The History of the Jews of Poland

1800 - 1939

As the 19th century began, the Jewish community differed from the other groups of citizens of the partitioned country in their speech, customs and religion. They were also in different legal positions which were defined in the statutes of each of the ruling powers and the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw (1807-15) created by Napoleon. The laws that were derived from the period of the Commonwealth (prior to partition), laid down different rules for each estate: the gentry, the clergy, the burghers and the peasants. The place of Jews in society was defined by separate laws and thus they formed another independent estate.

The foreign partitioning powers introduced many changes to these laws, for the most part to the detriment of their Jewish populations as compared with their status in pre-partition Poland. In spite of this regression, it was during the 19th century that the process of gradual emancipation of Jews was initiated. This was closely connected with the social liberation aims of the rest of the population.

In the part of Poland which was governed by Austria, the basic legal regulations concerning Jews were introduced during the late 18th century. They restricted the number of occupations that Jews were allowed to perform (for example they were forbidden to be chemists, brewers or flour-millers), engaging in trade was limited and some of the Jews were forced to move from country to towns. It should be added that some towns still enjoyed the privilege of de non tolerandis Judaeis, such as Biala, Jaslo, Wieliczka and Zywiec. In others, the occupation authorities forced the Jews to live in special quarters, ghettos, in the cities of Lvov, Nowy Sacz and Tarnow. These new regulations, which were introduced as a ''progressive reform'', contributed to the worsening of the living conditions of a large part of Jewish society. According to estimates, in the 1820's in Galicia over forty per cent of all Jews had no permanent employment thus forming the proletariat (Luftmenshen) who lived ''from the air''.

These restrictions applied above all to the poor strata whom the Austrian authorities thought to be a troublesome element. On the other hand, rich entrepreneurs enjoyed a relatively wide scope of freedom of activity. Thus this policy led to the intensification of material and social differences among the Jews. While certain individuals managed to acquire riches, the overwhelming majority lived in poverty.

Jewish merchants played important role in Galicia. Major trade centers were Lvov and Brody. The latter became a large commercial center in Central Europe due to its convenient location across communication routes and to it acquiring, in the first half of the 19th century, customs privileges which promoted trade with Russia.

Basic changes in the situation of Galician Jewry took place after 1848. Jews were active in the revolutionary movement of the period, which resulted in a Polish-Jewish reconciliation and Jewish emancipation. In the years following 1859 the Austrian authorities began to gradually repeal legal restrictions. In 1867-68 all citizens, Jews included, were finally made equal in the eyes of the law.

As a result of difficult economic conditions in Galicia, equal rights were not enough to solve many everyday problems. Poor economic conditions forced many people to emigrate. Generally, Jews from Galicia sought work in other countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sometimes in Vienna, and also in Hungary and the Balkan countries. Towards the end of the 19th century the wave of peasant emigration included many Jews as well. Between 1881 and 1900 some 150,000 Jews emigrated, while between 1900 and 1914 about 175,000 Jews from Galicia left for the United States.

The repressive Prussian laws introduced in former Polish territories were directed against the Jewish proletariat. There were a number of restrictions which, among other things, aimed at forcing the Jews out of the country as long as they could not produce evidence of possessing appropriate wealth. The General Ordinance on the Jews (General Judenreglement) of April 17, 1797 divided all Jews into those ''protected'' ( Schutzuden), who were obliged to know the German language and possess a sufficient amount of wealth, and those who were merely ''tolerated''.

This ordinance limited the rights of Jews to settle in the countryside. It also ordered the removal from the area those Jews who could not prove that they had resided in a given town in the territory of the partition zone at the time when this territory had been annexed to Prussia. The same regulations were introduced in the Grand Duchy of Poznan which had been part of the Duchy of Warsaw before the former was joined to Prussia.

Equal rights for all Jews came in 1848, when the differences between the two categories of Jews were abolished. Later, in 1850 , Jews were given the same rights as the remaining subjects of the king of Prussia. It should be added incidentally that the legislation which accorded certain privileges to those Jews who spoke German was conducive to assimilation. On the other hand, a large number of those who could not speak German, had to leave the country.

