city of Warsaw was razed to the ground by the Germans and more than 150,000 Poles were sent to labor or concentration camps. On January 17, 1945, the Soviet Army entered destroyed and nearly uninhabited Warsaw. Some 300 Jews were found hiding in the ruins in the Polish part of the city (Wladyslaw Szpilman).
The fate of the Warsaw Ghetto was similar to that of the other ghettos in which Jews were concentrated. With the decision of Nazi Germany to begin the Final Solution, the destruction of the Jews of Europe, Aktion Reinhard began in 1942, with the opening of the extermination camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, followed by Auschwitz-Birkenau where people were killed in gas chambers and mass executions (death wall). Many died from hunger, starvation, disease, torture or by pseudo-medical experiments. The mass deportation of Jews from ghettos to these camps, such as happened at the Warsaw Ghetto, soon followed, and more than 1.7 million Jews were killed at the Aktion Reinhard camps by October 1943 alone.
The final destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto came four months later after the crushing of one of the most heroic and tragic battles of the war, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising led by Mordechaj Anielewicz (the first ghetto uprising is believed to have occurred in 1942 in the small town of Łachwa in the Polesie Voivodship). He recruited more than 750 fighters, but amassed only 9 rifles, 59 pistols and a couple of grenades. A developed network of bunkers and fortifications were formed. The Jewish fighters also received support from the Polish Underground (Armia Krajowa). The Germans assembled a force of 2,842 men to enter the ghetto and brought 7,000 security forces into Warsaw. Their greatest fear was that the rebellion would spread to the Polish side of the city. The Germans were unable to defeat the Jews in open street combat. After several days, the Germans switched tactics and began burning down houses. The ZOB headquarters on 18 Mila Street fell on May 8, 1943; at this time Mordechai Anielewicz died fighting. The battle raged for 27 days, when it was over German general Jürgen Stroop claimed to have destroyed 6,065 Jews. As a “celebration” Heinrich Himmler ordered the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka Street (which was outside the ghetto) blown up as a symbol of the fact that “the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists.” A group of fighters escaped from the ghetto through the sewers and reached the Lomianki forest. About 50 ghetto fighters were saved by the Polish “People’s Guard” and later formed their own partisan group, named after Anielewicz. There were still hundreds of Jews living in the ruins of the ghetto after May 16, 1943. Many succeeded in making contact with Poles in other parts of the city. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising empowered Jews throughout Poland. After the ghetto was liquidated, Jewish leaders continued to work underground on the “Aryan” side by hiding Jews and issuing forged documents. Many Jews became active in the Polish underground of Greater Warsaw.
The Memorial of the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto is located on a square which was once the site of one the main bunkers of the Jewish Combat Organization. This monument is the work of Natan Rappaport; it is made of the bronze and granite (labradorite) ordered by Hitler from Sweden in 1942 for a monument “honoring the victory of Germany.” The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial was unveiled on April 19, 1948 – the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw ghetto Uprising.
Communist rule: 1945–89: Postwar: Between 40,000 and 100,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding or by joining the Polish or Soviet partisan units. Another 50,000–170,000 were repatriated from the Soviet Union and 20,000–40,000 from Germany and other countries. At its postwar peak, there were 180,000–240,000 Jews in Poland settled mostly in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków, Wrocław and Lower Silesia; Legnica, Dzierżoniów and Bielawa.
The character of Poland had changed however. Poland was left with a government-in-exile that had failed to negotiate a plan for postwar liberation and reconstruction and had no coherent policy towards the encroaching Soviet Union. In spite of the major Polish contribution to World War II, Poland was placed under direct Soviet control due to British and the US dependence on the Soviet military commitment to the defeat of Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unwillingness to confront Stalin over his future plans for Poland. The Soviet style communism was established and the borders of Poland were moved west. The Soviet Union swallowed the eastern regions, which had many ethnic minorities including Jewish shtetl communities.
Graves of Polish Jews
For the survivors, returning to life as it had been before the Holocaust was impossible. Jewish communities no longer existed in Poland. When people tried to return to their homes from camps or hiding places, they found that, in many cases, their homes had been looted or taken over by others who were not happy to see survivors return. Confiscating Jewish property and possessions was a historical habit by non Jews.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, Jews began to leave Poland. The exodus took place in stages and the vast majority of survivors left for various reasons, often more than one. Many left simply because they did not want to live in a communist country. Some left because the refusal of the communist regime to return prewar property. Others did not wish to rebuild their lives in the places where their families were murdered. Yet others wanted to go to British Mandate of Palestine, which soon became Israel. Some of the survivors had relatives abroad.
