Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Old sores have been reopened once again with publication of a book based on inter-war Polish - Jewish newspaper archives. Jewish leaders distance themselves from it.

It’s assumed in Poland that pogroms such as in Jedwabne and Kielce were either one-offs, or even communist conspiracies. But a book telling the story of the Warsaw based Yiddish newspaper Haynt (1908-1939) by its last editor Chaim Finkelstein, written in Yiddish but now in English, claims that Jews were under increasing attack in many parts in Poland from the end of WW I. By the mid-thirties anti-Semitism became official policy.

Using the newspaper’s archives Finkelstein shows that anti-Semitism was prevalent in Poland, even earlier than it was in Germany.

The book has naturally caused quite a storm.

In chapter 4 Finkelstein writes:

Immediately following Poland’s rapid emergence in November, 1918, the physical abuses of Jews accelerated, rapidly assuming the form of pogroms. On November 13, 1918, a scant two days after Poland declared independence, Haynt (v. 213) reported on pogroms in Galicia. The news was not issued directly, as the Polish information services kept it quiet. Information was released by wire from Berlin, dated November 12, reporting that “according to sources in western Galicia, monitored in Vienna, pogroms have broken out against Jews in several towns across western Galicia. A large number of Jews have been killed, many wounded.

Pogroms in other places multiplied:

Following the Brisk pogrom and as a protest against the pogroms and riots in the country, a general strike was proclaimed by Polish Jewry. Jewish shops closed down, mass meetings were held, and the effect on the "Jewish Street" was great, but nothing really changed. Bloody attacks, and anti-Semitic hate accompanied by cries for expulsion ("Zhidzhe do Palestineh"; "Jews to Palestine") continued until the outbreak of World War II.

But it wasn’t just physical violence. Jews were subjected to economic forms of intimidation and discrimination as well.

In January, 1921 Sunday was declared a compulsory day of closure for businesses. Haynt calculated that Jews who wanted to observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays had to close their businesses for 134 days a year. Non-Jews only had to close up on 62 days a year. Not only was this law introduced to ruin the Jews economically, it was also intended to undermine religious practice and traditions of Polish Jews.

The Jewish Deputies did everything they could to combat this law. They called upon the Polish Deputies and the government not to ruin the Jews. Their words fell on deaf ears. The Polish Deputies and the Jewish socialists from the Polish Socialist Party united and supported the Sunday closing law.

By the mid-1930s things had become even worse, as nationalists under Roman Dmowski began to exercise greater influence with the death of Jozef Pilsudski

The machinery of the state, the government, the officials, the press, all of society, with extremely few exceptions, were taken over by the anti-Semitic madness. Weird new ideas steadily surfaced for “rescuing” the Fatherland from the “Zhides”. The democratic faction (“Strognitsvo Democratitshne”), a small liberal group of intellectuals and professionals, under the leadership of Professor Mietshislov Mikholovitsh (1876-1965), fought against fascism and anti-Semitism in the periodical “Tsharne na Bialem” (“Black on White”), but had no tangible influence on events in the country. Those few Jews who had up to this time managed to hold onto their government jobs were dismissed, and that was trumpeted in the newspapers as something of a great accomplishment – a clear demonstration that the government was saving the state from a “Jewish flood”…..

...General Stanislav Skvartshinski (1881-), then the leader of “OZON”, introduced a proposal in the Diet, that the government should carry out a mass emigration (simply put, an expulsion) of Jews, and two hundred deputies supported this expulsion proposal……’

This wasn’t the first time the idea of mass expulsions was put forward. In 1926 several governments, including British and Polish, were looking at ways to solve the ‘Jewish Problem’. Britain, as we know, ultimately favoured Palestine, but Poland was quite keen on the French colony of Madagascar as a place to send its Jews. This was an idea - the Madagascar Plan - that had been going around for some time in Europe and was ultimately picked up be the Nazis. The French wouldn’t cooperate. In 1937, however, the Polish government remembered the idea.

‘ 1937 the Polish government sent a special delegation to Madagascar to study the situation on the spot. It comprised two Jews and one Pole: Major Mietshislav Lapetski, a traveler and author of travel books (1897-1969), Leon Alter, director of “HIAS” in Poland (1880-1963), and Engineer Solomon Dick, officer of the “United Committee for Jewish Emigration (“Emigdirekt”). They returned with a report that with the exception of small areas, the climate of Madagascar was not suitable for Europeans.

