The story begins after World War I had shattered Europe, when
Poland finally regained it's independent status. The main idea coarsing through all of
Europe, and especially a fresh state such as Poland, was nationalism, the pride of one's
own nation-state. One of the first questions we must ask: What was this new Polish state?
Was Polishness defined by citizenship and a pledge to the state or by inherent ethnic
traits? What kind of a nation, country, and culture would it grow to become?
By the end of World War I, Jews had been living in Polish area for
hundreds of years. However, their social definition in the public eye, was the outsider.
Something Polish was pure; the Jew was not Polish or pure, but inferior. The term
"Zyd"-Jew, reflected the stigma of the Jew. This was not necessarily an
outwordly anti-Jewish stigma or anti-Semitic in general, and indeed Poland never reached
the rhetoric of Nazi Germany as Jews being sub-human, but merely was the perception of the
Jew. Polish writers would use "a nice Jew" or "decent Jew" for a
Jewish non-villain character in literature. Above all, for better or for worse, the Jews
were a caste, defined by Max Weber as a "closed social group." Calling the Jews
a nation, a religion, or a race, they were still a caste in 20th century Poland. Secular
and other Jews defied this definition between the Wars and demanded equality and
"rights" to the full extent of independent Poland. These actions ultimately
backfired by offending the special concept of Polish honor, a concept the Jews did not
The Minority Treaty was signed the same day as the Versailles Treaty,
officially ending World War I, on June 28, 1919. Among the most important articles were 2
and 7. Article 2 guaranteed "life, liberty, and freedom of religion" to all
countries covered in the treaty. Article 7 declared that "difference of religion,
creed, or confession shall not prejudice any Polish national in matters relating to the
enjoyment of civil or political rights, as for instance the admission to Public
employment, functions and honors, or the exercise of professions and industries."
Many Poles saw the treaty as unfair. The Poles saw Polish independence
as evidence of Polish bravery and patriotism. The treaty, however, had offended Polish
honor: Poland, known for tolerance, was coerced into signing a treaty that declared that
it needed correction. It was regarded as a national shame, and Jews were regarded as the
shamers. Therefore, upon demand of the treaty's fulfillment, the Poles had high resentment
for the Jews. Pogroms or other anti-Jewish violence erupted in 100 towns and villages
during the period of Nov. 1918-Jan. 1919.
The Red Army attacked independent Poland in mid-1920, after defending
against a offensive by the Poles. The cruelty of the Russians shocked many. A diary shows
the emotions of the time clearly: "Hell broke loose at home...I hear the voice of my
father, full of pain: "We Jews suffer everywhere, from pogroms, from robberies. Oh
G-d!...Here you have your socialists, your Bolsheviks, who rape, murder, and steal! This
is your socialist freedom, the poor Jew is the victim..." I wanted to forget the
world." Many Jews volunteered for the Polish Army. The volunteers and some regular
Jewish soldiers were kept in a camp in Jablonna, and treated as potentiial traitors. The
Poles turned around the Russians near Warsaw in a battle known as the Miracle on the
Vistula. The Treaty of Riga was signed, ending the war, in March, 1921.
On March 17, a new constitution was announced, guaranteeing minorities
equal citizenship rights. Law was not enough to maintain order, however. Kangaroo courts
arose, making far-fetched treason claims against Jews. Rabbi Hayim Schapiro was arrested
while praying on his Plock balcony. He was accused of giving signals to Bolsheviks as he
raised his hands heavenward. The diary of a secular 17 year-old reads: "He was shot,
the father of eight children. Why?...he took off his rabbinical hat, wrapped himself in
his prayer shawl, and recited 'Shema Yisrael' [trans. Hear o Israel]...I would have never
thought that in this slight man...there would be such a strong spirit." Most of this
violence was spontaneous in nature, though. Planned-out violence would wait until the
ascendency of the nationalist Endecja.
Two basic political plans arose in independent Poland. The first was
intensely nationalistic and championed by the National Democratic Party [Endek or
Endecja], and first compiled by Roman Dmowski. Its slogans included such lines as:
"Poland is composed of a nation, not of nationalities" and "Poland for
Poles only." Marshal Josef Pilsudski was the leader of the Sanacja (Restoration)
camp, socialist in political persuasion, and interested in forming a federation of Polish
nationalities, such as Poles, Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians. Jews were
strongly behind the second camp, yet were never considered as a nationality in one of the
plans. Between independence in 1918 and 1926, instability reigned and 14 governments fell.
In 1922, the right gained power, but not enough for a majority. Ironically, the National
Minorities' Bloc elected enough members to hold the swing power and Garielo Narutowicz, a
leftist, was elected President, promptly branded "the President of the Jews,"
and shot two days after.
In 1926, Pilsudski worked a coup and installed the Sanacja camp into
Parliament, lasting until the Marshal's death in 1935. At least politically, he was very
open-minded towards the Jews. He was called the "Jewish grandpa" and supposedly
said that he would be ashamed to be a Pole if pogroms ever occured in his country. At
first, the situation looked promising as the Jews were protected under the new government
from nationalist armed attack and the prime minister, Kazimierz Bartel, promised to
protect the Jews from economic and cultural restrictions. The Jews' hopes were soon
deflated, however. Sanacja moved to the right and bypassed the party system by creating
the Non-party Bloc of Cooperation with the Government. The left, disgusted with Sanacja,
formed a coalition with centrist parties like the Polish Peasants' Party to revive the old
system, but the President, Ignacy Moscicki, dissolved the existing parliament on August
25, 1930. In the next election, the Cooperation Bloc won a majority. While throughout his
reign, Pilsudski denounced anti-Semitic rhetoric, harmful economic policies continued. In
1934, Poland denounced the Minorities Treaty, while formally keeping Article 7 in the new
constitution. Pilsudski died in May 1935. He had wide popularity throughout his rule.
During this time the Jews were still the main "Other" of
Poland. This Otherness, though, moved away from religion and caste and culture. Jews now
were looked upon as a different nation, which was completely distinct from the Polish
nation. Jews were being seen as a entity unto themselves, as foreign, and which the Polish
conscience could pluck out of the Polish national scene. The term "Pole" was now
very seldom given to Jews. Jewish traits became highly discrediting and exposes of
political enemies with Jewish roots became common.
The succesive regime dissolved the Cooperation Bloc and the Sanacja
camp lost power. While claiming itself as Pilsudski's heir, Poland never accepted its
rule, and challenges mounted from the left, right, and center. The government thus
embraced the nationalists, and started an official, clear anti-Semitic domestic policy.
Its stance was: "the effect of these separate political aspirations [of Jews] and the
effect of their numbers, plus their major influence over many areas of social and national
life, is to make the Jews, in the present state of affairs, an element that weakens the
normal developmemnt of national and state strength that is...in Poland." A Camp of
National Unity, open to all but the Jews, was formed in February, 1937. In May, 1939,
General Gkvarczynski, the spolkesman of the government, stated that there has been no
change in policy and "We aspire to diminish the number of Jews in Poland." In
June, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Poland surrendered.