Postwar Poland was also a chaotic country in which communists and post-Home Army anti-communist formations fought each other. High proportion of Jews among the communist leadership and communist secret service (UB) fanned prejudices and many Christian Poles viewed Jewish Poles with deep hostility. Ordinary Polish Jews sometimes incurred lethal risks. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in several Polish cities and hundreds of Jews were murdered in anti-Jewish violence (Anti-Jewish violence in Poland, 1944-1946). The best-known case is the Kielce pogrom of 1946, in which thirty seven Jews were brutally murdered. The massacre at Kielce was a turning point in the attempt to rebuild a Jewish community and convinced most survivors that they had no future in Poland. The Kielce tragedy has been variously described as an event stage-managed by the communists and the outcome of old religious hostilities exacerbated by the war and the participation of Jews in the postwar communist-dominated administration of repression.
The communist government’s response to the pogrom was initially decisive. Special investigators were dispatched to the town on the same day and military tribunals assumed responsibility for the prosecutions that followed. Under investigation were not only those who had directly participated in the pogrom. The local administration as well as the responses of the Milicja Obywatelska and the Ministry of Public Security of Poland were scrutinized. The heads of the MO and the UB were both arrested and questioned. Nine participants in the pogrom were sentenced to death; three were given lengthy prison sentences.Until today the debate in Poland continues whether the murderers were leftists or rightists and who inspired the killings.
Between 1945 and 1948, 100,000–120,000 Jews left Poland. Their departure was largely organized by the Zionist activists in Poland such as Adolf Berman and Icchak Cukierman under the umbrella of a semi-clandestine organization Berihah (“Flight”). Berihah was also responsible for the organized emigration of Jews from Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia totaling 250,000 (including Poland) Holocaust survivors.
A second wave of Jewish emigration (50,000) took place during the liberalization of the communist regime between 1957 and 1959. The last mass migration of Jews from Poland took place in 1968-69, after Israel’s 1967 War, because of the anti-Jewish policy adopted by Polish communist party, which closed down Jewish youth camps, schools and clubs. One might call this event as an expulsion of Jews of 1968. Thereafter almost all Jews who decided to stay in Poland “stopped” being Jewish.
The Bund took part in the post-war elections of 1947 on a common ticket with the (non-communist) Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and gained its first and only parliamentary seat in its Polish history, plus several seats in municipal councils. Under pressure from Soviet-installed communist authorities, the Bund’s leaders ‘voluntarily’ disbanded the party in 1948–1949 against the opposition of many activists. The Soviet Union’s secret police essentially governed Poland and Stalin’s anti-Semitic regime stifled Jewish cultural and religious activities. Jewish schools were nationalized in 1948-49 and Yiddish was no longer used as the language of instruction.
For those Polish Jews who remained, the rebuilding of Jewish life in Poland was carried out between October 1944 and 1950 by the Central Committee of Polish Jews (Centralny Komitet Żydów Polskich, CKŻP) which provided legal, educational, social care, cultural, and propaganda services. A countrywide Jewish Religious Community, led by Dawid Kahane, who served as chief rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces, functioned between 1945 and 1948 until it was absorbed by the CKŻP. Eleven independent political Jewish parties, of which eight were legal, existed until their dissolution during 1949–50. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and ORT opened schools and hospitals for the Jewish communities in Poland. Some Jewish cultural institutions were established including the Yiddish State Theater founded in 1950 and directed by Ida Kaminska, the Jewish Historical Institute, an academic institution specializing in the research of the history and culture of the Jews in Poland, and the Yiddish newspaper Folks-Shtime (“People’s Voice”).
Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the situation for the Jews, who then were allowed to reestablish connections with Jewish organizations abroad and began producing Jewish literature. In this 1958-59 period, 50,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, which was the only country Jews were able to migrate to under Polish law.
