At the conclusion of the Third Partition in 1795, the territories of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were divided among Russia (62% of the area, 45% of the population), Prussia (20% of the land, 23% of the people) and Austria (18% of the land, 32% of the population). Although these borders were not final and would undergo revisions, most notably during the Napoleonic wars and after the Congress of Vienna, Polish independence would not return until 1918. From the time of the partitions onward, the story of Polish Jewry, like the story of Poland itself, became three separate yet often similar stories of adjustment, rejection, and cooperation between the populations of the lands of partitioned Poland and the ruling empires.
The political and economic fates of these territories would depend on decisions made in Vienna, Berlin, and Saint Petersburg, decisions made with wider imperial interests in mind, and not necessarily those of the former Polish territories. In the political realm, some of these territories would enjoy shorter or longer periods of significant legal and political autonomy within the framework of the empires: the French-sponsored Duchy of Warsaw (1807–1815), the Russian-ruled Polish Congress Kingdom (1815–1830), or the tiny Kraków Republic under the protection of the three partitioning powers (1815–1846). After Polish revolts in 1830, 1846, and 1863, these same territories lost most, if not all, of their political autonomy. The Russian government in particular cracked down on the Polish territories after 1831, and even more energetically after 1863, when the very name of Poland was erased from the official title of the region, known from 1874 officially as “Vistulaland.” The Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia (now including the Kraków region) had Polish autonomous rule after 1867. The former Polish provinces of Lithuania, plus the so-called Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) and parts of Polish Ukraine were directly incorporated into Russia, and constituted a large part of the Pale of Settlement. They would be temporarily reunited with the mainstream of Polish history and politics only in the independent Poland of the interwar period. In the Prussian partition zone, there would be a separate legal and political existence under the Grand Duchy of Posen (Poznań; 1815–1849) until the region was incorporated in the general Prussian framework. Poles there were subjected to a policy of Germanization and repression of signs of Polish nationalism, though not necessarily as harsh as in the Russian-ruled territories.
Jewish representatives to the Sejm (parliament), Poland, ca. 1920: (1) Rabbi Moszek Eli Halpern, (2) Noah Pryłucki, (3) Avraham Tsevi Perlmutter, (4) Dr. Berek Wajncier, (5) Yitsḥak Grünbaum, (6) Osjasz Thon, (7) Uri (Jerzy) Rosenblatt, (8) Ignacy Schiper. (YIVO)
Besides putting an end to Polish independence, the partitions cut off internal reform processes, but also left romantic memories of the struggle to maintain Polish independence, and aroused the first stirrings of modern Polish national feeling. They also raised the question of what “Poland” meant in the absence of an independent Polish state. Thus the specifically Polish story continued, even in the absence of formal political structures, as Poles struggled to maintain their national identity while pursuing a wide-ranging debate on the nature and dimensions of that identity, including the place of Jews within the larger Polish nation. Whether in the situation of direct imperial rule or under a series of autonomous or semiautonomous entities established by the partitioning powers, the position of the Jewish minority underwent a series of changes. With that, despite the international frontiers dividing former Polish territory and the developing connections between the Polish periphery and the various imperial centers, there still existed an overarching entity that could fairly be termed Polish Jewry with a common history and common culture, no less than a larger entity that could still be termed Poland. The three partitioning powers had different policies about how the former Polish territories should be governed and integrated into their empires. Jewish history in the Polish territories under Prussian, Austrian, and Russian rule was heavily influenced by all of these developments.
During the 123-year interval of non-Polish rule between 1795 and 1918, Polish Jewry underwent extensive change. The Jewish population dwindled in the Prussian (later German) partition, as Jews moved to cities in Germany proper or migrated overseas. In general, Jews in this region came to resemble their German coreligionists, retaining little of their Polish Jewish character. Matters were different in the 10 Russian-ruled provinces that constituted Congress Poland after 1815, as well as in the areas incorporated into the Austrian province of Galicia. There a distinctly “Polish” Jewry remained identifiable throughout. Nevertheless, even as traditional Jewish society persevered in the smaller towns and villages, powerful demographic, economic, and social changes transformed Polish Jewry into a predominantly urban and increasingly modern minority amid an overwhelmingly rural non-Jewish majority.
The Struggle for Emancipation
Jews with pushkes (charity boxes) for the organization Beys Lekhem (Pol., Dom Chleba), Biała Podlaska, 1930s. Their banners read in Polish and Yiddish: “For the benefit of the Jewish organization Beys Lekhem in Biała Podlaska.” (YIVO)
The abortive reform process embodied in the constitution of 3 May 1791 effectively relegated Jews to the status of what one reformer called “guests.” Jewish autonomy was curtailed, as Jews were placed under the direct administration of the municipal authorities. The ethnic Polish burghers who dominated the towns politically saw Jews, who often comprised the majority of the urban commercial class, as unwelcome competitors, and complaints about Jewish business practices and allegations of Jewish “separatism” resonated in Polish politics from that time onward. Even those few heirs of a liberal Polish political tradition from the ranks of the nobility or the burghers who supported equal rights for Jews, such as Mateusz Butrymowicz in the last days of the republic or, from the 1830s onward, Adam Czartoryski, conditioned that support on radical changes on the part of Jews themselves. Most Polish political leaders balked at the notion of Jewish emancipation. They regarded Jews as a problematic group whose different religion, language, and culture, not to mention numbers, meant that it was unlikely that they could eventually become full members of the Polish nation. Despite these hesitations, both in Polish exile circles and during the revolts against foreign rule in Poland, some voices called for fraternal relations between Poles and Jews for the good of their common homeland.
