Antisemitism in Poland: Each Pole Is a Jew (Too)

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

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Polish Nationalism and Modern anti-Semitism

Antisemitism as a widely accepted political ideology of modern Europe swept the continent from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. This can be seen in the French Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), Vienna’s notoriously antisemitic Mayor Karl Lueger (1897-1910), the slanderous Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), and pogroms in Imperial Russia (including the Polish lands). Furthermore, Europe in the 1930s witnessed antisemtic laws of exclusion in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere that escalated into the Holocaust.   Unsurprisingly, nascent Polish nationalism closely emulated this then widely accepted antisemitic model. Formulated at the turn of the 20th century, the ideology postulated building a nation of Polish-speaking Catholics, who should be housed in their own nation-state. Such a national Poland was not to be shared with ‘foreigners,’ or any non-Polish speakers or non-Catholics.

This novel definition of the ethnolinguistically and ethnoconfessionally delineated Polish nation deftly bridged the centuries-long sociopolitical cleavage between the freshly emancipated masses of Slavophone Catholic serfs-turned-peasantry on the one hand, and the Polish-Lithuanian nobility-turned-Polish national intelligentsia and landowners on the other. This Polish ethnolinguistic nationalism blurred the salient fact that the latter exploited the former as late as the 1860s. A noble would always marry another noble over a serf, even if she or he did not speak any Polish or professed another religion. Among nobles, the shared pan-European estate status and identity trumped any linguistic or confessional differences. Peasant parties in the former Polish-Lithuanian lands emerged first during the 1890s in Galicia but did not adopt Polish nationalism as an element of their programs until the Great War. The continuing estate-based distrust between Polish-speaking and Catholic descendants of serfs and Poland-Lithuania’s nobility continued in one guise or another until the fall of communism in 1989. This fact demonstrates how difficult it was to overcome the centuries-long exploitation of serfs by nobles, even if half-forgotten and five to seven generations removed from the present moment.

The construction of this linguistic-cum-confessional national commonality for all Polish-speaking Catholics, despite their social (estate) differences was based on the conscious othering and ideologized exclusion of non-Slavophones (Germans, Jews or Roma) and non-Catholics (Jews, Protestants, Greek Catholics and Orthodox Christians). In this discriminatory scheme of Polish nationalism, Jews were doubly excluded due to their community language of Yiddish (and Hebrew) and their Judaist religion. In the Polish-nation state founded in 1918, German-speaking Protestants were lukewarmly accepted as members of the Polish nation, as long as they excelled in their loyalty to this new nation-state and mastered Polish to a high level. Interwar Poland’s dictator, Józef Piłsudski, showed the way by converting from Catholicism to Lutheranism for the sake of his second marriage. Although distrustful of Slavophone Belarusians and Ukrainians, the country’s authorities saw Greek Catholicism as a potential ideological bridge leading from Orthodoxy to ‘true Catholicism’ that would eventually ensure the swift Polonization of both minorities. Furthermore, ‘godless Soviet communism’ functioned as quite a deterrence that by default pushed many Belarusians and Ukrainians toward Polishdom.

The Interbellum Polish Nation-State:

Antisemitism and the Grudging Acceptance of Jews

The vast majority of Polish (ethno)nationalists, led by Roman Dmowski, did not predict such concessions for Jews, even if they converted to Catholicism and spoke impeccable Polish. Poland’s confessionally- and ethnically-neutral democracy was over in 1922, when after a single week in office, the Polish nation-state’s first-ever President, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated by a Polish ethnonationalist. The President’s perceived ‘sin’ was the fact that he won the election thanks to votes cast by Jews and other national minorities. In the eyes of Dmowski and Polish nationalists, still prior to the rise of the racialized ideology of national socialism in Germany, Jews were a ‘biologically defined race apart.’ In this racist view, Jewishness was posed to be a ‘genetic makeup’ or ‘condition’ of which one would never be able to divest oneself by the means of culture, that is, language and religion. For the sake of Polonizing interwar Poland’s non-Polish speakers and non-Catholics who were not Jews, the authorities first bilingualized the minority education systems. By the turn of the 1930s, Polish had been introduced as another medium of education alongside the minority language. Subsequently, in the latter half of the 1930s, Polish became the sole medium of instruction in minority schools while the minority language was reduced to one of the school subjects.