A number of Polish Jews participated in the establishment of the communist regime in the People’s Republic of Poland between 1944 and 1956 and played an important role in the apparatus of oppression, holding, among others, prominent posts in the Politburo of the Polish United Worker’s Party (Jakub Berman, Hilary Minc – responsible for establishing a Communist-style economy), and the security apparatus Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (UB) and in diplomacy/intelligence. After 1956, during the process of destalinisation in Poland under Władysław Gomułka’s regime, some Urząd Bezpieczeństwa officials including Roman Romkowski (born Natan Grunsapau-Kikiel), Jacek Różański (born Jozef Goldberg), and Anatol Fejgin were prosecuted for “power abuses” including the torture of Polish anti-communists (among them, Witold Pilecki), and sentenced to long prison terms. A UB official, Józef Światło, (born Izaak Fleichfarb), after escaping in 1953 to the West, exposed through Radio Free Europe the methods of the UB which led to its dissolution in 1954. Solomon Morel a member of the Ministry of Public Security of Poland and commandant of the Stalinist era Zgoda labour camp, fled Poland for Israel to escape prosecution for genocide. Helena Wolińska-Brus, a former Stalinist prosecutor, now a British citizen living in Oxford, is fighting being extradited to Poland on charges related to the execution of a Second World War resistance hero August Fieldorf.
In 1967, following the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states, communist Poland broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. The Israeli victory over the Soviet backed Arab states in 1967 was greeted by Poles with a slogan; “Our Jews beat the Soviet Arabs” (Nasi Zydzi pobili ruskich Arabow). By 1968 most of Poland’s 40,000 remaining Jews were assimilated into Polish society, but over the next year they became the center of a Soviet backed, centrally organized campaign, equating Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland.
In March 1968 student-led demonstrations in Warsaw (Polish 1968 political crisis) gave Gomułka’s government an excuse to channel public anti-government sentiment into another avenue. Thus his security chief, Mieczysław Moczar, used the situation as a pretext to launch an anti-Semitic press campaign (although the expression “Zionist” was officially used). The state-sponsored “anti-Zionist” campaign resulted in the removal of Jews from the Polish United Worker’s Party and from teaching positions in schools and universities. In 1967–1971 under economic, political and secret police pressure, over 14,000 Polish Jews were forced to leave Poland and relinquish their Polish citizenship. Poland’s communist leaders used Jews as scapegoats in a campaign aimed at silencing the social unrest and quelling a power struggle within the regime. The campaign, though ostensibly directed at Jews who had held office in the Stalinist era and at their families, affected most of the remaining Polish Jews, whatever their backgrounds.
There were several outcomes of the March 1968 events. The campaign damaged Poland’s reputation abroad, particularly in the U.S. Many Polish intellectuals, however, were disgusted at the promotion of official anti-Semitism and opposed the campaign. Some of the people who emigrated to the West at this time founded organizations which encouraged anti-communist opposition inside Poland. In 1977, communist Poland began to try to improve its image regarding Jewish matters. Partial diplomatic relations were restored in 1986 — the first of the Communist Bloc countries to take this step — full diplomatic relations were not restored until 1990, a year after Poland ended its communist rule. During the late 1970s some Jewish activists were engaged in the anti-communist opposition groups. Most prominent among them, Adam Michnik (founder of Gazeta Wyborcza) was one of the founders of the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR). By the time of the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, only 5,000–10,000 Jews remained in the country, many of them preferring to conceal their Jewish origin.
With the fall of communism in Poland, Jewish cultural, social, and religious life has been undergoing a revival. Many historical issues, especially related to World War II and the 1944–89 period, suppressed by communist censorship have been re-evaluated and publicly discussed (like the Massacre in Jedwabne, the Koniuchy Massacre, the Kielce pogrom, the Auschwitz cross, and Polish-Jewish wartime relations in general). According to the Coordination Forum of Countering Antisemitism there were eighteen anti-Semitic incidents in Poland in the period from January 2001 to November 2005. Half of them were incidents of demagoguery, eight were violent incidents such as vandalism or desecration (the last of them took place in 2003), and one was verbal abuse. There were no antisemitic attacks by means of weapons, however according to a 2005 survey, the portion of the population holding anti-Semitic views is much higher than in some European countries. According to a survey carried out by CBOS and published in January, 2005, in which Poles were asked to assess their attitudes toward other nations, 45% claimed to feel antipathy towards Jews, 18% to feel sympathy, while 29% felt indifferent and 8% were undecided. Those surveyed were asked to express their feeling on the scale from -3 (strong antipathy) to +3 (strong sympathy), with 0 taken to indicate indifference. The average score for attitude towards Jews was -0.67. Another contemporary nationwide survey indicated that as of January 2004 40 percent of Poles believed that their country, with the Jewish population of less than 20,000 out of 39 million populations,is still “being governed by Jews”.
Poland has many legal provisions to combat antisemitism, neo-fascism, extremism and has ratified all the major international conventions pertaining to human rights protection and anti-discrimination. Jewish religious life has been revived with the help of the Ronald Lauder Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, the Polish Jewish community employs two rabbis, operated a small network of Jewish schools and summer camps, and sustains several Jewish periodicals and book series events. In 1993 the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland was established with the aim of organizing the religious and cultural life of the members of the communities in Poland.
Synagogues can be found in Warsaw, Kraków, Zamość, Tykocin, Rzeszów, Kielce and Góra Kalwaria, but not all are functioning today. The oldest synagogue in Poland, Stara Synagoga, built in the early 15th century, can be found in Kraków. Today, it hosts a Jewish museum. The Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin was reopened in Lublin in 2007, the first synagogue to be renovated and dedicated in Poland since World War II solely through funding from Polish Jewry, without government or charitable support. Prior to World War II, the yeshiva was Europe’s largest.
The leading Jewish publications are the monthly Midrasz, Dos Jidische Wort, Jidele for youth and Sztendlach for primary school children. All of these publications are printed in Polish except for Dos Jidische Wort, which is published in a bi-lingual Yiddish-Polish edition. Jewish Institutions include the Jewish Historical Institute, the E.R. Kaminska State Yiddish Theater in Warsaw, and the Jewish Cultural Center in Cracow. Academic Jewish studies programs were established at Warsaw University and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Kraków became home to the Judaica Foundation, which has sponsored a wide range of cultural and educational programs on Jewish themes for a predominantly Polish audience. The building of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry in Warsaw will be based on a design of a Finnish architect, Rainer Mahlamaecki. The plot of land for the museum and an additional $13 million were donated by the city of Warsaw and additional $13 million were donated by the Polish government.
Of the Communist Bloc countries that interrupted diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 (i.e. all communist countries except Romania), Poland was the first to restart them again in 1986, and to fully restore them in 1990. It is also possible to visit the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka. Auschwitz currently houses the Oswiecim State Museum, exhibiting documents from Nazi crimes. Block Number 27 is set aside for martyrology of the Jews and the millions who were killed there. All that remains of Treblinka is a mausoluem and monument consisting of thousands of shards of broken stone. At Majdanek, there is a museum and a monument, which incorporates a mound of human ashes commemorating the 350,000 people who were murdered there. Poland also has the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, which is found in Łódz. Well preserved and catalogued historic grave sites can also be found in Góra Kalwaria and Leżajsk.
In June 2004, during an excavation of the site of the Great Synagogue in Oświęcim, archeologists uncovered a unique collection of Jewish treasures. Oświęcim’s population was 70 percent Jewish, but was wiped out after the German invasion of Poland. It is also where the Auschwitz death camp was built. In this project initiated by a young Israeli named Yariv Nornberg, archaeologists dug at the site based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Yishayahu Yarod, who remembered the relics being hidden by the Jews before the Nazis razed the synagogue. Many Jewish ritual objects were found at the site, including three bronze candelabras, a bronze menorah, ten chandeliers and a ner tamid. Tiles, marble plaques and charred wood from the synagogue were also discovered. The objects will most likely go through a year-long restoration process and then be displayed in the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
On July 4, 2006, a memorial to Holocaust survivors killed after World War II in Kielce was unveiled. The city of Kielce and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad financed the memorial where in 1946, the mob killed more than 40 Jews in infamous Kielce Pogrom.
Today there is greater awareness of Poland’s wealthy Jewish past as well as of the tragedies of the Holocaust. Interest in learning about and preserving the artifacts of Jewish culture is quite strong, especially among the young. Zaglada, a journal devoted to the Holocaust, was first published in 2005 by a special division of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Other publications have also been published recently dealing with the subject, most notably from the Institute of National Remembrance.
