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Useful Notes / Polish Jews

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History of Jews in Poland is worthy of its own entry. A 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.


While there was that separateness or occasional Blood Libel, the Jews did not have it bad. Poland up until it's 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.

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. Shortly before the Second World War, 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 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 by the Polish majority and the (often still debated) reasons for that. Most of the survivors left for Israel or other countries.

After the war, 1968 saw the anti-Semitic madness engineered 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 those Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust depart (often forcibly) to Israel and other countries.


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 modern Poland, actual Jews are but a tiny minority, but many are of Jewish descent or at least have a Jew somewhere in their family tree. Sometimes, they may hide it or not know of it, because of bad memories. On the other hand, the history and culture of Polish Jews is intensively studied and celebrated.

There's also an important issue that deserves mention: Polish antisemitism. Those of Poles who have issues with Jews often exhibit a mix of the primitive pre-war kind and belief in Jewish involvement with Communism. Before the war, many Jews took an interest in left-wing ideologies, whose doctrine 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, however, 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' unpleasant memories of pre-war times, wartime and 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. There's also the fact that some of the more vocal Polish emigre circles hailed from conservative and nationalist antisemitic environments, and there always will be politicians going for the Lowest Common Denominator. There's also an antisemitic aesthetic-slash-current among Football Hooligans, often caused by weird circumstances of football history they probably don't even know of. As always, one should watch out for the Vocal Minority.

In fiction

In light of that all, it shouldn't be surprising to find examples of Polish Jews in art and fiction.

Example of: