For many years, public opinion in Poland has been shaken by political discussions, where opposing parties are broadly understood as the Jews and the Poles. Sounds a little like a passage from an anti-Jewish brochure dating a hundred years back and this with today’s modern knowledge and information is incomprehensible, and therefore very disturbing. Currently, in Poland, Jews constitute a small group that is overrepresented in the social consciousness. In other words, “too much is said about us in relation to our numbers”, which for many reasons is a puzzling situation. Why is this so?
We have been struggling for years with the problem of the so-called heirless property (Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act of 2017, issued by the U.S. Congress), which is a full-time substitute subject used by the press and for political sensation. It will certainly never be resolved and will keep coming back from time to time. At a time when the dust had not yet settled after the conflict regarding the amendment to the Act issued by the Institute of National Remembrance, which opposed the false term “Polish death camps” and any publications suggesting the responsibility of Poles for the Holocaust, and already there was another amendment, this time of the Code of Administrative Procedure, which stated that 30 years following from when the administrative decision was issued, it would be impossible to initiate proceedings to challenge it, for example in the case of property seized years ago. This was met with a firm reaction from Israel. Placing aside the legitimacy of these conflicts, they are harmful to both nations, they magnify the myth of Poland besieged by Jews, creating a breeding ground for anti-Jewishness. Unfortunately, all these turbulences have their source in a not so distant history …
After the end of the war, Poland recovered from the terrible chaos and destruction. Moreover, it was driven into political and economic dependence on the Soviet Union, which in many spheres is called – justifiably – “the next occupation”. For many Poles, Bolshevism was synonymous with Jews, especially because this is how the German propaganda during the occupation presented it, and this made its mark on the perception of the world by Poles. To this day, there exist myths among the Polish society derived directly from the Nuremberg legislation, where the determinant of national belonging are biological factors (eg. “purity of blood”) or anthropological factors (eg. “looks like a Jew”). It should be emphasized that this type of thinking applies to all nationalities, because often you hear: half Pole, half German, one quarter French. Even before the war, being baptized was equal to “becoming a Pole”, and therefore national affiliation was determined by a voluntary change of religion, and not a factor of birth independent of a human being.
It is an undeniable fact that people of Jewish origin were overrepresented in high positions during the Stalinist period (1945-1956). As Professor Ryszard Terlecki (Institute of the History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Higher School of Philosophy and Pedagogy, now a MP) writes in the book entitled The Sword and Shield of Communism. History of the security apparatus in Poland 1944-1990:
“During those years the common opinion about the numerical representation of Jews in the structures of the Security Office resulted primarily from the composition of its management: out of 450 people who were members of the ministry’s authorities in 1944-1954, and later the Ministry of Public Security, 49% were of Polish nationality (221 people), 37% were of Jewish nationality (167 people), and 10% were considered to be Soviet officers (46 people) ”.
At this point, the question of “why was that so?” arises. There were many reasons. First, communism was attractive for Jews because of its internationalist character and resulting in a delusional promise of equality. The Jew finally ceased to be an excluded Dreyfus for not being born into a Christian family. Communism – in theory at least – provided equal opportunities, which quickly became a distortion, stigmatizing people of “wrong”, intellectual-bourgeois origin. After the war, many Jews harmed by the Holocaust joined public security organs with the intention of taking revenge on those neighbors who betrayed or murdered their families during the war. Many people joined the party because it kept them safe. In homogeneously ethnic, religious and cultural Poland, they simply felt like strangers. Of course, an important element was also an ordinary, human, not linked to origin, desire for power. Jews were a convenient partner for the communists because before the war they were socially and professionally excluded, they could not cooperate with the German occupier, and because of ethnic and religious reasons they did not cooperate with the independence underground after the end of the war.
As a result of the war, Poland transformed from a multicultural country into a country with one of the most homogeneous societies in Europe. Poles began to build a new life in which there was no longer any room for Jews. This observation is extremely painful, but it reflects the reality of that time in every way.