There have been a number of Holocaust remembrance activities in Poland in recent years. In September 2000, dignitaries from Poland, Israel, the United States, and other countries (including Prince Hassan of Jordan) gathered in the city of Oświęcim (the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp) to commemorate the opening of the refurbished Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue and the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The synagogue, the sole synagogue in Oświęcim to survive World War II and an adjacent Jewish cultural and educational center, provide visitors a place to pray and to learn about the active pre–World War II Jewish community that existed in Oświęcim. The synagogue was the first communal property in the country to be returned to the Jewish community under the 1997 law allowing for restitution of Jewish communal property. Additionally, in April of each year, the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor victims of the Holocaust, draws young people from Israel and elsewhere, as well as Poles, as marchers to mark two of the most significant dates: Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. The purpose of this trip is to give students a first hand look at history and the evils of mankind. There are also more general activities, like the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków.
In 2006, Poland’s Jewish population is estimated to be approximately 20,000; most living in Warsaw, Wrocław, Kraków, and Bielsko-Biała, though there are no census figures that would give an exact number. According to the Polish Moses Schorr Centre and other Polish sources, however, this may represent an undercount of the actual number of Jews living in Poland, since many are not religious. The Centre estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Jews in Poland, of which 30,000 to 40,000 have some sort of direct connection to the Jewish community, either religiously or culturally.
Poland is currently easing the way for Jews who left Poland in the Communist organized massive expulsion of 1968 to re-obtain their citizenship. In a letter released March 3, 2008, Polish Interior Minister Grzegorz Schetyna said he would “order the implementation of the appropriate procedures today.” Piotr Kadlcik, the president of the Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, told JTA he had already received verbal confirmation that Schetyna endorsed the plan to re-naturalize Jews who fled between 1968 and 1970. Some 15,000 Polish Jews were deprived of their citizenship.
From the Middle Ages until the Holocaust, Jews comprised a significant part of the Polish population. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as a “Jewish paradise” for its religious tolerance, attracted numerous Jews who fled persecution from other European countries, even though, at times, discrimination against Jews surfaced as it did elsewhere in Europe. Poland was a major spiritual and cultural center for Ashkenazi Jews, and Polish Jews made major contributions to Polish cultural, economic, and political life. At the start of the Second World War, Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world (over 3 million, the vast majority of whom were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust during the German occupation of Poland, particularly through the implementation of the “Final Solution” mass extermination program. Only 369,000 (11%) survived. After massive postwar emigration, the current Polish Jewish population stands at somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000.
NOTABLE POLISH JEWS
Historical figures Politicians
Menachem Begin (1913-1992), Israeli prime minister (born in Poland)
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israeli prime minister (born in Poland)
Jakub Berman (1901-1984), Polish communist, Secretary of PUWP (Polish United Workers’ Party)
Czeslaw Bielecki (b. 1948), Polish politician and architect
Marek Borowski (b. 1946), Polish politician, a speaker of the Sejm
Sala Burton (1925-1987), American politician
Yohanan Cohen (b. 1917), Israeli politician
Adam Czerniaków (1880-1942), Polish politician
Herman Diamand (1860-1931), Polish politician
Ludwik Dorn (b. 1954), Polish politician, a speaker of the Sejm
Boleslaw Drobner (1883-1968), Polish politician, a speaker of the Sejm
David Dubinsky (1892-1982), American politician
Jerzy Einhorn (1925-2000), Swedish medical doctor, researcher and politician
Abraham Foxman (b. 1940), Anti-Defamation League official
Bronisław Geremek (1932-2008), Polish foreign affairs minister
Abba Hushi (1898-1969), Israeli politician
Julian Klaczko (1825-1906), Polish politician
Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), Polish-born]] Marxist theorist and revolutionary of the Social Democracy
Herman Lieberman (1870-1941), Polish politician
Stefan Meller, (1942-2008), Polish foreign affairs minister
Hilary Minc (1905-1974), Polish politician, an economist and minister
Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960), British politician
Shimon Peres (b. 1923), Israeli prime minister and president, Nobel Prize laureate (1994)
Feliks Perl (1871-1927), Polish politician
Karl Radek (1885-1939), Bolshevik politician
Adam Rotfeld (b. 1938), Polish foreign affairs minister
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877-1944), Polish politician
Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943), Zionist thinker and politician
Moses Schorr (1874-1941), Polish politician and historian
Yitzhak Shamir (b. 1915), Israeli prime minister (born in Poland)
Stanisław Stroński (1882-1955), Polish politician
Eugeniusz Szyr (1915-2000), deputy prime minister