The Polish historian Vladislav Pobug-Malinovski writes about the expulsion plans in the second volume of his Spiritual [Intellectual?] History of Poland (pp. 817-818). He recounts also that a band of speculators and weapons dealers saw the Polish expulsion plan as an opportunity to profit at the expense of the persecuted Jews. The account then went silent.’

Read the whole book online here.


beatroot said...

WQhat's this - Dutch spam?

Agnes said...

This is an excellent post, Beatroot. However, (and this can be extended to the whole area) "By the mid-thirties anti-Semitism became official policy.

Using the newspaper’s archives Finkelstein shows that anti-Semitism was prevalent in Poland" many won't recognize that newspapers would represent an official policy, ie. many archived documents (if from the press) are still interpreted as to put it ...merely couleur locale, and by no means representing the attitude of the population or/and the authorities during the war and after.

Here exactly that happened when the journals of Mihail Sebastian were published.

beatroot said...

Yes...I have no idea as to what extent the average Pole was in support or not of what was going on here in the 1930s. Support for the nationalists by that time appears have been significant. And as the Madagascar Plan shows, common sense had just about gone out the window all over the place -not just in Poland.

sonia said...

Your account is missing one important point:

Until Hitler came to power, anti-semitism and anti-Germanism usually went hand in hand (a bit like today - when you see anti-semitism, anti-Americanism isn't far behind). Dmowski's National Democrats were both anti-semitic and anti-German. Pro-German Pilsudski and his allies were usually sympathetic towards the Jews.

Needless to say, the year 1933, when Hitler came to power, shattered that situation and Jews suddenly found themselves without any allies. Anti-Germans continued to hate them like before, while their pro-German friends suddenly turned against them.

In contemporary terms, it was a bit like if Pat Buchanan won the presidency of the United States. Israel would then find itself without any allies. Iran and other Muslim countries would continue to hate it, while United States would withdraw its support.

beatroot said...

I agree. And this isn;t my account, this is from that newspaper. I am still reading bits of this book and I don;t know what to make of some of it. Maybe it's the translation but it is a bit...not sure.

The angle they are giving it here in the press is that the guy who wrote this called the period 'Poland's mini-Holocaust'...which is a misuse of the word and I understand why some would be upset by its use here.

But the extent of the anti-Semitism in the early 1920s is disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Poland was very anti-semitic in the 30s. This has been faced up to by at least some Poles. You can read in Polish sources of, for example, the segregation of Jews in universities before the second world war. And, naturally and thankfully, there were Poles who opposed this proto-apartheid system.

beatroot said...

I agree totally on both points. What’s new in this book is the extent of anti-Semitism in the 1920s.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no: large sections of the Polish public post-1918 were viciously, rabidly anti-semitic. And sizeable sections of it still are - though they tend nowadays to be sinister old women in mohair berets and deranged Catholic priests distributing leaflets before local elections pointing out that such-and-such a candidate's great grandfather changed his name from Mandelbaum. Most mainstream politicians and educated younger people are embarrassed by Poland's unsavoury reputation in this area and are making faltering steps towards doing something about it. Education minister Roman Giertych, the grandson of the pre-war radical anti-semite Jedrzej Giertych, recently defied the zealots in his party to attend a commemoration of the 1941 pogrom at Jedwabne. And the ultra-catholic far-right radio station Radio Maria has lately taken steps to prevent the more squinny-eyed racial theorists among its listeners from broadcasting their opinions to the world during phone-ins, which until recently was its preferred method of spreading racial hatred without actually breaking the law.
But a lot remains to be done: casual, habitual anti-semitism is still widespread, and all the more sinister for existing in a country now pretty well devoid of Jews. The widespread French dislike of North Africans might not be very admirable but it does at least have some sort of rational basis insofar as large numbers of North Africans do actually live in France: Polish hatred of Jews is nowadays completely irrational and of more interest to a psychiatrist than to an anthropologist.

