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Useful Notes / Polish Jews

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The history of the Jews in Poland (and in parts of modern Western Ukraine) is worthy of its own entry. The history of Jews in Poland stretches back centuries, with a popular legend claiming that refugees from the first century Siege of Jerusalem during the Jewish Revolts fled north and settled down in Poland after the birds there chanted "polin", meaning "stay here" in Hebrew. Another legend has it that a Jew was instrumental in starting the Piast dynasty, the first dynasty of Polish rulers. Later in the 14th Century, the last of the Piast kings was a great supporter of Jewish immigration (knowing him, he was mostly interested in the female half). Polish Jews were listed as a separate class alongside nobility, clergy, peasantry and townsfolk and had broad autonomy, and their skills were held in high regard by the ruling noblemen, who often employed them as managers and tax collectors. A stereotypical image of a Jew from that period is the innkeeper. The Hasidic Jews got their start there, and to this day many Jews travel to Poland and Western Ukraine to visit the graves of important rabbis.

While there was the usual separateness or occasional Blood Libel, the Jews of Poland did not have it bad compared to the rest of Europe. Poland up until its dissolution in the late 18th century was a mess in terms of ethnicity and these kinds of conflicts could be seen between any of the major groups. That said, when someone rose up against the nobility (like the Cossacks did), the Jews had it bad, due to the aforementioned link.

There's also an important issue that deserves mention: antisemitism in Poland. Those current Poles who have issues with Jews often exhibit a mix of the primitive pre-war kind and conflation in supposed Jewish involvement with Communism — the so-called żydokomuna. Before the war, many Jews took an interest in left-wing ideologies, which didn't make a fuss about their Jewishness — after all, why wouldn't one of the most persecuted minorities be affiliated with an ideology which promised freedom and liberation? (The reality, of course, varied, as was evidenced by '68). It didn't help that poor old Karl Marx was himself ethnically Jewish (although raised a Lutheran and a firm atheist in adulthood), as were (or were perceived to be) many Party members. While it generally makes no difference, it makes one to these people. The Western perception of Polish antisemitism is mostly due to Polish Jews' justifiably unpleasant memories of pre-war times, the wartime and post-war atrocities, and the expulsions of 1968. The war years are a particularly sore issue; Jews were hunted by Germans, Poles were brutalized by Germans, some Poles lynched or sold out Jews, some Jews... well, suffice it to say it's only too easy to get into one-upping one another with their respective nations' wartime woes. This is not made easier by the post-war history, since it muddies many issues a lot, such as who has the legal right to which piece of real estate. It doesn't help that some of the more vocal Polish émigré circles hailed from conservative and nationalist antisemitic environments, and there always will be politicians going for the Lowest Common Denominator. As always, one should watch out for the Vocal Minority.

The situation deteriorated during the 19th Century with the advent of nationalism, though, as the nationalists believed that the Jews compete economically with Poles. The reasons for that included several factors — such as the demographic expansion, Russian laws forcing Jews to settle on the territory of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews abandoning their traditional occupations for trades then held by the Poles, and perhaps some more. Not helping was the fact that the Russian secret police penned a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic forgery which blamed the Russian monarchy's failures on a nonexistent Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, and allowed it to be distributed in the Russian-occupied parts of Poland. Shortly before World War II, some of the more radical nationalists introduced quotas for Jews to attend universities, and even, we kid you not, came up with the ridiculous plan of shipping them to Madagascar.note  That period also saw the rise of the assimilation movement, Jews taking up Polish culture while retaining their religion — ironically they were hated the most by the nationalists.

Then the war and its countless atrocities happened. Many Poles — just look up Righteous among the Nations — did help the Jews, but there were some nasty types, too. The Polish underground even had a special agency, called Żegota, whose agenda was to help Jews. In addition to that, Jews had two La Résistance movements of their own running in Poland, differing over political issues. This period carries a number of problematic issues such as several massacres of Jews committed during and shortly after the war by the Polish majority and the (often still debated) reasons for that. In any event, the Holocaust wiped out nearly ninety per cent of the 3 million pre-war Polish Jewish population.