For their part, the new ruling empires had to deal with vastly increased Jewish populations within their borders. Each of their rulers brought ideas of enlightened absolutism to bear upon their Jewish policies. They inaugurated a process of emancipation that stretched over many decades during the nineteenth century, proceeding in fits and starts, on occasion resulting in contradictory legal acts and regulations. Complicating the process in its first decades was the fact that between 1772 and 1815 the partitioning powers redrew the partition lines. For example, Warsaw, initially under Prussian rule, became part of the French-sponsored Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 before being incorporated into the Russian-governed Kingdom of Poland in 1815. With borders shifting, Jews experienced many changes in government policy, although old laws often remained in force. To take but one instance, in the Grand Duchy of Posen, the principal area under Prussian rule, naturalization of Jews began only in 1833 (although Jewish communal autonomy was abolished in 1815). In 1848, the Jews of Posen were granted the same rights as those enjoyed by Jews in the rest of Prussia. Full emancipation came to all Jews in the Prussian monarchy, including Posen, only in 1869.
Widok rynku w Tarnowie (View of the Market in Tarnów). Zygmunt Vogel, Poland, 1800. Watercolor on paper. In the center foreground, a group of three Jewish men are depicted. Regional Museum in Tarnów, Poland. Photograph by Robert Moździerz. (MT-A-/254. Regional Museum in Tarnów, Poland)
In contrast, the constitution of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw, established by the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit in territories taken by Prussia in the second and third partitions, promised freedom and equality of all residents before the law. However, local opposition to changing the Jews’ status led to temporary regulations that postponed full citizenship rights for a decade. Those regulations outlasted the Duchy itself, which was dissolved in 1815, remaining in force in Congress Poland, which was formed out of the bulk of the Duchy’s territories. Similarly, legislation originally enacted in the Duchy that designated districts and streets (revirs) in Polish cities where Jews could live also persisted under Russian rule.
As was the case in Prussia, Russia abrogated Jewish communal autonomy. From 1822, congregational boards whose purview was restricted to religious matters governed Jewish communities. Laws governing elections to these boards gave significant weight to economic status, thereby enabling more modern Polonizing elements to exert a disproportionate role in communal affairs. Legal restrictions on Polish Jews were removed in 1862 as part of the reforms instituted by Marquis Aleksander Wielopolski. From that time, the legal status of Jews in Congress Poland was preferable to that of their fellow Jews elsewhere in the Russian Empire. This fact, along with the Congress kingdom’s developing economy, induced many Jews to migrate there, even though some discriminatory Russian legislation was introduced after the suppression of the 1863 Polish uprising.
In Galicia, Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa attempted to exploit the province and its Jews to the maximum. Her son and successor, Joseph II, issued an Edict of Toleration for Galician Jews in 1789, which removed some restrictions and admitted Jews to schools and professions previously closed to them. It was the most liberal of the similar edicts Joseph granted Jews in other Habsburg lands, but nevertheless it exhibited contradictory tendencies, and the ultimate aims of Joseph’s Jewish policy remain debatable. Whatever his motives, his successors reversed many of his more liberal measures, instituting many discriminatory laws and taxes that would remain in force until the mid-nineteenth century. Still, a small but influential minority of affluent Jewish businessmen took advantage of government incentives for “useful” Jews and gained leading positions within the Jewish community. Galician Jews finally obtained equal rights along with Jews in the rest of the Habsburg Empire when the Unification Act of 1867 struck down all previous discriminatory legislation. [See Josephinian Reforms.]
Emancipation gradually enabled Jews to organize politically on their own behalf. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, representatives of Jewish political groups were elected to the Austrian parliament and (after 1905) to the Russian duma. Jewish representatives also served on numerous city councils in Galicia. However, Jews continued to be underrepresented in relation to their percentage of the population. Nor did equality of rights for Jews extend to Jewish participation in the civil service, which remained relatively low.
One of the major issues facing Jews and their political representatives was how they should relate to the various contenders for hegemony over the territories Jews inhabited. Beginning in the late nineteenth century the imperial rule of Russia and Austria was increasingly challenged by Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and Jews felt pressure to support one or the other side. This internal debate over Jewish attitudes toward the Polish national struggle actually dated back to the time of the partitions, when Berek Joselewicz formed a Jewish legion that fought in the Kościuszko uprising of 1794. Joselewicz died in battle in 1809. In Congress Poland, he and Rabbi Dov Berush Meisels of Warsaw, who participated in the Polish rebellions of 1830–1831 and 1863, took on iconic status as symbols both of Jewish sacrifice for Poland and Polish–Jewish amity. They were not alone in fighting for Poland, as thousands of Jews, both integrationists and traditionalists, though representing a distinct minority of the Jewish population, volunteered for Polish legions and militias, supplied the rebel armies, and offered other forms of help. Some Jews who supported the insurrectionists may have been motivated by cold calculations or fear of reprisal, but many Jews genuinely believed in the Polish cause. They were convinced that Poles ruling an independent Poland would be generous in victory to Jews living there.
A similar pro-Polish orientation characterized Jewish electoral politics in Galicia from the end of the nineteenth century, as both Orthodox and liberal Jewish leaders (the latter formerly pro-Austrian both culturally and politically) struck alliances with their Polish counterparts. Nevertheless, much of the Polish political spectrum, in Galicia no less than in Congress Poland, questioned the role Jews should play in a Polish state to come.
Waleczny Berko szef szwadronu (Dov Ber, Mighty Man of Valor, Colonel in the Polish Army). Artist unknown, Poland, 1861. Lithograph honoring Berek Joselewicz, with Polish and Hebrew inscriptions. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)
With the rise of mass Polish political parties in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the subject of national minorities, including Jews, became an important issue on the public agenda. The Polish left, led by the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) under Józef Piłsudski, aspired to the restoration of Poland in the borders of the old Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Territorial minorities, such as Ukrainians, would be granted autonomy (under Polish tutelage, of course). Although Jews as individuals would enjoy equal rights, they would not have national rights in a restored Poland. It was envisioned that Jews would Polonize and assimilate in the long run. Many Jews were members of the PPS and some (e.g., Hermann Lieberman and Feliks Perl) reached leadership roles. The party set up a Jewish division (Żydowska Organizacja) that sought to spread its ideas among the Jewish masses.