Samuel A. Weiss (1902-1977), American politician
Shevah Weiss (b. 1935), Israeli politician, a speaker of the Knesset
Szmul Zygielbojm (1895-1943), Polish Bund leader
Soldiers and fighters
Mordechaj Anielewicz (1919-1943), leader of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Yitzhak Arad (b. 1926), partisan combat, historian, Israeli general
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Jewish Legion
Marek Edelman (b. 1922), last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Berek Joselewicz (1764-1809), colonel during Kościuszko Uprising and Napoleonic wars
Sir John Monash Australian military commander (father from Krotoszyn)
Mieczyslaw Norwid-Neugebauer General in the Polish Army before and during World War Two; minister in the Polish government
Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), US Navy Admiral
Krystyna Skarbek (1915-1952), WW2 spy
Avraham Stern (1907-1942), the founder and leader of the Zionist underground organization Lehi
Józef Światło (1915-1975), colonel, communist, spy
Wilhelm Billig, founder of Polish nuclear energy industry
Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967), Polish-British political activist
Dora Diamant (1898-1952), friend of Franz Kafka
Gaspar da Gama (1444-ca.1510), traveller, interpreter
Mieczysław Grydzewski (1894-1970), journalist, editor
Gideon Hausner (1915-1990), Israeli jurist
Emil Haecker (1875-1934), journalist, editor
Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, British judge,
Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), human rights lawyer
Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919), Marxist
Adam Michnik (b. 1946), journalist, dissident
Daniel Passent (b. 1938), journalist
Ludwik Rajchman (1881-1965), founder of UNICEF
Ernestine Rose (1810-1892), feminist
Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005), founder of Pugwash, Nobel Prize (1995)
Leon Rubinstein, Operative Technology and records
Piotr Pawel Szczerbinski father of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski’s second wife
Kazimiera Szczuka feminist
Jerzy Urban (b. 1933), journalist, commentator, writer and politician
Saul Wahl (1541-1617), according to tradition, temporary King of Poland in 1586
Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005), hunter of Nazis
Barnett Abrahams (1831-1863), dayan, principal of Jews’ College, London
Yitzchak Meir Alter (1798-1866), Hassidic first Rebbe of Ger
Dov Ber of Mezeritch (d. 1772), Hassidic rabbi
Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) (ca 1700-1760), Hassidic rabbi
Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786), Hassidic rabbi
Philip Ferdinand, Professor of Hebrew
Jacob Frank (1726-1791), Jewish messianic claimant
David Ginsburg (1831-1914), Hebraist,
Kalonymus Haberkasten (16th c.), rabbi
Chaim Halberstam (1793-1876), Hassidic rabbi
Naftali Tzvi Halberstam (1931-2005), Hassidic Rebbe of Bobov
Aaron Hart (1670-1756), rabbi
Isaac Hellmuth, lost orphan to Christianity
Ridley Haim Herschell, missionary
Arthur Hertzberg (1921-2006), rabbi
Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889-1959), Chief Rabbi of Ireland
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), theologian
Zevi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), rabbi & Zionist pioneer
Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov (1763-1831), Hassidic rabbi
Moses Isserles (1530-1572), rabbi
Israel Meir Lau (b. 1937), the Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi (1993-2003)
Solomon Luria (1510-1574), rabbi
Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007), lost orphan became French Roman Catholic cardinal
Walenty Potocki, count, converted to Judaism (Avrohom ben Avrohom), the Ger Tzedek of Vilna, (d. 1749)
Samuel Judah Löb Rapoport (1790-1867), Orthodox rabbi, scholar
Shalom Rokeach (1779-1855), Hassidic rabbi (first Belzer Rebbe)
Aharon Rokeach (1877-1957), Hassidic rabbi (fourth Belzer Rebbe)
Michael Schudrich (b. 1955), Chief Rabbi of Poland
Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), Hasidic rabbi and rosh yeshiva
Naftoli Shapiro (1906-1981), rabbi and rosh yeshiva
Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), Orthodox rabbi, philosopher
Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (1745-1815), Hassidic rabbi
Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel (b. 1943),
Israel Zolli (1881-1956), Chief Rabbi of Rome,
Herman Auerbach, mathematician
Iuliu Barasch, physician
Salomon Bochner, mathematician
Leslie Brent, immunologist
Jacob Bronowski, scientist & broadcaster, works: algebraic geometry
Georges Charpak, physicist, Nobel Prize (1992)
Samuel Eilenberg, mathematician: category theory
Salo Finkelstein, mental calculator
Roald Hoffmann, chemist & writer, Nobel Prize (1981)
Leopold Infeld, physicist
Mark Kac, mathematician
Abraham Lempel, computer scientist: LZW compression
Adolf Lindenbaum, logician
Henryk Makower, microbiologist
Benoît Mandelbrot, mathematician: fractals
Szolem Mandelbrojt, mathematician
Albert Abraham Michelson, physicist, Nobel Prize in Physics (1907)
Herman Müntz, mathematician
Jakub Natanson, chemist
Emil Leon Post, mathematician
Mojzesz Presburger, logician
Isidor Isaac Rabi, physicist, Nobel prize (1944)
Tadeus Reichstein, chemist, Nobel Prize (1950)
Moshe Ron, materials scientist
Stanisław Saks, mathematician
Albert Sabin, inventor of the oral Polio vaccine
Andrew V. Schally, endocrinologist, Nobel Prize (1977)
Juliusz Schauder, mathematician
Hugo Steinhaus, mathematician
Abraham Sztern (1762-1842), inventor, he made important contributions to the construction of mechanical calculators
Ary Sternfeld, space pioneer.