The constitution of the Duchy of Warsaw, by abolishing differences between the estates, introduced formal equality of all citizens. In spite of this, it provided for a number of restrictions in relation to Jews. For example they were forbidden to work in certain occupations and the granting of full rights to them was made dependent on their cultural and traditional assimilation. The Jewish question became the subject of extensive discussion. Some authors accused them of selling cheap, poor quality products. To this the outstanding economist, Wawrzyniec Surowiecki (1769-1827) replied: ''It is not the fault of the merchant or the craftsman that he supplies the country with this sort [of goods], but it is the result of the poverty and misery of the inhabitants who can afford nothing better. Were this sentence not true in relation to Poland, the Jews, together with their humble goods, would have soon gone bankrupt.'' In such discussions one could easily discern interests of the burghers who were afraid of competition from Jewish merchants and craftsmen and therefore were in favor of restrictive measures against the Jews.

The overwhelming majority of Jews in the Duchy of Warsaw were poor and made their living from petty trade and crafts. Only some succeeded in accumulating wealth. Of the latter, the leading place undoubtedly goes to the family of Samuel Zbitkover (1756-1801) who laid the foundations of his fortune in the final years of the Commonwealth when he was engaged in provisioning the army. Then there was also the banker Samuel Kronenberg whose son would play an important role in the country's economic and political life.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 created from part of the Duchy of Warsaw a new political entity-the constitutional Kingdom of Poland (also known as Congress Poland), with the Russian tsar as its king. Although the constitution provided for equality of all citizens, this referred only to Christians while Jews were deprived of both citizenship, and civil rights. The legal norms from the period of the Duchy of Warsaw were kept in force. Jews were not subject to duty in the army services but instead they were burdened with heavy taxes. In cities the Jewish population had no municipal rights. Only limited forms of Jewish self-government were preserved. From the highly complex system of autonomous self-governing organizations of Jewish society in old Poland, only the lowest rung, the community, was left. In 1821 new regulations replaced the former kahal boards with new prayer-house supervisory bodies. The latter's terms of reference were limited only to religious matters and charity campaigns. They were also entrusted with certain administrative functions, for example the collecting of recruitment taxes.

Important changes, connected with the process of social differentiation, took place within Jewish society. This process. took on a particularly clear-cut form in the country's capital, Warsaw, where there arose a group of rich business owners and numerous intelligentsia, the latter composed for the most part of representatives of the professions (doctors, lawyers) as well as artists and booksellers, since Jews were not employed in public offices and institutions. These groups kept in touch with the corresponding Polish groups and took an active part in the country's intellectual life and political movements. Gradually they also came closer to the Polish forms of dress, customs and language. They began to aspire to full citizens' rights and emancipation and the transformation of the Jewish community as a whole. They sought ways of reforming the traditional customs, adapting the various religious requirements and prescriptions to the conditions of contemporary life and freeing themselves from the domination of the intolerant, and sometimes downright primitive, orthodox circles. Jewish youth formed secret societies collaborating with their Polish counterparts in clandestine educational and political work.

The November Insurrection of 1830-31 did not change the legal status of the Jews. The conservative leaders of the insurrection did not plan very progressive reforms in any field of social life. Nevertheless since Jews in Warsaw shared the national liberation aims of the insurrection, in early 1831 small groups of the richest Jewish sections were allowed to join the National Guards. Representatives of the petite bourgeoisie could enlist in the Municipal Guards while the proletariat joined the Security Guards.

After the collapse of the November Insurrection the first steps were taken to introduce into the Kingdom of Poland the same rights as those binding in the rest of the Russian Empire in relation to Jews. Also in this field the Russian authorities attempted to blur out the differences between the Polish partition zone and the rest of Russia, although the administrative separateness of the Kingdom of Poland and its self-governing bodies were preserved for the time being. The national authorities opposed unification attempts and tried to keep in force separate laws for the Jews. On the other hand progressive circles were preparing projects for granting Jews equal rights. The latter attempts corresponded to those represented by the progressive enlightened Jewish circles. It is true that arguments and discussions did not produce any direct effect in the form of new laws, but they promoted cooperation between those Jewish and Polish circles who wanted the abolition of legal and economic elements of the feudal system which still prevailed in the Kingdom of Poland. Next to the enfranchisement of the peasants, the most important question was the granting of equal rights to the Jews.