Pre-1939 holcaust though? Hmmm... No doubt large parts of Polish society and quite a large section of the political class would have liked to have imposed restrictions on Polish Jewry: limiting access to higher education, driving them out of retail trade and perhaps even encouraging them to emigrate. But no Polish government of the inter-war period actually did much about it any more than the regimes in Hungary or Romania (the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy is said to have commented on the 1938 Nuremberg Laws "No man could be more anti-semitic than I am. But there are some things which a gentleman simply does not do"). The whole infernal mechanism of yellow stars, ghettoes and finally gas chambers came to Central Europe when a wealthy, ingenious, brilliantly organised near-superpower brought it there, receiving little assistance from the local anti-semites simply because it didn't need it, thank you very much.

beatroot said...

I agree with all of the above. The word Holocaust though is the one that got people excited here and you can see why. This is a word that is being banded about all over the place and used quite casually. For instance, columnists in papers in the west are using this word in connection with 'climate change'. If you are skeptical of some of the people's claims ytou are a 'climate change denier' and so are morally equal to those who deny the Holocaust. A ridiculous thing to say.

So no only one Holocaust in Poland, the Nazi one.

Agnes said...

Anon, 'Polish hatred of Jews is nowadays completely irrational and of more interest to a psychiatrist than to an anthropologist.' - was talking about this with a shrink. She thinks that as long as this hatred is not a disease it cannot be cured either.

'(the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy is said to have commented on the 1938 Nuremberg Laws "No man could be more anti-semitic than I am." - True. His letters are available. Also some written by Antonescu are worth reading.
Thousands died long before what we call today Holocaust. However, the way the Holocaust took place in each and every country is very different.

Beat, agreed: who said that the 20th century is not about anti-Semitism but the Holocaust?

beatroot said...

However, the way the Holocaust took place in each and every country is very different.

But we have to limit the term Holocaust to what was implimented by the NAZis....I don;t think even the most rabid anti-Semite Pole in those days wanted to start an industrial scale genocide of an entire race.

BEING HAD said...

I agree that using the word holocaust here is being evocative and rereads history based on events that happened afterward. But the anti-Semitism was there long, long before this period- hundreds and hundreds of years before.
I want to thank you both for this post and for all of the other posts about polish anti-Semitism. I reprinted your blog in the Karlin Gazette ( and gave you the reference. I hope it gets you some new readers. Keep up the good work.

beatroot said...

Thank you very much. The story of his book/Web site came out in Zycie Warszawy – which is doing quite a lot of these kind of ‘shocking exclusives’ at the moment - but it has not caused the fuss I was expecting – unlike a Jan Gross book, for instance. I think it got buried under the party political shenanigans that we suffering here.

But the 1920s bit is important and I will pursue it at some later date.

Anonymous said...

For a fair and balanced examination of all this it's still hard to beat Anthony Polonsky's "Politics in Independent Poland 1921-39". Polonsky - himself a South African Jew by birth - later summed it all up neatly in a radio programme by saying that Polish anti-semitism between the wars was essentially the hatred of a downtrodden, poverty-stricken peasant for an equally downtrodden, poverty-stricken proto-capitalist: Nazi anti-semitism was in a different league of criminality altogether. Not even the craziest Polish Jew-baiter between the wars had the slightest notion of physically exterminating every single one of them. A good example was Maximillian Kolbe, pre-1939 a traditional Polish Catholic anti-semite who proposed encouraging Jewish emigration by fairly coercive means - but who eventually ended up in Auschwitz for harbouring Jewish children in his monastery. Polish anti-semitism was nasty and was often dangerous at street level; but it was never genocidal either in intent or in practice.

beatroot said...

A a fair and balanced examination of all this… is exactly what this subject needs.

Usually when I touch on this topic I am accused of being ‘anti-Polish'…which is not my intention at all. On the other side, of course, there are some who think that Poles ‘suck on anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk’ as one ex-Israeli prime minister once said.

So more honesty and balance will help the healing on both sides.

Also, anonymous, can you give yourself a ‘name’…’bigos’…anything…because I get lots of anons and its hard distinguishing between the slightly nutty ones and people like yourself who clearly know what they are talking about.


Sylwia said...

The Morgenthau's Report, issued in 1919, deals with the early incidents. Among others it argues that the press accounts were exaggerated.