Solomon Asch, Gestalt psychologist
Zygmunt Bauman, sociologist
Ivan Bloch, military writer
Alain Finkielkraut, French philosopher
Henryk Grossman, economist
Joseph Jastrow, psychologist
Michal Kalecki, economist
Abraham Low, neuropsychiatrist
Paul Radin, anthropologist
Milton Rokeach, psychologist
Manfred Sakel, neurophysiologist & psychiatrist
Adam Schaff, philosopher
Avraham Stern, famous Zionist
Paweł Śpiewak, sociologist, politician
Shemaryahu Talmon, Bible scholar
Michel Thomas, language teacher
Ludwik Zamenhof, ophthalmologist and inventor of Esperanto
Szymon Aszkenazy, Polish historian
Meir Balaban, Jewish historian
Salo Wittmayer Baron, Austrian historian
Szymon Datner, Jewish historian
Isaac Deutscher, British historian
Simon Dubnow, Jewish historian
Artur Eisenbach, historian
Norman Finkelstein, historian
Jan T. Gross, American sociologist
Marceli Handelsman, Polish historian
Rafał Mahler, historian
Marian Malowist, historian
Lewis Namier, British historian
Emanuel Ringelblum, Jewish historian
Jacob Talmon, Israeli historian
Adam Ulam, American historian
Cultural figures Artists
Jankiel Adler, painter
Mordecai Ardon, artist
Irena Eichler, actress
René Goscinny, cartoonist
Maurycy Gottlieb, painter
Ida Kaminska, actress
Mayer Kirshenblatt (b. 1916), artist
Moise Kisling, painter
Roman Kramsztyk, painter
Joe Kubert, comic book artist
Daniel Libeskind, architect
Louis Marcoussis, painter
Elie Nadelman, sculptor
Maria Orska, actress
Erna Rosenstein, painter, poet
Moshe Rynecki, painter
Arthur Szyk, political cartoonist
Roland Topor, illustrator, painter
Max Weber, painter
Esther Wertheimer, sculptor
Samuel Willenberg, sculptor
Alfred Wolmark, painter
Samuel Yellin, sculptor
Emanuel Ax, pianist
Nelly Ben-Or, pianist
Leonard & Phil Chess, founders of Chess Records
Emanuel Feuermann, cellist
Grzegorz Fitelberg, composer
Ignaz Friedman, pianist
Bronislav Gimpel, violinist
Szymon Goldberg, violinist/conductor
Ida Haendel, violinist
Sir George Henschel, musician
Bronislaw Huberman, violinist
Jan Kiepura, singer
Józef Koffler, classic composer, music teacher, music columnist
Leopold Kozlowski, composer, arranger, director, pianist (from the famous Brandwein family)
Wanda Landowska, harpsichordist
Szymon Laks, composer
René Leibowitz, composer
Jerzy Petersburski, composer, pianist
Sława Przybylska, singer
Moriz Rosenthal, pianist
Eddie Rosner, jazz bandleader, trumpeter
Arthur Rubinstein, pianist
Heinrich Schenker, music theorist
Artur Schnabel, pianist
Henryk Szeryng, violinist
Władysław Szpilman pianist, author of The Pianist memoir
Alexandre Tansman, composer, pianist
Carl Tausig, composer, pianist
Golda Tencer, singer
Ignaz Tiegerman, pianist
Ignatz Waghalter, composer
Henryk Wars, composer
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, composer
Geddy Lee, Canadian born son of Polish Jewish holocaust survivors. Bass player, singer, keyboard player, composer for the Canadian progressive rock trio Rush.