Political movements became particularly active in 1861. Young Jews joined the various underground circles which arose in many towns. In summer news reached Poland about the death of two outstanding and much esteemed Polish emigration leaders, Joachim Lelewel (1786-1861) and Prince Adam Czartoryski (1770-1861). Prayers in commemoration of these two famous Poles were held in churches with the participation of Jews and in synagogues with the participation of Poles. Joint manifestations were organized on anniversaries of important historic events. The famous rabbi Dov Berush Meisels (1798-1870), who had moved from Krakow to Warsaw, proclaimed the brotherhood of Poles and Jews.

The right to vote was granted to all male citizens over 25 years of age who could speak and write Polish, irrespective of religion, but with a qualification that the voter must own property. Through these changes Jews were allowed to take part in elections on an equal footing with the rest of society. Jewish representatives were elected to local self-governing bodies.

In the autumn of 1861 further demonstrations took place. For example on October10th, during the funeral of Archbishop Antoni Fijalkowski (1778-1861), three graduates of the Warsaw rabbinical school unfurled the Polish banner. Patriotic manifestations with the participation of Jews were held also in other towns. The Russian authorities decided to approve the principles of reform of the legal status of Jews, which had been prepared by the autonomous organs of the Kingdom of Poland. On June 5th 1862 the decree introducing equal rights in many important fields was announced. Thus the road to gradual emancipation was opened.

Since the most politically-minded Jewish circles considered the changes as their victory, they supported the January Insurrection of 1863. Several months after the outbreak of the insurrection, the insurrectionary National Government proclaimed full equality of rights for Jews in Poland. Jews found themselves in the ranks of insurrectionary armies and also among the leaders of the insurrection. The well-known banker and industrialist, Leopold Kronenberg (1812-78), who had wide-ranging contacts in European banking circles, organized the insurrection's finances. The fall of the insurrection, however, crushed hopes and destroyed the reforms of the National Government.

The progress which took place in introducing equal rights for Jews in the 1860's favored the development of transformations in consciousness in cultural and political life. In the second half of the 19th century, new political currents took shape. They had their supporters not only among the relatively limited wealthy social strata and intelligentsia, but also among the masses of the population.

In the previous decades a movement aimed at the emancipation of Jews had developed. One important component of it was making Jews similar in dress and customs to their Polish surroundings and animating their intellectual life. Some of the leading representatives of this movement gradually became assimilated into Polish society. For them assimilation was the aim to which Jewish society as a whole should aspire. Though they preserved their links with their old circles, their children considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be Poles. These sections of Jewish society produced many families which played an important role in Polish culture, for example the Slonimskis, Natansons and Toeplitzs.

The program of assimilation found it hard to reach to the masses of the population, one of the reasons being that the latter had no access to schools other than religious ones and had no conditions for mastering the Polish language and adopting different customs. What is more, after the basic premises of emancipation were won, the program of assimilation ceased to be considered as the only way to social emancipation. Other political concepts appealed to the masses much more.

Towards the end of the 19th century another factor also emerged. Throughout Europe a wave of nationalism, directed above all against the Jews, swelled. France saw the Dreyfus case in 1894, in Czechoslovakia there was the Hilsner case in 1899 and in Russia the Beylis case in 1913. In Germany Richard Wagner wrote: ''The liberation from the yoke of Judaism is for us the supreme necessity.'' In the Kingdom of Poland this current was represented by Roman Dmowski (1864- 1939) and the National Democratic Party created by him.

The medium for anti-Semitic sentiments was the growing rivalry among the petite bourgeoisie. In Warsaw and other towns appeals to boycott Jewish shops appeared and instances of raids on Jewish shops were noted. The writer and journalist Leo Belmont (1862-1941) wrote: ''In some shops the eloquent notice 'Christian shop' appeared in accordance with the recommendation of Mr. Roman Dmowski who is the author of a new commentary to the Gospels, namely that Christ cleansed the Temple of the Jewish money-lenders only in order to bring the Polish tradesmen in there.'' And although the progressive Polish circles opposed such tendencies, they could do nothing to prevent them. This situation contributed to the defeat of the assimilation movement as the political concept which would help Jews win for themselves mass influence in society.

