Monday, August 10, 2015

A Controversial Question. Please Feel Free to Respond in the Comments Section

I received a question in the comments section of a previous post. I'd love to see informed replies. 


Sorry for getting back to you so late. I purchased and read your book a few months ago and I was captivated. As you say in the book Jews have a mostly positive view of Germany both after and before the Shoah. What Leon Weliczker Wells said about his own family's affinity for German culture and your exploration of the contrast between the urban literate Jews and Germans to the mostly rural illiterate Poles is enlightening.

Another thing in your book stuck out to me but only in comparison to American history. In American a great deal of wealth was generated by the slave economy that existed. To a certain extent modern America would and its wealth would not exist if not for slavery. You mention the role that Jews played in Polish society and the economy as a middleman but also as agents of the aristocracy. So I was wondering if the wealth of Poland's Jews, whatever there was to be had, was based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs?

Chris Helinsky 


  1. A reader sent this in:

    as a Jew, born in America of mixed-parentage, I have found that among my co-religionists there is a definitive split in terms of identification. Jews of Eastern European descent come from a tradition of separation and isolation, shtetl-life, in which Jews did not mix with the local gentile population except in ways that were almost always tense at best. On the other hand, Jews who were born in Germany identified simply as Germans who were also Jewish. They did not consider themselves to be any more or less German than their non-Jewish neighbors, in a similar way that Americans whose ancestors were born in Africa do not think of themselves as being less American than those whose people came from Europe or elsewhere.

  2. According to the standard narrative, the Polish nobility exploited the peasants, and the Jews, as order-fulfillers of the nobility, merely transmitted the nobility's exploitative policies to the peasantry. This caused Jews to be unfairly blamed by the peasants for what had actually been the nobility's policies.

    This standard narrative fulfills several purposes. It aligns with the tendency to portray Jews exclusively as victims. It fits with the leftist tendency to demonize the Polish nobility, and to otherwise picture pre-Communist Poland as a terrible place. Finally, it serves in Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue, in that Ukrainian anti-Semitism can be blamed on the Polish nobility.

    Based on my studies, I find that Jews were less a middleman between the nobility and the peasant, and more of a largely-autonomous economic overclass that had considerable freedom to act on its own. On this basis, I conclude that Jews must assume at least some of the responsibility for the exploitation of the peasantry.

    For an example of an eminent Jewish historian who thinks along these lines, as in the context of the Khmelnitsky Revolt, please click on my name in this specific posting.

    If you want to go deeper, and want more sources of information, let me know, and I will provide them.

  3. I don't claim to be an expert, but here goes. It's true that many Polish Jews were "middle-men," if that means "merchants." But of course, merchants add value to society, by facilitating commerce. There are people who consider "commerce" to be "exploitation," but I don't regard that as an opinion to take seriously. Some Jews worked for the Russian overlords, but not many. Most Jews in Poland were poor, in the inter-war periord horrendously dirt-poor. So while it's no doubt possible to find some Jews who fit this stereotype, on the whole, this claim lacks merit.

  4. Was "the wealth of Poland's Jews, whatever there was to be had, ... based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs?" If one holds that, historically, wealth in Poland was "based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs" then why would the wealth enjoyed by a minority among the country's Jews be any different? Surely, however, we need to ask this question: Was wealth in Poland "based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs"? And, if so, how and to what extent? The leap straight into a discussion of "Jewish wealth" and its source in the exploitation of gentiles comes across as sinister.

  5. "In American a great deal of wealth was generated by the slave economy that existed. To a certain extent modern America would and its wealth would not exist if not for slavery."
    A great deal of wealth was created in ALL pre-industrial societies by people who were, in name or substance, slaves. This includes the Romans and Greeks, the Muslims, serfs everywhere in all societies. Slavery in the early U.S. was no different, and was part of a world-wide slavery system. What created extraordinary wealth in the U.S. was the industrial revolution, which grew in the soil of protestant striving and self-education and the relative freedom and individual liberties of British and U.S. societies. Slavery didn't create engines, electricity and all the rest, which enabled the fraction of the population involved in food production to go from over 90% to under 5% since the start of the industrial revolution.