The Polish right, embodied in the National Democrats under Roman Dmowski, envisioned a more compact, more ethnically Polish Poland in the future (although they too felt that some territories in the east, even if not majority Polish, should be retained by Poland for strategic or historical reasons). In their view, the aspirations of the national minorities should not be acknowledged. As far the Jews were concerned, the party developed an openly antisemitic stance, portraying Jews as an alien force unfairly dominating the business and commercial life of Poland. There was simply no place for most of Poland’s Jewish masses in the state envisioned by the National Democrats, and they preached the goal of mass Jewish emigration from Poland. On the eve of World War I, after the contentious election campaign for the Fourth Russian Duma in 1912 (in which the Warsaw district returned a socialist candidate instead of the favored candidate of the right), the Polish right embarked on an economic boycott of Jewish businesses, a tactic that would continue in the interwar period.
This same period witnessed the rise in former Congress Poland of Jewish mass political parties (the Zionists and the Bund) that included in their platforms, along with demands for equal individual rights and nondiscrimination, demands for recognition of Jews as a national group deserving of national autonomy and recognition of their national language and culture in any future Polish democratic state. In Galicia, Jewish political activity dated back to the 1870s, and Jewish deputies representing a wide spectrum of parties (assimilationist, Orthodox, Zionist) served in the Austrian parliament.
Economic, Social, and Demographic Changes
Congress Poland experienced rapid and extensive socioeconomic change during the nineteenth century. Although the vast majority of Poland’s population remained rural, urban settlements grew notably. As in other countries, the “push” of poverty and overpopulation in the countryside and the “pull” of new job opportunities brought many people to the developing cities in search of better lives. A boom in industry and commerce began in midcentury, the result in part of administrative decisions taken in the 1820s, when the Russian authorities encouraged German weavers and industrial workers to settle in a number of towns in the Łódź region by guaranteeing them special privileges. Thanks to this action, Łódź, Zgierz, Pabianice, and other nearby locales gradually developed into major centers of mechanized textile production. By the mid-1860s, many factories had been established, including Jewish-owned ones. Jews also played a significant role in the development of Warsaw and Białystok as major industrial areas.
Memorial ceremony at the Jewish Handicrafts School on the anniversary of the death of Józef Piłsudski, first president of independent Poland, Pinsk, 1930s. (YIVO)
The economic transformation of Congress Poland received a decisive boost in the years 1865–1870, thanks, among other things, to the removal in 1851 of the customs border between Russia and the Congress Kingdom, the cessation of British imports to Russia during the Crimean War, the opening of a railway between Warsaw and Saint Petersburg, and the 1862 decree abolishing legal restrictions on Polish Jews. By the end of the nineteenth century, Congress Poland was the most economically developed part of the Russian Empire—a remarkable development, considering the oppressive character of the Russian occupation, especially after the suppression of the Polish insurrection of January 1863.
The economic situation in Galicia was quite different, largely because Austrian policies were deliberately aimed at keeping the province undeveloped. Jews remained in their traditional roles as leaseholders on estates, petty artisans, and merchants. They dominated trade in the province until the end of the nineteenth century, when cooperatives attempted to challenge the Jews’ ascendancy in the exchange of agricultural products. Poverty was widespread among Galician Jews, a situation that encouraged emigration to Vienna, other parts of the empire, and abroad. On the other hand, Jewish commercial elites in cities such as Brody (which enjoyed free trade status at the beginning of the nineteenth century) Tarnopol, or Drohobycz, as well as in major metropolises such as Kraków or Lwów, played important roles in whatever industrial development did take place in the region (e.g., the oil industry), as well as in internal Jewish political and cultural movements. Also, it appears that a relatively large number of Jews in Galicia derived their livelihood from agriculture and food production, although scholars dispute the exact dimensions of the phenomenon.
Doubts exist regarding the accuracy of census data until the late nineteenth century. Still, certain demographic patterns seem clear. Foremost among them was the continued growth of Polish Jewry throughout the century, both in absolute and relative terms. Some of this growth stemmed from migration of Jews from the Pale of Settlement into Congress Poland in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but a large part can be attributed to natural increase, due mostly to a generally lower Jewish death rate. Jews emigrating to Western Europe or the United States offset this growth. Existing sources are often ambiguous about the dimensions of this outward migration.
Jewish population figures for Congress Poland are shown in Table 1: Jewish Population of Congress Poland. Over the entire period shown in the table, the total population of the region increased less than four times, while the Jewish population increased sevenfold. Galicia showed a similar pattern of significant growth in its Jewish population, a considerable exodus of Jews from the province notwithstanding (see Table 2: Jewish Population of Galicia).
There was a significant difference between eastern and western Galicia, however. In predominantly Polish western Galicia, Jews numbered 213,173 in 1910 (7.9% of the total population), whereas in largely Ukrainian eastern Galicia there were 658,722 Jews (12.3%). These patterns had originated two centuries earlier and more, when Jews, facing stiff economic competition and discriminatory legislation in older Polish cities in the western part of the province, found a more congenial atmosphere on the vast noble estates and private cities in the east. In any event, all parts of Congress Poland and Galicia (and large portions of the Pale of Settlement as well) felt the demographic weight of historic Polish Jewry: in no other region of Europe did Jews constitute such a high percentage of the general population. Descendants of the Jews of pre-partition Poland make up the bulk of world Jewry.
In cities, the special situation of the Jewish minority stands out even more. Jews had constituted a major part of the urban population of the largely rural Polish commonwealth since medieval times. In the eighteenth century, a significant portion of the Polish Jewish population resided in rural areas on estates of the nobles, but most Jews still resided in communities of 500 or more. In the nineteenth century, an already mostly urbanized Jewish community became almost entirely urban. Two Jewish metropolises arose in Warsaw and Łódź, plus numerous medium-to-large concentrations of Jews in the administrative and industrial centers of Congress Poland and Galicia.