The difficult economic situation, discrimination practiced by the Russian authorities and finally the emergence of anti-Semitism gave rise to Jewish emigration. They departed for some West European countries but above all for the United States. In most cases, however, they preserved strong sentimental links with their home country.

Towards the end of the 19th century, among the Jewish proletariat, some groups of the impoverished petite bourgeoisie and part of the intelligentsia, great influence was exerted by the ideologies of the workers' parties. Later a Zionist movement emerged and finally the conservative movement took on organized forms. Other groups and movements had much lesser influence.

The above mentioned political and ideological movements were not fully uniform. The workers' parties were divided as far as their strategies and tactics were concerned. Also, in addition to organizations which accepted members irrespective of nationality, there were some which had a powerful national character. Among the Jewish proletariat strong influence was exerted by the Jewish socialist Bund party formed at a secret meeting in Vilna in 1897. The Bund members proclaimed that it was possible to solve the social and nationality problems of the Jews in their countries of residence, that is also in Polish territories. Considerable influence was also won by the party called Po'alei Zion (Workers of Zion) divided into a left and right wing. Many Jews were members of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. Within the Polish Socialist Party a Jewish Organization existed which produced many outstanding leaders.

The workers' movement aimed at the solution of nationality problems through the transformation of the existing social system and the liquidation of exploitation of man by man which was inherent in the capitalist system. A different stand was taken by the Zionist movement which put to the fore the nationality question. It maintained that this question could not be solved by way of cooperation of working people irrespective of their nationality. It treated the nationality conflicts as an unavoidable phenomenon and saw the only hope in the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The realization of this goal was to be the main task of each Jew, although it was also necessary to defend one's interests within the country of residence. The Zionist movement, too, was divided as regards concepts concerning its strategy and tactics.

For the conservatives, the most important problem was the preservation of tradition identified with religion and the scrupulous observance of customs. This was accompanied by considerable indifference towards other matters. In relation to authorities their program principle was the attitude of loyalty, and thus they proclaimed full obedience to state laws. Thus far they had not formed their own political organization and their influence was based on the authority of the zaddikim and the faithful Hasidim who formed their courts.

In 1918 some groups of the Jewish population, especially the conservative circles which maintained a detached attitude in relation to problems which did not concern the Jews directly, took a position of neutrality and expectation on the question of the rebirth of the Polish state. Some were afraid of any change since-as the experience of many generations had taught them-changes usually brought disaster in their wake. This opinion seemed to be justified in view of the anti-Jewish riots and raids which took place in some parts of the country, although the real significance of these events must not be overestimated. They were caused by conflicts of a social and economic nature between the merchant stratum and its customers from small towns and the countryside. In other instances these were simply criminal offenses, for example in Lvov where the pogroms in the Jewish streets were the work of criminals released from prisons.

The conservatives, represented by the orthodox party Agudat Israel, which was founded in Poland in 1916, declared their loyalty to the Polish state shortly after its government was constituted. On the other hand representatives of other directions, especially the socialist organizations and their like, very often demonstrated their positive attitude to the independence of Poland and also took an active part in the struggle for liberation. Jews found themselves in the ranks of the Legions organized by Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) and also in other volunteer formations which proclaimed the program of independent Poland.

Such attitude to the approaching transformations was connected with the conviction-maintained by both the Polish and Jewish masses-that the re-emergent Polish state would have a truly democratic character and thus would bring a solution of the urgent social and political problems and become a state of social justice for the working people.

Poland emerged as a bourgeois republic under the influence of the great revolutionary movement which swept the whole of Eastern and Central Europe in the years 1917-19. Although the reborn state did not solve the basic economic and social questions, its legislation granted equal rights to all citizens irrespective of nationality and religious convictions. This was guaranteed by its constitution adopted by the Sejm in March 1921 . Thus were abolished the legal norms inherited from the partitioning powers, which gave different legal status to various groups of society. However some questions as laid down in the constitution lent themselves to various interpretations. In 1931 the Sejm passed a law which abrogated expressis verbis all regulations which were discriminatory on grounds of religion, nationality and race. In this respect independent Poland fulfilled the people's hopes.(12)

(The period 1918-1939 continues in the Holocaust chapter)

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