Screen and stage
Artur Brauner, film producer
Aleksander Ford, film director
Jakub Goldberg, film screenwriter
Samuel Goldwyn, film producer
Joseph Green (Yoysef Grinberg), Yiddish actor
Anna Held, stage actress
Aleksander Hertz, film pioneer and director
Jerzy Hoffman, film director
Agnieszka Holland, film director, screenwriter
Moses Horowitz, Yiddish playwright
Ida Kaminska, actress
Boris Kaufman, cinematographer
Mikhail Kaufman, cinematographer
Harvey Keitel, actor
Roman Polański, film director
Sandie Renee Kloszewski, Adult Film Actress
Marie Rambert, ballet dancer
Lew Rywin, film producer
Piotr Skrzynecki, cabaret director
Dziga Vertov, film director
Harry, Sam & Albert Warner, film producers
Writers and poets -Polish-language
Alicia Appleman-Jurman, writer
Eli Barbur, writer
Roman Brandstaetter, writer, poet
Kazimierz Brandys, writer
Ida Fink, writer of short stories
Konstanty Gebert, writer, activist
Zuzanna Ginczanka, poet
Henryk Grynberg, writer
Marian Hemar, poet
Mieczysław Jastrun, poet
Janusz Korczak, pediatrician, children’s writer, pedagogue and educator
Hanna Krall, author
Stanisław Jerzy Lec, poet
Teodor Parnicki, writer
Artur Sandauer, writer, literature critic, and publicist
Bruno Schulz, prose writer
Arnold Słucki, poet, publicist, soldier of Red Army, member of communist party,
Anatol Stern, poet
Julian Stryjkowski, novelist
Julian Tuwim, poet, song lyrics
Leopold Tyrmand, writer
Aleksander Wat, poet
Bronisław Wildstein, journalist
Józef Wittlin, poet
Stanislaw Wygodzki, writer
Sholem Asch, writer
Mordechai Gebirtig, poet-songwriter
Itche Goldberg, writer
Yitzhak Katzenelson, poet
Salcia Landmann, writer
I. L. Peretz, writer
Morris Rosenfeld, proletariat writer
Isaac Bashevis Singer, writer, Nobel Prize (1978)
Israel Joshua Singer, novelist
Abraham Sutzkever, poet
Shmuel Yosef Agnon, writer, Nobel Prize (1966)
Nathan Alterman, writer
Yoram Bronowski, literary critic
Isaac Erter, writer
Roman Frister, journalist and author
Naphtali Herz Imber, poet
Uri Orlev, writer, Hans Christian Andersen Award (1996)
Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai, writer
Lisa Appignanesi, English writer
Louis Begley, American writer
Maurice Frydman, Indian translator
Marek Halter, French writer
Eva Hoffman, American writer
Jerzy Kosiński, English-language novelist, from 1965 an American citizen
Arthur Miller, American writer
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, German writer
Henry Roth, American writer
Joseph Roth, Austrian writer
Majer Bersohn, banker, philanthropist
Henry & Helal Hassenfeld, founders of Hasbro
Leopold Kronenberg banker
Maurycy Orgelbrand, editor
Samuel Orgelbrand, editor
Louis Pozez, co-founder Payless Shoesource
Izrael Poznański, textile magnate, philanthropist
Helena Rubinstein, cosmetics industrialist
Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore
Leonard Tramiel, Jack Tramiel’s son
Hipolit Wawelberg, banker, philanthropist
Felix Zandman, founder of Vishay
Szmul Zbytkower, banker, factor
Boruch Israel Dyner
Paul Saladin Leonhardt
Ludwik Gintel, footballer (soccer)
Charley Goldman, boxing trainer (International Boxing Hall of Fame)
Roman Kantor, fencer
Irena Kirszenstein, sprinter, track and field athlete (Olympic Gold medal winner; WR holder)
Józef Klotz, footballer (soccer)
Józef Lustgarten, footballer (soccer)
Myer Prinstein, long- and triple-jumper (4 Olympic golds)
Leon Sperling, footballer (soccer)