  6. Wow. I did not expect this. I suppose I should clarify a few things.

    To Mr Bialoguski. The wealth of Poland was largely held by the aristocracy so I did not see a need to ask about the exploitation of the serfs. It was a given. However Jew historically had many privileges vis a vis peasants and while they could not own land they could lease it and have access to the labor of serfs. Jews also held a monopoly on the distillation of spirits and where the principal operators of inns and taverns and would lure peasants to drink. My intent in asking this question was not to pass judgement. The Jews were subordinate to the aristocracy and could easily be intimidated. So it is the case that Jews were both forced and willing partners of the aristocracy. kolakowski said we learn history to know who we are. I disagree with that. we learn history for its explanatory power. Leon Weliczker Wells notes that Jews had Polish servants but could not think of any Pole who had Jewish servants. I figured a history of exploitation might explain things like that.

    To Mr Kujawsky. Being a middleman or merchant is not necessarily benign. If Jan Slomka is to be believed Jewish merchants profited from misery by buying produce cheaply and then marking up the price come famine. Certainly not all Jews but the fact that this was noticed is potentially telling. Relations between Jews and peasants may have been mutually antagonistic. Two other things. I was not talking about the interwar period and you don't mention communal wealth. Jews often took care of each other and had connections and resources that the peasants did not.

    Now a general statement. Like I said in my response to Mr. Bialoguski, I was not blaming the Jews for anything. Social and Economic forces beyond the control of any group of people created this situation. Also the Poles who robbed Jews during the Shoah were wrong. I am not excusing their behavior.

    Chris Helinsky

    1. Chris why would you not expect an answer? Or an answer from many respondents? That is fairly typical of this blog.

      You say, above, that Jews could not own land. Jews could and did own land in Poland.

      Of course Jews lived in Poland for one thousand years, so I can't say that Jews could and did own land for that entire time period.

    2. And Chris I appreciate your question. It prompted interested and interesting discussion, which is always good.

      I have many thoughts in response to your question, but it would take a lot of time to type them up, and to tell the truth, as I guess is obvious from the blog, I devote less and less time to Polish Jewish matters.

      I worked very hard on this issue for many years and Polonia showed a distinct lack of interest in what I had to say, so I moved on to other things. When I received your question I was working on a book review. The book I reviewed, and the website that will run my review, and pay me for it, have nothing to do with Polish matters.

      I didn't want to take time from that to type up my thoughts on this question, and I wish I lived in a world where it would make sense for me to devote more time to Polish Jewish stuff, but I don't, so I don't.

      I'm grateful to the folks who replied. I hope you are, too.

    3. I am grateful for the replies my question has received. It is interesting to see what others have to say on these matters. That you have taken the time to think about and comment on this issue makes me even more grateful. Your time is valuable and you didn't need to reply. Thank you

      Chris Helinsky

    4. Hi, Chris, as it happens I did offer my o wn thoughts, inexpert as they are (I am not an economist and I am not an historian.) You can find them in the next blog entry. thank you.

  7. Andrew SchonbergerAugust 11, 2015 at 7:40 PM

    Assimilation wasn't merely forced upon the Jews of western Europe. It had a strong internal motivation as well. It's useful to go back a millenia in time to understand the reasons. Back then, the jews of Europe were surrounded by marauding knights and illiterate peasants. Jews had good reason to feel their own culture was superior. But such certainty has eroded by the 1800's. Jews had to admit that western civilisation was ahead of them.

    Justice in the western countries has become better than the slightly maffiotic rabbinical courts in Eastern Europe. Science and medicine provided better answers and outcomes than traditional Jewish thinking. For centuries, Kosher food was more clean than other diets, but after Pasteur, it wasn't the most hygienic any more. All over, Jews felt they had some catching up to do. And they did.

    Learning from the West didn't require Jews to give up their own identity. This was especially true in the Austro-Hungarian empire where my ancestors lived. The empire had many faiths and nationalities, some of them numerically smaller than the Jews. So Jews were simply one component if the multicoloured patchwork.

    There was also the illusion of ending Jewish exceptionalism. With the passage of time, the centuries and millennia of Jewish persecution and wandering had taken its toll. Jews wanted an end of it. The 4000 years were becoming too much to bear. They wanted to be like everyone else, and assimilation appeared to provide the answer. This aspect has proven illusory in 1944, and is just as illusory in 2015.

    All together, I think that picking up western skills has served Jews well. When it came to the crunch, the shtetl Jews of Poland and Lithuania were exterminated to the same measure as their patriotic "german" and "hungarian" brethren. But the skills picked up from "Enlightened Europe" still serve us Jews well in our
    fight for survival.

    1. "Back then, the jews of Europe were surrounded by marauding knights and illiterate peasants. Jews had good reason to feel their own culture was superior."
      You forgot that back then the Jews of Europe were also surrounded by Cathedral schools, monasteries and convents as well as from at least the 12th century by universities, all places of learning which produced texts on philosophy, law, rhetoric, logic, grammar and theology. I don't know if at the time Jews actually did feel their culture was superior but if they did they had little reason to.