The demographic and economic profiles of the Jewish and Christian populations differed sharply. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Christian population remained overwhelmingly agricultural, with only 15 percent living in cities. By contrast, the Jewish population was already 80 percent urban in 1827, and by 1865 the figure reached 91.5 percent. Jews were concentrated in urban occupations—commerce and manufacturing—and dominated those areas of economic activity. The move toward some urbanization of the Christian population started much later. Only in the 1870s did villagers start to stream to cities, when as the result of agrarian reform they found themselves without land or with lands insufficient to provide a livelihood. Thus the population of Łódź grew six times in the period 1869–1897 (from 50,000 to 315,000), while the Jewish population grew tenfold (from 10,000 to 98,700). A similar pattern was evident in the nearby smaller town of Zgierz (see Table 3: Jewish Population of Zgierz).
Within Congress Poland, a general westward shift of the pattern of Jewish settlement was evident, as Jews migrated from the less developed guberniias in the north and east to the more developed ones in the center and west. In the period 1843–1897, approximately one-fourth of the Jews in the Congress Kingdom made this relocation.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, a noticeable number of Jews from the Pale of Settlement moved into the Congress Kingdom. The relative freedom of movement granted to Jews in Congress Poland by the 1862 decree attracted Jews from other parts of the empire who sought greater economic and political freedom. This tendency intensified in the wake of the wave of pogroms in Russia in 1882 and the expulsion from Moscow in 1891. The migrants were called Litvaks by both Poles and Polish Jews, although many of them did not come from Lithuania. Estimates for the size of this influx vary, ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 Litvaks in Congress Poland by World War I.
The new arrivals came mainly to the big cities and participated in commerce and industry. Many used their contacts within Russia to market Polish textiles. Litvaks also made their mark in cultural and political fields. Many of the pioneers of modern Hebrew and Yiddish education, as well as the leadership of the Zionist and Bundist movements in Poland, came from their ranks.
Pogrzeb pięciu poległych w Warszawie, 2 marca 1861 na Cmentarzu Powązkowskim (The Funeral of the Five Victims of the Demonstration of 2 March 1861 in Warsaw at the Powazki Cemetery). Aleksander Lesser, 1866. Oil on canvas. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)
Standard historical works record hostility toward the Litvaks among Poles and Polish Jews alike. The migrants faced some antipathy from local Jews, both as economic and professional competitors and because of cultural differences. They also provided a focus for the antagonism of extreme Polish nationalists, who saw them not only as bearers of Russian culture and separatist Jewish tendencies but also as an element that bolstered Jewish numbers through the Polish Kingdom.
One major result of the internal migration of Polish Jews was the emergence of a large Jewish industrial proletariat. This working class would not fit the classic Marxist definition of the proletariat, since Jewish industry in Poland was based in thousands of small shops and piecework done in private homes. This system of manufacturing through contractors and subcontractors was built on a complicated and perilous combination of promissory notes and letters of credit, which, although it allowed Jewish industry and trade to proceed, collapsed on occasion like a house of cards. Most Jewish workers were employed in small enterprises, concentrated in a few branches of industry. Few were employed in large factories, even those owned by Jewish entrepreneurs. Numerous explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, ranging from Sabbath observance to the antipathy of Polish coworkers.
In the industrializing cities of Congress Poland, Jews became a fixture of the urban landscape. Entire quarters of Warsaw, Łódź, and other cities grew to accommodate Jewish-owned housing and industrial facilities. Jewish entrepreneurs, beginning with such figures as Shmul Zbytkower in the eighteenth century and his descendants, continuing in the nineteenth century with industrialists and financiers such as Leopold Kronenberg, Hipolit Wawelberg, Herman Epstein, Israel Poznański and others, built up an industrial and financial infrastructure that would outlive the great Polish Jewish center itself. Many of these same Jewish captains of industry and finance also functioned as patrons of the arts and as employers of artists, serving as major supporters of the preservation and promotion of Polish art and culture. They founded educational institutions from which would emerge the expanded Polish intelligentsia and eventually the new class of civil servants of the reborn Polish state, and sustained numerous philanthropic and educational institutions within the Jewish community.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish presence in the cities was unmistakable, as shown by the percentage of Jews in the provincial capitals and other major urban areas (see Table 4: Percentage of Jews in Selected Provincial Capitals and Major Cities in Congress Poland (1897) and Galicia (1900)). The Jewish presence was even more marked in smaller urban centers, usually called by the term shtetl, or market town, which could vary in size from several hundred to several thousand in population, but one of its distinguishing features was a large, often dominant Jewish presence. Russian census figures from 1897 list 462 towns with an absolute Jewish majority in the guberniias of the Pale and Poland, including 116 with a Jewish population of more than 80 percent. Historians have remarked that this phenomenon of what for all practical purposes were “Jewish” towns left its mark on the very identity of Polish Jews, whose life experience was not that of a minority. Even though the majority of Polish Jews lived in cities, the image and reality of the shtetl often figured prominently in public discussions about Polish Jewry’s future. Frequent denunciations of the shtetl’s backwardness were heard and one or another formula for its reform was offered.
Profound social changes also came upon Polish Jewry during the nineteenth century. One key area of change was in language. Yiddish remained the major language of Polish Jews; according to the 1897 Russian census, 84 percent of Warsaw Jews used that language. Yet more than 10 percent of the city’s Jews (and similar percentages in Galicia’s two largest urban centers, Kraków and Lwów) declared Polish to be their mother tongue—a significant change from earlier eras. A Polish language press, most notably producing the journals Jutrzenka and Izraelita, written by Jews and aimed at a Jewish and general audience, developed in Warsaw and other cities. Growing circles of Jews were educated in Polish secondary schools and universities. Even affluent Hasidic families often sent their daughters to Polish private schools. However, receiving a Polish secondary and higher education did not necessarily imply (as it had in earlier generations) an integrationist or assimilationist stance. Younger members of Polonized families could become active Zionists or Bundists. One scholar has noted that many Jews distinguished between use of the Polish language (polszczyzna) and Polishness (polskość)—a distinction many Poles found confusing, even enraging.
The pace and extent of Polonization varied from place to place, depending on such factors as the availability of Polish schools or the presence of a nucleus of intellectually inclined younger people. Variations could be observed even within the confines of a single nuclear family. Thus on the eve of World War I in the small town of Wadowice (later famous as the birthplace of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II), the community was almost equally divided between Hasidic and progressive Polonized factions.
Invitation from the Vilna Kehillah to composer and choir director Leo Liow to attend a service at the Great Synagogue in honor of a visit from Ignacy Mościcki , the president of the Polish Republic, 20 June 1930. Yiddish and Hebrew. RG 1140, Leo Low Papers, F3. (YIVO)
Despite all these inroads of Polish into the “Jewish street,” literary and journalistic creativity in Yiddish and Hebrew proceeded apace, as did the founding of modern Jewish schools. In the late nineteenth century, Warsaw became the center for Hebrew publishing in the Russian Empire. The Hebrew journal Ha-Tsefirah, edited by Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski and then by Naḥum Sokolow, at first a weekly and from the mid-1880s a daily, became a major Jewish public forum. Yiddish literary activity also began to flourish in the last decades of the nineteenth century, centered on Y. L. Peretz and his disciples and, in the first decades of the twentieth century, around younger figures such as Sholem Asch and Hillel Zeitlin, among many others. Yiddish dailies that were aimed at a much wider reading public also began to appear in Warsaw in the early twentieth century, among them what would later become the two major dailies of interwar Poland, Haynt and Moment. In a number of Polish cities and towns, in the decades before World War I there were attempts by educational pioneers to establish a new model of a ḥeder metukan (reformed heder) and other forms of modern Hebrew education, although the heder remained the main avenue of instruction for Jewish males.
Extensive modernization notwithstanding, traditional Jews still made up the bulk of Polish Jewry into the interwar period. The traditional camp was a highly variegated group, encompassing wealthy industrialists, small artisans, and city- and shtetl-dwellers from a range of other social sectors. One new and growing phenomenon in the nineteenth century was the visible presence of the Hasidic movement in large cities no less than in small towns and villages. The issue of Hasidism’s increasing importance generated a lively public debate between maskilim and Polish publicists, most of whom (but not all) regarded the populist, mystical movement as a negative phenomenon. In Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków, and other cities, Hasidic leaders came into direct confrontation with modernizing movements and eventually took up modern tools, such as daily newspapers and political parties, in their struggle to preserve tradition. However, as with many traditional families, even the households of these leaders were not immune from the lure of secular values and lifestyles. Still, in smaller cities and towns, traditional forces often slowed the appearance of secular Jewish organizations and modern Jewish schools, in some cases thwarting this threat entirely. Jewish youth in these towns received their education in the heder, and shunned the government schools. By the eve of World War I, however, defections from the traditionalist camp grew apace, and at least some rabbis believed that the old way of life was doomed, unless Orthodox Jews were to organize themselves. Leading Polish rabbis and Hasidic rebbes who shared this perception were among the founders of Agudas Yisroel, the world movement of Orthodox Jews, in 1912, and its Polish branch in 1916.
Yet another prominent Jewish cultural type was represented by the Jewish plutocracy of Warsaw and other major cities. This group had been forming since the late eighteenth century, when a small number of Jewish entrepreneurs and financiers had gained the right to settle in the capital. By the end of the nineteenth century, their numbers had grown considerably, although scholars estimate that altogether the industrialists and upper bourgeoisie amounted to no more than 5 percent of Warsaw Jewry. Nevertheless, these self-styled “Poles of the Mosaic Faith” played a disproportionate role in the life of Warsaw and Warsaw Jewry. Polish society as a whole regarded them as a group apart that nonetheless had a close connection to the masses of Jewry, even though some of its members converted to Christianity. Many of the converts, such as Jan Bloch, continued to regard themselves as Jews, or at least maintained some ties to the Jewish community, involved themselves in charitable projects aimed at Jews, and intervened with government officials in times of perceived danger to Jews. Though far removed from religious tradition, the wealthy assimilationist circles dominated the board of the Warsaw Jewish community for the half century before World War I and gave financial support to numerous educational and cultural initiatives.
Rabbi Binyamin Graubart (second row, center) with teachers and students of the Mizraḥi Talmud Torah on the holiday of Lag ba-‘Omer, Staszów, Poland, ca. 1920s. It is traditional to play with bows and arrows on Lag ba-‘Omer. Photograph by A. Rotenberg. (YIVO)
In Galicia, the characteristics of this group underwent a somewhat different development. During the first half of the nineteenth century, modernizing Galician Jewish elites had gravitated toward German culture, but later a trend toward a Polish orientation slowly became evident. Still, even on the eve of World War I, many Galician Jewish intellectuals were educated in Vienna, and their connection to German culture was not completely severed despite their clear pro-Polish sympathies. As was the case with their counterparts in Congress Poland, the business elite of Galician Jewry played a disproportionate role in administering Jewish communities and supporting cultural modernization. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, with Polish–Jewish tensions mounting, the assimilationist model had lost much of its luster.
At the opposite end of the social pyramid, the two decades before World War I witnessed the emergence of a Jewish labor and socialist movement. The first socialist groups among Polish Jews had already appeared in the 1860s, drawing their support from students from assimilationist families. Strike activity among workers in the major industrial centers of Warsaw and Łódź was first documented in the 1880s but became more frequent in the 1890s, including a wave of strikes in Warsaw that lasted from 1895 to 1897. Around this time, a debate raged among both Jewish and Polish socialists on the issue of forming a separate Jewish socialist movement to represent the special needs of the Jewish proletariat. Theoreticians such as John Mill developed a concept of Jewish nationalism and personal (as opposed to territorial) minority rights for Jews, a position rejected by most of the leaders of the Polish Socialist Party, including its leaders of Jewish origin. Like many of his compatriots among the socialist Jewish activists in Congress Poland, Mill, one of the founders of the Bund, hailed originally from the Lithuanian region of the Pale of Settlement. The Bund played a prominent role in strike activity and political protest surrounding the revolutionary events of 1905 and their aftermath. With the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent German occupation of much of former Polish territory, the Polish section of the Bund (now cut off from the mother party in Russia) began its independent existence, and in the interwar period it became one of the major political and social forces on the “Jewish street.” Other socialist and socialist Zionist groupings were active in Poland, including the Warsaw society of Po‘ale Tsiyon (founded in 1903).