However, such measures were not levelled against minority Jewish schools in interwar Poland. No steps were taken to implement Polish as a replacement for Yiddish, Hebrew, German or Russian that commonly served as media of education in Jewish minority schools. Furthermore, no privileges were accorded to those Jewish schools which patriotically introduced Polish as their language of instruction. The goal was to separate ‘Them-polluting-Jews’ from ‘Us-racially-healthy-Poles.’ In line with interbellum Europe’s antisemitism and increasingly steeped in the discriminatory rhetoric and practices of eugenics and ‘racial hygiene,’ the ‘genuine Polonization’ of Jews was deemed an impossibility and a contradiction in terms. Practitioners of the Rassenkunde (‘science of race’) ‘proved’ this impossibility on the basis of their meticulously conducted ‘scientific research.’ However, it was no surprise that during the 1930s the Polish army openly trained over 10,000 Zionist (Jewish nationalist) paramilitaries.[1] The aim was to get them ready for struggle against the British police and troops in Mandatory Palestine. The Polish government hoped that in this way Jews might win their own state and then leave Poland, which after all was ‘not their’ country.

Modern antisemitism’s slogan is ‘Go back home, Jew,’ be it Palestine, Madagascar, Birobidzhan, Uganda or the United States. The tacit racist assumption is that Jews were not, are not, and will never be Europeans. Despite the fact that Jews have lived in Europe and co-created the continent’s culture and economy for over two millennia. Jews lived, worked and prayed in Europe centuries before such states as France, Germany, Hungary or Poland were ever founded. Racialised antisemitism seeks to make Jews into a colonial other that belongs outside of Europe. Possibly, they belong somewhere in Europe’s colonies among ‘the natives,’ but not in Europe. This attitude explains why, in the course of the Holocaust, Jews were the first to find themselves at the receiving end of such initially colonial instruments of ethnic cleansing like concentration and extermination camps, death by engineered starvation, death by work, or death by bullets.

The Holocaust: The Judenfrei Polish Nation

During World War II, by vast majority, Polish Catholic co-nationals (or at least, co-citizens) – be them of noble or serf origin – did not feel any commonality with (or responsibility to protect) Poles of the Jewish religion or Poles of any religion who were deemed to be Jews by the Nazis. Ninety percent of such Poles of Jewish religion or origin (however defined) perished in the Holocaust. The 300,000 survivors were unable to return to their towns and villages. Fellow Poles of the Catholic religion had already repossessed their movable property and real estate after all three million Poles of Jewish religion or origin were presumed ‘safely’ dead. It was not any fault of Catholic Poles because it was the Germans that exterminated ‘Jews.’ In no time, the arrival of lonely Holocaust survivors falsified this self-exculpatory and mendacious narrative. Survivors might denounce Catholic Poles who had assisted the Germans in their hunt for Jewish Poles and even might dare to demand back their property.

Catholic Poles in impoverished towns and villages ‘had no choice’ but to rough up or even slay survivors for the sake of preserving the narrative that it was only the Germans who had ‘disappeared’ Jews during the war. No one knew or wanted to know where their neighbors of the Jewish religion or origin had been ‘disappeared.’ Survivors challenged Catholic Poles with this knowledge and faced them with their own guilt of passively or actively siding with the Germans and becoming accessories to the Holocaust. The mass theft (‘aryanization’) of houses, workshops, land, cemeteries, machinery, furniture, money, jewelry and other household effects from Poles of the Jewish religion or origin also played a role. No Catholic Poles planned to part with this property that they had already gotten used to comfortably owning. Many continued to visit surreptitiously the grounds of the former extermination camps established and run by wartime Germany. No, not to pay respect or search for the earthly remains of their dear neighbors of the Jewish religion or origin and ensure decent burials for them. Not at all. But to dig, sift and pan through the dead’s ashes in quest for gold and diamonds. To continue robbing their neighbors even after their untimely deaths.

Communist Poland: Antisemitism Without Jews

The silence, Omertà, sealed this unspeakable crime and underwrote the lasting national-cum-Catholic union between noble Poles and Poles of serf origin. The ‘others’ conveniently ‘vanished.’ As a result, the unity of the Polish nation, as promised by Dmowski’s nationalists, was at long last attained on the solid basis of the ‘left over’ property of Poles of the Jewish religion or origin. In order to further conceal its origin, such property was dubbed as niczyje (‘belonging to no one’), porzucone (‘abandoned’) or poniemieckie (‘formerly belonging to a German’). After a string of postwar pogroms, most survivors, fearing for their lives, left for big cities and especially for Lower Silesia. This region was recently ‘cleansed’ of Germans and passed to Poland on the basis of the Potsdam Agreement. The founding of Israel in 1948 convinced numerous survivors to give up on Poland entirely. They either joined the construction of this brand-new Jewish polity or emigrated to North America. Interwar Poland’s army and administration finally achieved their cherished dream of emptying Poland of Poles of the Jewish religion or origin. This ‘achievement’ took place in freshly communist Poland. Communism was less of an obstacle to be a Pole than Jewishness.

When, in 1956, the pretense of Poland’s ethnically-blind international communism was over, most of the remaining Poles of the Jewish religion or origin left the country shortly afterward. In addition, Poland’s national communists deepened the national Omertà by largely ending the persecution of former noble and bourgeois Poles. Instead, they focused on urbanization and industrialization, which enabled the swift social advancement of Poles-peasants (descendants of serfs) into Poles-workers. In 1968, a challenge to the incumbent administration, stemming from the communist party’s own ranks, was met with the reunifying national fire of another antisemitic act of ethnic cleansing. The very last remaining Poles of the Jewish religion or origin were compelled to leave. The national Omertà 2.0 released more property and positions in the administration and academia for ‘real Poles.’ This development constituted a renewing boost to the noble-serf union of the Polish nation, previously somewhat undermined by the class war, which the communist party had waged against the ‘bourgeois enemies of the toiling masses.’

After 1945, postwar Poland had no localities left with pluralities of inhabitants who would be Poles of the Jewish religion or origin. Until 1948, such pluralities of a reborn miniature Yiddishland had emerged in some towns and villages across ‘post-German’ Lower Silesia. They came to a rapid end after 1956 and the 1968 ethnic cleansing destroyed the last remaining social networks of Poles of the Jewish religion or origin. Dmowski’s nationalists-turned-national communists completed the implementation of the idea of the homogenous Polish nation-state for the nation of Polish-speaking Catholics only.

Democratic Poland Without Antisemitism?

Following the fall of communism in 1989, democratic Poland has been excruciatingly slow at acknowledging the historical role of Poles of the Jewish religion and origin in Polish history, culture or economy. Any return of robbed property to survivors or their descendants has ‘progressed’ at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the concept of Polonia (or Polish ethnic diaspora) – originating in interwar Poland and fully developed in communist Poland – became an important instrument of democratic Poland’s foreign policy. However, in the spirit of the national Omertà 3.0, the concept of Polonia specifically excludes Poles of the Jewish religion or origin and their descendants living in Israel, or פולנים Polanim in Ivrit.

During the quarter of a century of democratic Poland, antisemitic statements were widely available in rabid publications and antisemitic acts did occur, often in the form of graffiti and destruction of gravestones and monuments. Fortunately, mainstream politics stayed clear of any antisemitic temptations, and in most cases, unequivocally and immediately condemned such antisemitic acts. No communities of Poles of the Jewish religion or origin are left in today’s Poland to identify and pursue perpetrators of antisemitic acts on their own. Their resounding absence has not solved anything but instead enrages antisemites. In Poland without Poles of the Jewish religion or origin, antisemitism seems to fare even better than before. No need to face a neighbor who is ‘one of Them’ and then feel a pang of remorse.

After 2015, the shaky dam of democratic decency – buttressed by political correctness –burst. The incumbent pro-authoritarian government takes care not to have to condemn antisemites and their deplorable acts. It actually encourages radical nationalist parties, whose programs – more or less openly – appeal to antisemitic sentiments. This unprecedented permissiveness, which harks back to the 1968 ethnic cleansing, translates into votes and electoral success. But, this is a shortsighted tactic because it diminishes Poland’s position in Europe and the world and domestically prepares the ground for a full-fledged xenophobic dictatorship.

Poland is פולין Polin

Each stage of the past from the 10th century to this day, which is commonly presented in school textbooks as ‘Polish history,’ unfolded in the presence of or with the participation of persons of the Jewish religion and their communities. In the medieval Kingdom of Poland and in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the population was divided along estate and confessional lines into groups of unequal status. The vast majority of the inhabitants, as unfree serfs, were pushed to the very bottom of the sociopolitical pyramid. But all these unequal groups prayed to the same Abrahamic god of Christians, Jews and Muslims. To the god, whom Jews had originally invented, or to whom it had been revealed first.

Poland-Lithuania’s first anthem Bogurodzica (Mother of God) extolls Holy Virgin Mary, or the Jewish mother of Jesus. Her son, also a Jew and known as Christ (meaning Messiah), created a new Jewish sect. With time, it grew into a worldwide religion that is nowadays known as Christianity (Messianism). The founding of the medieval Kingdom of Poland was connected with the acceptance of this religion from the Holy Roman Empire as the ideology of statehood legitimization and maintenance. Epochs changed, while accepted forms of statehood altered time and again during the last millennium. But Roman Catholicism, a form of Christianity, remains a potent ideology that to this day continues to underlie the concept of the Polish nation and its nation-state.

In spite of the Jewish origin, inspiration, and character of Christianity, ideologues and practitioners of Polish nationalism are unable to find a place in their nation for Poles of the Jewish religion and origin. Nothing can convince them to make this proverbial ‘leap of faith.’ Neither the Gospel’s admonition ‘love thy neighbor like thyself,’ nor the name of their preferred creed, Catholicism, which is Latin for ‘Universalism.’ Polish national Catholicism (‘Universalism’) is pronouncedly anti-universal in its character. Its ‘universal’ message is limited to the nation of Polish-speaking Catholics, who account for a mere 0.5 per cent of the world’s population. Hence, the Polish national universalism is quite a weak universalism of half a per cent.

In light of this deeply exclusionary and silently (or at times, openly)anti-Semitic character of Polish nationalism, it may appear surprising and illogical that the present-day Poles stick to the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian noble tradition of referring to the Jewish Virgin Mary as ‘Queen of Poland.’ Three centuries later in 2016, in the presumably secular age and democratic Poland, her equally Jewish son, Jesus Christ, was officially enthroned to the long vacant post of ‘King of Poland.’[2] Ironically, or symbolically, the Polish president attended this enthronement with his mother. The First Lady, who is of Jewish origin, stayed away.

At present, these two immortal Jews of over two millennia ago, Mother and Son, are Poland’s most important patron saints. Mary and Jesus Christ are the only royalty left in the Polish nation-state devoid of Poles of the Jewish religion and origin. The Omertà of this resounding absence is as profound as another renewal of the noble-serf national union of the Polish-speaking Catholics, epitomized by the recent enthronement of Jesus. The widely-perceived holiness and dignity of this latest act of Polish national Catholicism is such that even those who are critical of the Catholic Church and its unholy union with Polish nationalism would not dare to joke about the somewhat ‘incestuous’ character of Poland’s new ‘spiritual royal couple.’

From the rational perspective, it is a folly or even a blatant offence to one’s intelligence. But myths and rituals, like flags or anthems, are necessary for binding together such imagined communities as nations and polities. One does not discuss with collective emotions, but follows them for the sake of broader public good. Worryingly, in this case, public good is steeped in the silent acceptance of willing forgetting about Poles of the Jewish religion or origin and their exclusion from the Polish nation. Nothing good ever comes out of a wrong. All gained by way of a lie becomes a curse. The Jewish royal couple spiritually reigns over the Polish nation of worshippers of a Jewish sect, but the national creed pronounces that no Jew would ever be accepted as a Pole. There is no place for Them in Our modern Poland. I wonder whether this unacknowledged Polish antisemitism might be a kind of self-hate. Self-hate the culturally Jewish Pole-Catholic feels for himself, when faced with how he wronged his brother, Pole of the Jewish religion. A biblical-like parable on Cain and Abel, indeed.

August 2019

[1] Jakub Ostromęcki. 2018. Betar, Hagana i Irgun w polskiej szkole. Polska Zbrojna. 25 Nov. www.polska-zbrojna.pl/home/articleshow/26945?t=Betar-Hagana-i-Irgun-w-polskiej-szkole#. Accessed: Aug 14, 2019.

[2] Intronizacja. JUBILEUSZOWY AKT PRZYJĘCIA JEZUSA CHRYSTUSA ZA KRÓLA I PANA. 2016. www.intronizacja.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=468:materiay-zespou-ds-ruchow-intronizacyjnych-kep&catid=37. Accessed: Aug 14, 2019.

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