Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Importance of Poland to Jews


credit: Albertus. Source


Various Jewish voices have emphatically asserted the centrality of Poland to Jews and Judaism. Professor Jacob Goldberg of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been called "the leading scholar" of Polish-Jewish history (Teller 7). In his acceptance speech on being awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa at the University of Warsaw in 1993, Prof. Goldberg stated: "There is no history of Poland without the history of the Jews, and no history of the Jews without the history of Poland" (Goldberg 9).

Poland is central to Jews and Judaism because of the size of the Jewish community in Poland, its power and autonomy, its duration, and its status as an important source of the Jewish communities in America and Israel. One thumbnail account of how this community originated was provided by Ralph Slovenko, scholar of law and psychiatry, and child of Jewish parents who emigrated from Ukraine.

"The history of Jews in the Diaspora needs no retelling, but their life in Poland was of a different order than elsewhere in the Diaspora. Jews came to Poland in large numbers, and lived there for centuries, because in Poland they found a haven. Jews first began coming to Poland over a thousand years ago, with the great influx beginning in the 14th century, when the many-sided pressures on the part of the Christian European states caused a migration to the east. By the year 1500, Poland was regarded as the safest country in Europe for Jews, and for centuries, Poland was known as the "country of heretics." "The kingdom of justice was the kingdom of Poland."

"Poland was the leader among the countries of the continent in the protection of liberty. In the 16th century it was a country without censorship, where anything and everything was published. The Statute of Kalisz (1264) was the first general law to give protection to Jews in Europe, guaranteeing them full religious liberty, freedom of trade and protection against offenders of their rights. For centuries, Jews in Poland found unparalleled protection. Out of a desire to have Jews build up Poland's economy, and as a genuine friend of the Jews, King Casimir [Kazimierz] III in the 14th century granted Jews special privileges. Casimir is known as "Casimir the Great," but the feudalists lambasted and nicknamed him "king of serfs and Jews." He was animated by a determination to transform Poland into a great Western power."

"Jews at the Inn" Apoloniusz Kedzierski source

Novelist Sholem Asch (1880-1957) offered an account of how religious Jews may have understood their life in Poland.

"God took a piece of Eretz Yisroel, which he had hidden away in the heavens at the time when the Temple was destroyed, and sent it down upon the earth and said: 'Be my resting place for my children in exile.' That is why it is called Poland, Polin, from the Hebrew poh lin, which means, 'Here shalt thou lodge' in the exile. That is why Satan has no power over us here, and the Torah is spread broadcast over the whole country. There are synagogues, and schools, and yeshivahs, God be thanked. 'And what will happen in the future when the Messiah will come? ... ' 'How can you ask? In the great future, when the Messiah will come, God will certainly transport Poland with all its settlements, synagogues and Yeshivahs to Eretz Yisroel. How else could it be?'" (Asch xi)

Jewish historian Joseph Adler wrote, "Not since the dispersion from the Holy Land in 70 CE had there been such an ingathering of Jews. By the end of the 18th century the Jewish minority in Poland exceeded one million people and represented 80 per cent of the world's Jewry" (Adler 28).

Celebrated Polish-Jewish novelist Jerzy Kosinski (c. 1933-1991) wrote that in Poland, "the largest Jewish community in the world flourished spiritually for the longest uninterrupted period since Biblical times," from it "originates the majority of the world's Jewry today" (Kosinski, "Second").

Dr. Marek Edelman, cardiologist, at the time of this statement sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a Solidarity activist in Lodz, Poland, told an interviewer in 1987, "Jewry was the basin between the Vistula and the Dnieper. What existed in America, in France, in England, didn't create Jewish culture" (Across Frontiers).

Author, editor, and university lecturer Rafael Scharf wrote:

"There blossomed on these lands a full, rich, varied and creative Jewish life. There was total freedom of worship, an autonomy in religious matters, rabbis of all types from the ultra orthodox to the so called progressives, (and like today everywhere – in perpetual strife!); there were many Hasidim with their 'courts' of faithful, there were schools where instruction was held in Hebrew and yeshivas for Talmudic studies; there were newspapers printed in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew (according to Marian Fuchs of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, there were thirty Jewish dailies and 130 periodicals in Poland in 1939). There were political parties – Zionist, religious, workers', assimilationist; there were Jewish members of the Sejm and Senate, there were men of science and men of letters. There were theaters, charitable and education associations, sports clubs. In a word a civilization flourished, with its traditions, language, folklore, literature, and music, and with roots deeper than Polish civilization." (Scharf 272)