Similar processes took place among Jewish workers and socialist activists in Galicia. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, attempts were made to establish a Jewish workers’ party that would be joined in a federation with Polish and Ukrainian workers’ parties. These attempts encountered determined opposition from the Polish Social Democratic Party of Galicia (PPSD), even though (or perhaps because) many of its rank-and-file and leaders were Jewish. Finally, a Jewish Social Democratic Party (Żydowska Partia Socjalno-Demokratyczna; ŻPS) was founded in Galicia in 1905, advocating the idea of national cultural autonomy for Jews and recognition of Yiddish as the Jewish national language. This party remained in existence until 1920, when it merged with the Polish Bund.
“Come to Krejngl’s Hall at 4 Ludwisarska Street to a protest meeting against numerus clausus.” Poster in Polish and Yiddish. Printed by Szymanowicza, Vilna, 1937. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.608. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)
The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth also witnessed the consolidation of the Zionist movement in Poland. Although there had been small groups of Zionist sympathizers in some Polish towns from the period of the Lovers of Zion (the early 1880s), both contemporary observers and historians noted the relative weakness of the movement in the region of former Congress Poland. As in the case of the Bund, many of the founders of organized political Zionism in Poland were “Litvaks.” Such newcomers to Congress Poland noted in their memoirs the difficulties they encountered in promoting Zionism in a region where integrationists and Hasidim predominated, and both groups harbored warm feelings for the restoration of Polish independence. Thus, at first, the Zionist movement in that region attained less popularity than in Lithuania, Ukraine, or Galicia. From the first decade of the twentieth century, however, and especially after the Revolution of 1905 and the adoption of the Helsingfors program in 1906 (calling for Zionist participation in the struggle for national rights for Jews in the Diaspora), Zionist groups and Zionist leaders became serious contenders for the leadership of the Jewish community in Congress Poland, and took an active part in political campaigns at the national and communal level. Within the organized communities, however, this potential was not yet transformed into political power, and the assimilationists and Orthodox still reigned. In Galicia, where a more democratic atmosphere had prevailed for several decades, Zionism faced less opposition both from Hasidic elements (usually apolitical at this stage) and from socialists, and thus gained a much more prominent place in the Jewish community even before World War I.
All in all, on the eve of World War I, the representatives of the new Jewish politics, whether of the Bundist, General Zionist, or Socialist Zionist variety, had made their presence felt on the “Jewish street,” and mounted a growing challenge to the established leadership of the Jewish plutocrats and the Orthodox.
World War I brought both disaster and opportunity to Polish Jewry. Along with the rest of the population, Jews suffered widespread economic hardship, largely because major battles were fought in the regions of dense Jewish population. The fighting led hundreds of thousands of Jewish (and other) refugees to flee to Vienna and Warsaw. Confiscatory policies of the German occupation authorities and expulsions of Jews by the Russian government brought further privation. On the other hand, the German occupation authority legalized Jewish political activity. In local elections (particularly to the Warsaw municipal council), existing Jewish parties honed their platforms and strategies, and new parties—Agudas Yisroel, the Folkists—appeared on the scene. By the end of the war, almost the entire political spectrum of Jewish political parties that would function in the interwar period had come into existence. In addition, a new young leadership gained in stature by organizing rescue and rehabilitation activities when traditional communal leaders proved unable to cope with unprecedented emergency conditions. The exposure of refugees in Vienna to contemporary European political and ideological currents had consequences in interwar Poland in realms as divergent as the Zionist youth groups and the Beys Yankev Orthodox schools for young women.
In Interwar Poland, 1918–1939
Polish Republic in the Interwar Period, ca. 1930s.
The collapse of the three great empires that had partitioned Poland more than a century before led to a new political situation for Poland and Polish Jewry alike. The day of the armistice ending World War I—11 November 1918—was also the day Polish independence was restored. After more than a century of foreign rule, the Second Polish Republic began a protracted period of economic reconstruction and political and social consolidation. The long-simmering question of the Jews’ place in Polish society and politics now engaged the attention of the leadership of the new state as well as the international community.
Polish Jews greeted the rebirth of the Polish Republic with hopes and trepidation. The years just before independence had offered some positive signs but even more question marks, as Polish representatives had done little to satisfy Jewish concerns regarding education, language use, or equal opportunity in the public sphere. Moreover, the new state’s borders were not settled for several years after the Second Republic was proclaimed, and Jews in the disputed areas faced conflicting pressures on their loyalties. In the Vilna region, Jews had been encouraged when the emerging Lithuanian leadership guaranteed them national minority rights; the Polish conquest of Vilna in 1919 dashed their expectations. In Białystok, Jews questioned the very inclusion of their city in a Polish state, even after they had been part of Poland for several years. In eastern Galicia, where Poles had dominated during the late Habsburg period, Jews found themselves in the middle of a struggle between Poles and Ukrainians. The official Jewish position of neutrality satisfied neither of the contending forces, and Jews were attacked, predominantly by Poles. Such violence, especially attacks perpetrated by soldiers of General Józef Haller’s Polish army, newly arrived from France, did little to endear the new state to Jews. Nevertheless, on the whole the attitude of Jews toward the reborn Polish state seems to have been positive, even enthusiastic. Most Jews hoped that the periods of intense Polish–Jewish cooperation in the past would serve as the model for the new era.