The Jews returning to their abandoned homes after the war were a problem for the new owners and their appropriated property. Violence and murder often escalated. People having been traumatized by the occupation, where death was a common element and way solving all kinds of problems, resorted to the worst to preserve their possessions. This issue is extremely sensitive and still causes great controversy and extreme reactions. The milieu of historians dealing with this subject is very divided. Adding to this are also issues of a political nature, which are already difficult to deal with and this of course does not serve an objective discussion. Many times we deal with the marginalization of this phenomenon or attributing to it general social features – it all depends on who is the author of the statement. The criteria that guided the perpetrators of these crimes, statistical data (the number of murdered) and the assessment of these events are the subject of scientific polemics and media discussion and therefore almost everything!
Professor Andrzej Żbikowski (Eastern European Studies, University of Warsaw and employee of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw) in the text entitled The Murders Committed on Jews in the First Years After the War, attempted to make a synthetic assessment:
“In Poland, after the displacement of the Germans, at least 650 to 750 Jews died as a result of pogroms, underground activities, armed attacks and treacherous murders. This is only a minimal number, since no written record of many tragic events has surely survived. Most of the victims were helpless women and children. At least twice as many people were injured during that time. In many cases these were mass killings. The total number of “incidents” certainly fluctuated between 200-300. Considering the total number of Jews who survived and stayed in Poland even for a short time, these figures are terrifying ”.
His point of view differs from the socially dominant narrative that murders of Jews after the end of the war were solely the result of anti-communist activities. Żbikowski indirectly blames pre-war nationalist thought as the guilty party of these events, and directly, the desire for profit. In his conclusion, he writes, “The purge was not able to be opposed by Polish democrats, liberals, nor even the new communist government, which is programmatically hostile to anti-Semitism.”
The basis for media discussion on anti-Jewish incidents in post-war Poland was the book by Professor Jan Tomasz Gross (Department of History at Princeton University) entitled Fear. Anti-Semitism in Poland just after the war. A history of moral collapse. In his work, Gross adopted a different research methodology, leading to completely different conclusions. Based mainly on estimates, he suggests the number of victims of anti-Jewish violence in post-war Poland at between 2,000 and 2,500. Believing this data to be the most reliable, he assumes that: “information on murders in many cases was not registered with the Ministry of Public Administration.” Gross emphasizes the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiments in post-war Poland, which resulted in his meticulously analyzed cases of pogroms and murders on the Jewish population.
This problem is seen differently by Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (The Institute of World Politics in Washington), the author of the book After the Holocaust. Polish-Jewish Relations 1944-1947, which was a response to Gross’s work. Chodakiewicz presents numbers similar to Żbikowski, but interprets them in a completely different way. Namely, he believes that:
“In Poland, after the summer of 1944, about 400 to 700 people of Jewish origin were killed by various perpetrators: Polish insurgents, Ukrainian partisans, local mobs, bandits, Polish communists and the Soviets. Jews died for various reasons: some as a result of anti-Semitism, others because of their ties with communists, still others lost their lives in robberies and in property disputes, and sometimes even in accidents. “
Chodakiewicz, by pointing out that: “to attribute the violent death of any Jew in the post-Holocaust period to Polish anti-Semitism is a logical error and historical inaccuracy“, represents a completely different point of view than Gross. Undoubtedly, the most recent and up-to-date work is a book published this year by professor Julian Kwiek (Faculty of Humanities at the Department of Culture Studies and Research of the Digital Age of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow) entitled We don’t want Jews here. Symptoms of hostility towards Jews in 1944–1947. In his conclusion, which is also a summary, he writes
“Of the many attitudes toward the Jews, it seems that indifference, aversion, and hostility were the most evident. The reasons for this should be sought in a combination of many factors: traditional anti-Semitism, demoralization, fears related with the possibility of having to return Jewish property, common banditry caused by years of occupation and belief that Jews can be killed with impunity (…) Taking into account documented cases and not fully verified sources of data, it can be assumed that from July 27, 1944 to the end of 1947, about 1074 to 1121 people of Jewish origin were murdered “
It is not possible to provide accurately the numbers and statistics of crimes committed on Jews after the end of World War II with conventional research methods. All more or less scientific calculations are the result of far-reaching approximations, supported by conclusions and observations. The sea of sadness and tears remaining after these events will not dry up for a long time, because, unfortunately, no one cares to end this spiral of bitterness. A kind of tainted memory, a destructive and toxic memory of a lost world, was born in the victims’ families and was understood through the prism of a bad moment. For centuries, Poles and Jews had been united by a marriage of convenience, which ended in senseless acts of violence on one of the sides. It is undoubtedly one of the most tragic moments in the modern history of Poland, which has created a ballast paralyzing mutual contacts of politicians and ordinary people. The current political tensions are the immediate aftermath of this.