  8. Andrew SchonbergerAugust 11, 2015 at 7:43 PM

    The second question is about exploitation by Jews. I know both sides. Myself and my parents were always simple employees, without anyone reporting to us. But our ancestors were in businesses large and small. My homeland, Transylvania, belonged alternatively to Hungarians or Romanians. But in popular culture on
    both sides, Jews were always the bloodsuckers of the land. I'm not saying this belief was universal, but it was somehow part of tradition, lurking below or exploding to the surface, depending on circumstances.

    History has provided an answer to this, in my lifetime. It's a cruel one, and I don't rejoice on the pain of other people. I emphasise that pain and suffering is not part of my wishes. But it happens, on a grand scale, and teaches hard lessons.

    By the time Romania came out of communism, there were very few Jews left in the country. Killed or sold, the bloodsuckers have vanished. Businesses were absent, jobs nowhere to be found. Winters are cruel in Romania, the cost of energy is the same all over the world. In an unheated room, a child survives a winter or two, but
    the third pneumonia if often fatal. So what can a Romanian labourer do ? He goes to work in other countries.

    In 1990-1995, the crops in Spanish and Italian orchards were picked by Romanian labourers. Most overstayed their short visas, just to gain enough money to survive the winter at home. It wasn't an isolated phenomenon. By year 2000,
    more than 15% of the total population of Romania was working outside the country. And it was the strongest 15%, not the old and the sick.

    Exploited to the bone, they had no legal rights whatsoever. As the economies of Southern Europe declined, they were chased out even from the lowest paying jobs. In was in these conditions when they fondly remembered the local Jewish "blooksucker" of yesteryear. Back then, for better or worse, the labourers were at home in their own country. They had rights, they had family, they had dignity. Jews were paying taxes, many (including my grandparents) created major hospitals and sports facilities for the benefit of their employees.

    It has come to pass, around 2005, that I visited Israel. I was in a taxi, still wearing the shirt I've put on 24 hours earlier in Sydney. Somewhere on the slopes of Haifa, the taxi stopped at a traffic light. There was some construction work to create a retaining wall. Two workers walked by, each carrying heavy bags of cement. As they passed the open window of the taxi, I heard them speaking, in Romanian:

    - Dammit, Johny, we should have kept the Jews home.

    1. Andrew Schonberger as ever your words are very rewarding to read. I love what you wrote. I keep asking you to write a guest entry for this blog. I hope you will. What you wrote here is guest entry worthy!

    2. Thank you for your reply Mr. Schonberger. The absence of the Jews in that part of Europe has indeed been detrimental to the economy. The efficient allocation of resources was part of what the Jews did. I think a lot of friction between Jews and the peasant was the result of the peasant perception of on the part of the Jews and the barriers to entry that the peasants faced as a result of their status and the Jews desire to protect their economic niche.

      Chris Helinsky

  9. Stefan: "historically, wealth in Poland was "based on the despoiling and exploiting the serfs""

    Yeah, much of it was, certainly.

    "The leap straight into a discussion of "Jewish wealth" and its source in the exploitation of gentiles comes across as sinister."

    We don't need to assume that.

  10. Paul Kujawsky "But of course, merchants add value to society, by facilitating commerce. "

    bingo. Excellent point. We see incidents of crops rotting in fields because the necessary business acumen or infrastructure or marketing is not there.

    See Andrew's post, above, about what happens to a country when the middleman class is mass murdered. We saw that in one communist country after another, not just after the Nazis.

  11. A number of facts need to be kept in mind:

    It is not true that most of Poland's Jews were poor. One-quarter were poor; half held their own; and the remaining quarter was wealthy. See my Amazon review of THE LEGACY OF POLISH JEWRY, by Rabinowicz. Furthermore, the average Jew remained wealthier than the average Pole. See my Amazon review of ZIONISM IN POLAND, by Mendelsohn. See also my Amazon review of SOCIAL AND POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN POLAND, by Marcus.

    Commercial activity should not be conflated with exploitation. Commercial activity becomes exploitation only when the one providing the goods or service charges an exorbitant price, taking advantage of the person who does not fully understand the goods or service, who is in no position to do without the goods or service, or who is in no position to buy it from anyone else. For an egregious example of the second kind of exploitation in action, as experienced by a British visitor to Poland soon after the Partitions, please click on my name in this specific posting.


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