Members of the Hirszowicz family, owners of one of the largest printing companies in Poland, in the Saxon Gardens, Warsaw, 1920s. (YIVO)
Still, Jewish and Polish political leaders differed fundamentally over the definition of the new state. Jews envisioned the Second Republic as a modern reincarnation of the old Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multiethnic, multinational, and religiously diverse country. In contrast, many Poles sought an ethnic Polish nation-state, where minorities would enjoy second-class status at best. This disagreement was never bridged, and it made Jewish politics in interwar Poland seem like an exercise in futility. The same nationalist ideas that had inspired the rebirth of independent Poland also made the other peoples of the region—Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belorussians, and Jews—demand at the least some form of national autonomy. At the Paris Peace Conference, the victorious powers created a system for minority protection alongside the new national states, ostensibly designed to protect those national groups that ended in a state ruled by another. As a condition of international recognition, Poland was required to include in its constitution guarantees that proportional funds would be allocated to Jewish schools, that except in national emergencies Jews would not be forced to violate their Sabbath, and that elections would not be held on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. Polish representatives blamed Jewish lobbying for what they saw as an insult to Polish national honor. In the long run, the minority protection system proved of little use for Polish Jews. Institutional discrimination continued throughout the interwar period; no allocations of funds for Jewish institutions were made; and protection of Sabbath observance was less consequential for Jews than laws that forced them to close their businesses on Sundays. Yet Jews hardly ever appealed for redress to the League of Nations, the body entrusted with enforcement of the treaty for which many Poles blamed the Jews in the first place.
Members of Morgnroyt (Dawn), a socialist organization or union, marching in a May Day parade, Tarnów, 1933. The Yiddish banner reads, “Workers Socialist Society Morgnroyt, 1923–1933.” (YIVO)
The demography and economic life of interwar Polish Jewry reflected both continuity with the preindependence era and the new conditions of the Second Republic, in which a poor, only partly modernized state, cut off from many of its former markets, had to unite formerly separate political units and build an economic infrastructure from scratch. Polish Jews remained the largest Jewish community in Europe, numbering 2.8 million (10.5% of Poland’s population) in 1921 and 3.1 million (9.8%) in 1931. However, Jewish population growth was slowing, due, among other things, to an appreciable rise in the average marriage age of Jews compared to that of Christians. Still, Jews constituted the second largest minority in Poland after Ukrainians. Unlike Ukrainians, however, who were concentrated in east Galicia, the Jewish minority was spread throughout the country (although the Jewish presence in the formerly German provinces was negligible, since that region had been emptied of Jews in the previous century). Interwar Polish Jewry was thus marked by considerable regional variations, which expressed themselves in Yiddish dialect, ritual practices, culinary customs, political style, religious attitudes, and general temperament. Jews still made their livelihood mainly from commerce and industry and remained an urban minority in a generally rural country, even if the Polish urban population was now growing at a faster rate. Nevertheless, thousands of Jews continued to inhabit the countryside and small towns, carrying on traditional Jewish occupations.
Trends toward modernization in the Polish economy tended to bypass Jews; discriminatory policies in public employment, public works projects, and the awarding of credit by central banks remained major obstacles to any realignment of the Jewish economy in Poland. Nevertheless, a growing class of Jewish professionals arose in interwar Poland, with some distortions in professional distribution due to discrimination. Jewish civil servants were few and far between (many of them holdovers from the Austrian period in Galicia), and Jewish lawyers and physicians were concentrated in private practice, since government offices and hospitals did not hire them. General economic problems in the country and specific pressure on Jewish tradesmen also led to a growing proletarianization of the Jewish masses. Poverty was the lot of much of Polish Jewry in this era, and historians debate the basic economic viability of the community. Immigration quotas introduced in the United States in the 1920s eliminated the safety valve of mass emigration to that country. Nevertheless, in the period 1926–1937, a total of 28,811 Polish Jews immigrated to the United States (56% of the amount from Poland in that period). Other countries became the destination of Jewish emigrants in this period, such as Canada (15,984 in 1926–1937), Mexico (2,360 in that period), Brazil (34,069), Argentina (36,233), Cuba (2,833), and Uruguay (5,497). Jews made up a large percentage of the immigrants from Poland to Latin American countries in that period. Jewish migration from Poland was overwhelmingly overseas and permanent, as opposed to non-Jewish migration, which was primarily within Europe and had significant numbers of returnees. The primary destination for Jewish migration from interwar Poland was Palestine, with 125,154 of registered new arrivals from 1919–1937 (46.6%) coming from there.
Jewish and non-Jewish students from the state gymnasium, Chełm, 1934. (YIVO)
For the most part, however, Jews remained in Poland and carried on a frustrating struggle for their basic political rights in the face of discrimination and, in the 1930s, growing hostile agitation and violence. Throughout the interwar period, a large proportion of Polish Jewry faced increasing pauperization, wherein the general difficulties of living in a poor country undergoing major economic transformation were compounded by antisemitism and ongoing discrimination. To deal with this challenge, Polish Jewry developed a wide variety of voluntary self-help organizations that provided needed services for thousands of individuals and families. These ranged from expanded social welfare departments of the organized Jewish communities in the larger cities, to major nationwide organizations such as the health organization TOZ or the CENTOS organization for the care of orphans, to a large number of credit unions and interest-free loan associations sponsored by political parties, merchants’ associations, and private individuals. Foreign philanthropic agencies, most notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also played an important role in the reconstruction of Polish Jewry after World War I and in helping Jews deal with ongoing economic and social difficulties. The Joint provided both direct aid and support for the social services infrastructure of the community.
Members of the Jewish Repertory Theater in a scene from the third act of Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), by Georg Büchner, directed by Michał Weichert, at the Nowości Theater, Warsaw, 1930. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
Interwar Polish Jewry was a living laboratory for modern Jewish political and social ideologies. An intense debate over the nature of Jewish identity was carried on by a greater variety of Jewish parties and movements than ever assembled before or since, not only in the Diaspora but in the State of Israel as well. Generally, the thought that Jews should present themselves as “Poles of the Mosaic faith” lost influence, while various programs that took as their starting point the idea that Jews comprised a modern “nation” gained ground. Arguments were marked occasionally by violence, but usually by overheated rhetoric. Often they reflected regional differences. Internal debate notwithstanding, however, Jewish representatives in the Sejm and city councils, as well as community boards, carried on a futile and frustrating struggle to defend Jewish rights against governmental discrimination and varying expressions of public hostility. No one party and no one political tactic dominated interwar Polish Jewry. The three main Jewish political streams—Zionism, the Bund, and Agudas Yisroel—each had their own constituencies and advanced different political strategies. Most Zionists (especially in Congress Poland) advocated alliance with other minorities, although Galician Zionists tended to work for reconciliation and nonconfrontation with the Polish majority. The Bund favored a pact with the Polish socialist left, while the Aguda sought an alliance with the government (except in 1922, when it joined the National Minorities Bloc).