Contemporary political history, being formed in almost all “mature democracy” states, is held hostage by the Second World War. For a historian, this is an unpleasant statement of reality that must be accepted with humility.
Quite often you can hear that Poland is an anti-Jewish country and the Jews living in Poland feel threatened. Publicists who favor this narrative use photos of profaned cemeteries, monuments, anti-Jewish posts on the Internet and publications unfavorable to Jews to support it. Unfortunately, most of the generalizations are very dangerous because they present the world around them through the prism of simplifications and superstitions. Poland has become a specific victim of this way of thinking. Of course, there are many stereotypes related to Jews in Poland, but not every person – most of them unwittingly duplicating them – is anti-Jewish! The Internet, or more specifically social media, is full of hate speech, but you should ask yourself a basic question. Is this only a problem of Poland? In Germany alone, in 2020, according to the Centers for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), there were 1,909 anti-Jewish incidents. In Poland, as assessed by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, the percentage of people with anti-Jewish beliefs remains constant, only the power of expression changes. In Poland, anti-Jewishness is evidenced by individual cases which, are repeated and copied in the media, making them seem commonplace. Many social activists try to “set out” by dealing with the problem of anti-Jewishness, becoming over time peculiar, fairly well-paid experts on “evil”. What for? This is a topic for a separate study.
On February 20, 1997, the Act on the State’s Relationship to Jewish Religious Communities in the Republic of Poland was passed by the Seym. In Art. 11. 1. of this legal act we read: “Persons belonging to Jewish communities have the right to leave from work or education for the period of the following religious holidays, which are not statutory holidays: New Year – 2 days; 2) Day of Atonement – 1 day; 3) Feast of Weeks – 2 days; 4) Eighth Day of Assembly – 1 day; 5) Joy of the Torah – 1 day; 6) Pesach – 4 days; 7) Shavuot – 2 days . It should be emphasized that this regulation really functions as can be evidenced by the fact that the author of this text, who, as a member of the Jewish Religious Community, systematically uses this possibility, receiving a full-paid leave from a state entity. However, in order to cool down over-optimism, it must be said that as the political turmoil continues, the problem of anti-Jewishness in Poland returns, occasionally making itself known. This is most often seen in the cyclical acts of vandalism and in the intensification of anti-Jewish rhetoric in social media. I must admit that I have not encountered any acts of physical violence against Jews in recent years. In addition, it is worth remembering that Polish synagogues are not protected in any special way, this is due to the fact that there are no events that would give rise to a need for change in this situation.
When asked by a layman whether it is safe for Jews to live in Poland, I always say yes. Perhaps I am speaking from the perspective of Cracow and Warsaw, where being a Jew is now fashionable. However, there are practically no Jews in Poland, apart from larger urban centers. In the provinces, where there are remnants of Jewish culture, such as synagogues, schools or mikvahs, it is now very often a source of pride for local residents, on which you can also make some money. A great example can be Chmielnik, Zamość, Leżajsk, Sejny, Szydłów, Łańcut, Tykocin, Biłgoraj and Ostrów Wielkopolski. In Szczebrzeszyn, where the local synagogue has been beautifully restored, the festival of the Polish language is held, which was appointed by Jan Brzechwa, an outstanding Polish poet of Jewish origin, as the Capital of the Polish Language. Representing anti-Jewish views in Poland is currently a socially unacceptable attitude, stigmatized as it is against the well-understood interests of Poland, and also – which is very important – it is a non-Christian attitude. We must be aware that Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, a man who is highly revered in Poland, had many Jewish friends. Of course, there is a large part of society claiming to be Roman Catholic who are anti-Jewish.
It can be said that in Poland there is love for Jews without Jews. Unfortunately, in fact, this is an age-old problem of looking at the world. I try to see the glass as half full.
“The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021″