Recently, on this blog, we discussed Chris Helinsky's interesting question. "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?"
Several people addressed the question from various angles. You can read the replies here.
For what it's worth, here are my thoughts.
First, I am not an historian and "Bieganski the Brute Polak" is not a history book. It's a book about the stereotype of Poles as brutes and as the world's worst antisemites, and even the world's worst haters.
I answer Chris' question on that basis.
Here's my answer: When you look at the above photo, what do you see?
Do you see a rich capitalist oppressing a worker?
Do you see a man oppressing a woman?
Do you see an entrepreneur providing employment for a fortunate employee?
Do you see the talented rising to the top and someone who is just looking for a job she can do till she gets married taking advantage of that?
I can think of any number of people who would interpret this picture in one of these ways.
That's the answer, I think, to Chris' question. I think it's question of interpretation. It's a question of what glasses you are wearing when you look at the situation. Are they left-wing glasses, right-wing glasses, Polish Catholic glasses, Polish Jewish glasses?
Just today a Facebook friend from an aristocratic background talked about how badly her family was treated under communism. That life experience is going to inform how she sees things.
Me? I come from a peasant background. I see Poland's aristocracy as exploiters and oppressors of the peasantry. Jan Slomka, in "From Serfdom to Self-Government," talks about the master owning even the wind – the master controlled windmills.
My grandmother never learned to read. One of my older relatives spoke of never being able to go to a doctor. Never. He remembered peasants being whipped. That level of oppression is abhorrent to me.
Yes, the peasants did the heavy labor. They benefited the least financially and they had the fewest options.
Yes, many Jews did profit.
Yes, the aristocracy profited even more.
Polish aristocrats and Polish Jews are on record as having had contemptuous attitudes to Polish peasants. Peasants were "bydlo," cattle.
Historians put aristocrats at the top of the social pyramid. Jews weren't at the top because they were a minority that was often threatened and even killed for their difference alone. We can say that Jews profited; we can't say that Jews ruled.
And we must remain aware that while they profited, Jews contributed essential services to the Polish economy. As Andrew Schonberger pointed out, after the Nazis wiped out the Jews, the economies of EE floundered. There are many reasons for that, but the elimination of the economic middleman is one. That pattern has transpired in other countries where middlemen have been eliminated, often by communist or nationalist purges. See, for example, Uganda after the expulsion of Indians.
Some people bristled at Chris' question. I didn't find that bristling helpful. I think we can talk about difficult questions without assuming the worst of each other.
|Polish peasant by Paul Szutzer