In the end, all of these tactics proved ineffective: the major Jewish demands were never met. The best that Jews could expect was bureaucratic amelioration, achieved by intercession on behalf of individuals. Although discrimination abated somewhat after Marshal Józef Piłsudski seized power in 1926, the basic situation of Jews in the army, civil service, and the universities changed little. In the 1930s, especially after the death of Piłsudski in 1935, the situation worsened considerably. The numerus clausus was enacted in more and more institutions of higher learning, followed by “ghetto benches” in the lecture halls for the dwindling number of Jewish students; legislation placed limitations on kosher slaughter; professional associations expelled Jewish members; and a series of pogroms and attacks struck Jews in a number of cities and towns. Beyond sounding an anguished protest, Jewish political representatives could do little against these measures. Nevertheless, the politicization of Polish Jewry was a crucial process. The Polish government never recognized Jewish communal autonomy de jure, but autonomy existed de facto in hundreds of local communities, school systems, and youth movements during the interwar period.
A group of Jewish men on the eve of their induction into the Polish army at the age of 21, with a portrait of Marxist Zionist theoretician and founder of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party Ber Borokhov, Lublin, 1919. (YIVO)
Numbers, ideological variety, and curricular and linguistic innovations distinguished the various school systems established by Polish Jews in the interwar period. Tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters studied in modern schools in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish under private or communal Jewish auspices. These school networks included Tarbut, Ḥorev (Yesode ha-Torah and Beys Yankev), Yavneh, and TSYSHO. Others—more than three-quarters of Jewish children—were educated in Polish public schools. There were clear regional distinctions in education, with the private Jewish networks strongest in the eastern regions—areas of mixed population where Polish culture was less dominant (in eastern Galicia, ethnic Poles were also a minority, but a tradition of Polish public schooling had existed from the time of autonomy under the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Almost all Jewish children now received their education in schools in which secular education was a major component, and no longer in the heder. The schools of Agudas Yisroel were no exception, and the introduction of formal religious education for girls in the Beys Yankev network also represented a major innovation. The interwar period also witnessed an upsurge in the founding of yeshivas, including numerous Hasidic ones in Galicia and elsewhere and a large elite yeshiva in Lublin.
Jewish cultural and educational activity in interwar Poland included the beginnings of higher education and organized historical research, centered in such institutions as the Institute of Jewish Studies (Instytut Nauk Judaistycznych) in Warsaw (founded in 1928), and the YIVO Institute in Vilna (founded in 1925). Among the Jewish scholars associated with these initiatives were Majer Bałaban, Mojżesz Schorr, Edmund Stein, Max Weinreich, and Abraham Weiss. Historians such as Bałaban and Ignacy Schiper trained younger scholars and wrote for scholarly audiences, but also produced popular works on Jewish history and culture, and often contributed articles on historical topics to the daily press. A younger circle of historians, among them Emanuel Ringelblum, Artur Eisenbach, Filip Friedman, Bella Mandelsberg-Schildkraut and Raphael Mahler, made their first contributions to historical literature during the interwar period.
Children and their teachers, Tomaszów, Poland, ca. 1935–1938. Photograph by Roman Vishniac. (© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center of Photography / Print courtesy YIVO)
Another forum in which the debate over the definition and future of Judaism and the Jewish people found expression was in the voluminous daily, weekly, and monthly Jewish press produced in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish. An incomplete catalog of Yiddish periodicals in interwar Poland lists more than 1,700 daily newspapers, periodicals, and one-time publications that appeared in major cities and small provincial towns. In Warsaw alone, there were approximately a dozen dailies in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew, with a total circulation of almost 100,000 at their height. Among the most important of these were Haynt (average circulation ca. 25,000), Moment (ca. 25,000), Folks-tsaytung (ca. 15,000), and Der Yud / Dos yudishe togblat (ca. 13,000). The Hebrew daily Ha-Tsefirah appeared irregularly, finally ceasing operation in 1931. Among the Polish-language Jewish dailies, the most prominent were Nasz Przegląd (Warsaw, 1923–1939), Nowy Dziennik (Kraków, 1918–1939), and Chwila (Lwów, 1919–1939). Jewish theater and film also gained in prominence, with such theatrical groups as the Vilner Trupe and the Varshever Yiddisher Kunst-teater demonstrating that Yiddish theater could present dramatic material at the highest professional level. These and other ensembles, however, suffered almost constant financial distress. In the 1930s Yiddish films such as Der dibek (1936) showed artistic achievement that was just beginning to flourish when cut off by World War II. Jewish actors also featured prominently in Polish theater.
A most impressive aspect of interwar Polish Jewry was the development of Jewish youth movements and a Jewish youth culture, which provided Jewish young people with an ideology and worldview, formal and informal education, vocational training, and above all an alternative to what many of them regarded as the drab and hopeless reality of their parents and families. Among the most important movements were Tsukunft, affiliated with the Bund; the Zionist movements Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, Gordonia, Dror/Frayhayt, Akiva, and Betar; the Orthodox youth movements Tse‘ire Mizraḥi and Ha-Shomer ha-Dati of the religious Zionists, and Tseirey Agudas Yisroel and Bnos Agudas Yisroel, both affiliated with Agudas Yisroel. This separate world, with some aspects of underground political activity, would prove crucial in the Holocaust period in the organization of underground work and Jewish resistance.
On the eve of World War II, Polish Jews made valiant efforts to maintain their perilous position in the face of hostility at home and quickly disappearing options abroad. Whether the difficult conditions might eventually have been ameliorated and the unprecedented cultural achievements of interwar Polish Jewry been matched by social acceptance and material prosperity will never be known. The outbreak of war put an abrupt end to a community whose vitality was unprecedented in Jewish history.