Sadly, the end of the war did not mean the end of antisemitic hostility at all. The incoming Soviet Union was ideologically hostile to both religion and free enterprise, and many Poles continued to persecute Jews who had tried to rebuild their lives, culminating in the infamous Kielce Pogrom, in which dozens of Holocaust survivors were slaughtered in a blood libel. After atrocities such as these, most of the survivors left for Israel or other countries.

After the war, 1968 saw the antisemitic madness engineered (long story short) as a result of infighting in the Party where one faction wanted to get rid of the other, which included many members of Jewish descent. It resulted in many of those Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust and its aftermath departing (often forcibly) to Israel and other countries, leaving not more than some ten thousand from a pre-WWII population of the largest in Europe. Even after that, antisemitism remained a constant presence, to the point where the Soviet-controlled military dictatorship in the 1980s tried to discredit the anti-Soviet trade union Solidarity by claiming that both its members and opponents came from Jewish backgrounds.

As for Israel itself, many of its early prominent politicians hailed from Poland, most notably its first Prime Minister (and foremost founding father), David Ben-Gurion. Reportedly, many early debates in the Knesset were even held in Polish (presumably when debate got heated and the MKs started ripping into each other in their native tongues). In the modern day, averaged over time, Poland and Israel generally maintain friendly relations despite the occasional politician going for the bigot votes.

Many a mainstay of Polish culture, from literature to film to art, was actually the work of a person of Jewish descent; conversely, many a work of Jewish culture was created by a person living in or hailing from Poland. In modern Poland, actual Jews are but a tiny minority, but many people are of Jewish descent or at least have a Jew somewhere in their family tree. Some of them may hide it because of bad memories or even not know of it at all. On the other hand though, many others discover their Jewish roots with fascination and joy, and the history and culture of Polish Jews is intensively studied and celebrated. In Warsaw, there's an entire museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews, including frank discussion of the role that Polish antisemitism played in the community's plights before, during, and after World War II.

Among Football Hooligans, there exists an antisemitic aesthetic-slash-current, often caused by weird circumstances of football history an average hooligan will probably not even know of — for example, a large percentage of ethnically Jewish players before the War may lead to the club's reputation as "the Jewish club" still going on in the modern day. (On the other hand, at least one hooligan firm appropriated this with pride.)

Perhaps the most curious case of cultural memory of Jewry among the Polish population — already noted by the folklorists — is that the image of a Jew holding a coin is a popular good-luck charm. This is actually a pretty odd case of Memetic Mutation: you see, the old anti-Semitic stereotype of the Greedy Jew has, with the lack of actual Jews to latch onto, transformed into a belief that a picture of a Jew has magic powers to attract money.

A note on naming: Polish Jews were forced into adopting surnames by the partitioning powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) in the 19th century. These were mostly the fruit of some clerk's "creativity", but there's some order to it. For one, Ashkenazi stereotypes like "-berg" or "-stein" are perfectly acceptable, both in Polonised ("-sztajn") and un-Polonised forms. Another pattern is the names based on a city: Krakowski, Warszawski etc.

In fiction:

  • Maus is a Holocaust memoir (in the form of a Funny Animal comic) set there, and as such giving much attention to relations between Poles and Jews both before then during the war.
  • The Pianist chronicles the experiences of a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. Director Roman Polański himself shared some of those experiences.
  • Schindler's List takes place partially in Poland, and most of the Jewish captives are Polish.
  • Isadora Wing's family in Fear of Flying. Loosely based on the family of Erica Jong.
  • The relations between ethnic Poles and Jewish communities form an important part of the portfolio of Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk.
  • Cud Purymowy is a Polish Dramedy film about an antisemitic Lower-Class Lout discovering he inherited a fortune from a relative in the US... on the condition he admits to his (so far vehemently denied) Jewish roots.
  • Portions of There's Magic in Bread take place in the fictional Polish town of Svatislavia, detailing the survival of a Jewish baker named Ruth as her family and community try to weather the pogroms and then the Holocaust. Author Effie Sieberg discussed in an interview how the story was based on her own Jewish grandmother's experiences living in Poland during WWII.