Polish-Jewish paper cut out source

Jewish culture in Poland enjoyed a great deal of autonomous development, but it did incorporate Polish cultural influences, scholars maintain. For example, the dress adopted by modern day Hasidic Jews in America and Israel, dress that is currently understood to be specifically "Jewish," is in fact based on the dress of "'certain social groups in eighteenth-century Poland'" (Nosowski 161-2). David Buxton, a British scholar of Eastern European architecture, reported that Jewish synagogues in Poland, influenced by local Polish architecture, were "the nearest approach to a national architectural style that the Jews have ever produced" (Buxton). Eva Hoffman described possible Polish influence on Jewish political organization and style, an influence, she suggested, that survives to this day (Hoffman 54). Goldberg summarized the overall impact of Polish culture on Jewish development:

"Polish-Jewish relations were crucial in shaping a number of domains of Jewish life in the Commonwealth, and in determining the social structure of the Jewish community as a whole. The Jews' economic activity and many aspects of their social life followed a course laid down by the developing relations between Poles and Jews. Only a few individual fields of religious and cultural life developed independently, though even they were to some extent determined by Polish-Jewish relations" (Goldberg "Speech"10).

Polish-born Jewish sociologist, editor, and author Aleksander Hertz (1895-1983) described interpenetration of Jewish and Polish cultural influences.

"The Jews who headed the mass Jewish national emancipation movements and formulated their ideologies were of the intelligentsia. In Poland, they had their roots in Polish culture, more precisely, in the culture of Polish nobility ... it requires not great effort to detect echoes of Polish romanticism, Zeromski and Mloda Polska in their work ... How much of the old fashioned Polish tale can be felt in the stories of a Shalom Aleichem or Isaac Leib Peretz. And Chaim Bialik's great poetry preserves something of Polish romanticism" (Hertz, 153-4).

Harold B. Segel, an American scholar of Ashkenazi descent, and professor emeritus of Slavic Languages and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, reported that

"Polish literature is a literature of Jewish experience; indeed, it is the greatest European literature of Jewish experience ... Poland has the richest Jewish history of any country in Europe, and one of the richest in the world" (Segel xi).

Jewish Studies Professor Gershon Hundert affirmed that the Commonwealth created a sense of security that would help to create a large and culturally vibrant Jewish community. That community would, through emigration and cultural export, have an impact on the world. "Even today, their [Polish Jews'] descendants include most of the Jews in the Soviet Union and North America and about half of the Jewish population of Israel ... More than security, there was [in Poland] a sense of rootedness and permanence" (Hundert 32, 34).

Antony Polonsky, author, scholar, editor of Polin, A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies, and president of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, wrote:

"By the time of Poland's partition at the end of the eighteenth century, perhaps two thirds of the world's Jewish population lived on the lands of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the unique civilization they created outlived the extinction of the Polish state. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became the seedbed from which grew the major movements which have transformed Jewish life – Zionism, socialism, neo-orthodoxy. It was also a reservoir which fed the human flood to Western Europe, North and South America, the Antipodes, and Palestine which has, to a major degree, created the present geography of the Jewish world. The great Jewish historian, Salo Baron, himself of Polish-Jewish origins, has described American Jewry as a 'bridge built by Polish Jews'." (Polonsky, 6)

With immigration, "Polish Jewry, the bedrock of Ashkenazi Jewry, had successfully transmitted its cultural values and way of life ... to most of Jewry the world over" (Adler 29).

Evidence of the international political import of emigrants from Polish Jewry can be found in the biographies of Israeli leaders, many of whom had roots in Poland, including Ehud Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and David Ben Gurion.

Not only world leaders came from Polish Jewry. One feature of Jewish life in Commonwealth territories was the shtetl, or small town. The oeuvre of author Adolf Rudnicki (1912-1990) has been called a "testament to the Polish Jews" (Milosz, History). Rudnicki declared that "The shtetl was a Polish phenomenon, a very Polish product. The shtetl. A flower which has grown out of our own soil" (Rudnicki 39, 42, 43). Jewish writer Grigori Kanowicz, speaking of the shtetls of Poland, wrote of them as a wellspring of Jewish life: "'Those little towns are our second Old Testament. All of us came from there'" (Orla-Bukowska 113).

