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 Poland's Century: War, Communism and Anti-Semitism
 Anita Prazmowska
Session 2
Session 1Session 3

Fallout from the War: Anti-Semitism in Poland

After the war, Poland was left with a government-in-exile that had failed to negotiate a plan for postwar liberation and reconstruction, nor a coherent policy towards the encroaching Soviet Union. When Poland's diplomatic influence was not established--in spite of its military contribution to the war--and it realized that undertakings to support the Polish cause were not forthcoming, the Polish government merely stepped up its recruitment drive and reiterated demands to participate in military action against the enemy. The possibility that the fate of Poland would be decided as a result of Soviet troops entering the country was never realistically considered by the exile politicians until the end of 1943. The boundaries of Poland were moved west, so the Soviet Union swallowed the eastern regions, which had many ethnic minorities including Jewish shtetl communities. The character of Poland was changed. In the years following the war, Communism was established in Poland and establishing a credible government became Poland's priority. The anti-Semitic aspects of Polish society were subsumed to other priorities.

The Jewish life of Poland
During the interwar period, Poland had large Ukrainian, Russian and German minority communities as well as 1.5 million Jews. It had to formulate internal policies that took into account other faiths. Though we know that the governments during the 1930s moved towards a nationalist program that meant intolerance to the aspirations of minorities, at the end of the war the Polish boundaries were moved west, which meant that ethnically non-Polish territories existed in the Soviet Union and the boundaries of present day Poland inlcuded the ethnic regions.

NARA, Wendell, N.
Chaplains of the U.S. Third Army conduct burial services for 120 Russian and Polish Jews, victims of SS troopers in a wood near Neunburg, Germany, 29 April 1945. The old borders of Poland were rich with ethnic minorities including Jewish communities, large swathes of which were destroyed during the war.
With the exception of the eastern boundaries where some orthodox Christians still reside and small Ukrainian communities, which were punitively settled outside the region of the southeast at the end of the war, you no longer have national minorities within Poland. There are tiny groups but the government does not have to specifically legislate considering the balance between national minorities. Nowadays, you don't really have a Jewish community in Poland. There are synagogues in Warsaw and Krakow, but these are no longer places where you can witness the life of a Jewish community. Truthfully speaking, for a Jew it would be unwise to publicly display any symbols or signs of Jewish faith outside of Warsaw because people would simply react to it and make life very difficult.

was there a vast Jewish community, it was a community with diversity of religion. When we talk about the Jewish community we have to take into account a variety of orthodoxies, and in Poland you had all of them--from assimilated Jews in Krakow and Warsaw who were part of the political and social spectrum to Hasidic communities, which were divided following particular teachings of the given rabbi. Poland had a rich Jewish life, both in terms of economic diversity and in cultural and religious diversity. In the big cities there was always a big assimilated section of the Jewish community, and in political life the Jewish community spanned a whole variety of political ideas from Zionism to Socialism to assimilationist ideas. In the Eastern regions, there was a very high percentage of Jewish communities. There were shtetl towns, with as many as 60 or 70 percent Jewish communities. Usually the Jewish community led its own life in such places. They had their own schools and charitable buildings, separate from the Catholics. They lived parallel lives with very little contact but it was a separation that went back many years.

This is something that is lost and no longer known to Poles. Occasionally one hears of a Jewish group going to Poland to commemorate some particular anniversary or to pray at the tomb of a very famous Jewish scholar, something that Poles as such don't know about because Jewish history is not taught as part of Polish history in Poland any more. It is simply seen as something that belongs to the past and is best forgotten.

The Communists and anti-Semitism
The Communists during the war knew very well the extent of atrocities committed. The difficulty they had was not that these atrocities took place on Polish land but that they were a minority party, and a party that would not have come to power in any guise or form had it not been for the presence of the Red Army. Their difficulty was that if they wanted to develop a power base, they knew that espousing the Jewish cause would actually decrease their popularity. They were in a genuine dilemma. This is why as Communists increasingly came into power, they decreased their commitment to the exposure of atrocities committed in Poland.

Archiwum Akt Nowych, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives
Inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto hide in a bunker during the uprising.
There is a simple reason for this, which is anti-Semitism in Poland. This is something that was very apparent during the interwar period. During the wartime period, the separation of the Christian and Jewish communities increased the feeling that what was happening to the Jews was not really of interest to the Poles. But at the end of the war the few Jewish survivors that came back to their villages, towns or shtetls found that their property had been taken over by Poles. There are very well recorded instances of atrocities committed by Poles against the Jewish survivors.

The Communist government had to plan how they were going to handle this situation. At the very best, they would ignore it. In due course they realised that they had to deal with it. That was the point that observers feel (although I haven't seen any evidence) that a specific decision was made to play down the amount of anti-Semitism in Poland. What happens at the same time, of course, is that the suffering of the Jewish communities was simultaneously played down. So the Jewish issue was sidelined.

The ghost of the Holocaust
The Communists consistently tried to speak of the Holocaust as a tragedy of the whole of occupied Poland, merely referring to the Jewish aspect of it as part of the larger picture. This was their agenda and it became an important part of internal fighting. In 1968 an important conflict developed within the Communist party, as a result of which an anti-Semitic faction took over and caused an exodus and expulsion of great numbers of surviving Jews from Poland. The interesting thing is what happens to the Jewish issue when you do get democratic government established. It seems as if the same policy is continued, and that is pretending that what happened to the Polish-Jewish community was not important and does not have the same relevance as what happened to the Christian community. There is a general tendency to play down the Jewish tragedy because whoever is in power will then be taking on an issue that could lead to unpopularity, or even worse in the Polish context, there would be accusations that those involved are Jewish, which in Poland is not the kind of reputation a politician would like to acquire.

After democracy
The Polish government after the fall of Communism tried to address the issue and show some sensitivity. Attempts were made in the 1980s to allow foreign trips and tourists to come to Poland on tours to see areas of martyrdom. Nevertheless, there was a reluctance to see the foreign perspective. Both the Communist and the post-Communist governments essentially saw it as a closed matter. They didn't feel comfortable when the spotlight was shone on Poland. In fact, they still don't feel comfortable with the fact that Jews from around the world come to Poland to view areas of Jewish martyrdom. They want to see it as a Polish issue and an internal matter. There have been many instances of the government seeming tactless. For example, they arranged for a Jewish visiting delegation to tour one of the sites of martyrdom on a Saturday, simply not realising that this is unacceptable to observant Jews. They simply do not see the Jewish and international points of view.

Session 2
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