Many American Jews descend from the c. 1880-1929 immigration. They often employ the term "Russian-Jewish" to identify their ancestry. The population described as "Russian Jewish" consists largely of what is understood by the scholars quoted here as Polish Jewry. In the late eighteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Russia had previously denied Jews entry. After the partitions, Jews were limited to the Pale of Settlement, largely consisting of old Commonwealth territories (Davies II 241), and denied entry to Russia proper. Jewish life in the Pale was originally a product, not of Russian policy or culture, but of the policy and culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

When immigrants from the Pale of Settlement arrived in destination ports, their passports identified them as Russian, in the same way that Polish peasants, speakers of Polish language and bearers of Polish culture, were identified, on their official identity papers, as "Russian." Segel assessed the Pale negatively. "The least tolerant [occupying power after the partitions] with respect to the Jew was Russia, and it was within the period of the Russian hegemony over Poland ... that the notorious Pale of Settlement and the pogrom became the new facts of Jewish life in Eastern Europe" (Segel, "Introduction" 10).

Ari Roussimoff Ancient Wooden Synagogue 

Eastern Commonwealth territories continued to change hands into the twentieth century. In Yale Strom's 1996 documentary film, Carpati, Fifty Miles, Fifty Years, a Carpathian mountain resident reported, "I had my bris in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my bar mitzvah in Czechoslovakia, my divorce in the Soviet Union, and I'll be buried in the Ukraine, but I've never left my hometown." The borders changed, but this Jewish resident remained. His presence is very much a legacy of the policies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that welcomed Jewish settlement, and, unlike other European countries, never expelled Jews, and granted Jews autonomy that they found nowhere else.

The Jewish community in Poland remained central to world Jewry up to the eve of its extinction in the Holocaust. "Interwar Poland was the golden age of modern, autonomous Diaspora Jewish politics. There was nothing like it before, and I will be bold enough to say that there will never be anything like it again in the Jewish Diaspora" wrote Ezra Mendelssohn, an historian of Jewish labor and Zionist history (Mendelssohn 203). Rabbi Michael Schudrich, from New York, now in Poland, affirmed, "'Before the war, we would have to come here to study. This was the heart, the arms, the legs, the kidney, the pinky of Jewish tradition'" (Buruma).

In a September, 1939 photo of German troops invading Poland, the viewer sees troop transport trains besmirched with graffiti reading, "Wir fahren nach Polen um Juden zu versohlen," translated as, "We're going to Poland to beat up the Jews" (Dobroszycki and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 152). This juvenile graffiti and brutal, bullying language tells a horrible truth. Most of Europe's Jews did not live in Nazi Germany. Germany's pre-war population was about sixty-two million. Depending on criteria used to define who was a Jew, of those sixty-two million Germans, only between five and six hundred thousand, or less than one per cent, were Jews. Most of Europe's Jews lived in pre-war Poland. At about three million, they were ten per cent of Poland's population. Poland is where much of the Holocaust took place. Notorious concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Plaszow and Majdanek, were located in Poland. Auschwitz-Birkenau is often referred to, bitterly, but with some truth, as the world's largest Jewish cemetery.

Given the inestimable agony and injustice that struck Jews in Poland, one might understand why and how many Jews have come to understand "Poland" as a metonym for "evil." One Jewish Holocaust pilgrim reported: "For my people...that land is little more than...a witness to the devices of evil" (Kugelmass 439). Jewish-Polish author Eva Hoffman, daughter of Holocaust survivors, wrote, "In postwar Jewish memory, in the minds of many Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Poland has come to figure as the very heart of darkness, the central symbol of the inferno" (3).

And yet there are Jews today who actively work for dialogue with Poles. Why? George Szabad, co-chair of the National Polish American Jewish American Council and an official of the American Jewish Committee, said, "The only thing that makes the Polish-Jewish bridge so important is the combination of the sense of history and the fact that it is such a love-hate relationship. There is no such thing as Jewish history without Poland, or Polish history without Jews"(Henry). When asked his motivations for working for dialogue with Poles, Byron Sherwin, rabbi, theologian, author, and Spertus College of Judaica vice president, replied,

"the history of the Jews in Poland is absolutely exceptional and cannot be compared with the history, experience and creativity of the Jews in any other country. For instance, the Jews were expelled from almost all the European countries, but not from Poland. Here the Jews created a culture, learning, an educational system and even a language, Yiddish, such as arose nowhere else. Just before the Second World War, eighty-four percent of all the Jews in the world either lived in historically Polish territory, or came from families that had lived there ... I regard it as important to make today's American Jews aware of the special place of Poland in the history of the Jews, and to convince them that, in order to understand themselves, they must come to know the history and development of Judaism in Poland." (Nosowski 157)

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