Chapter 20


POLAND, 1918-1939


The collapse of the three empires ruling Poland gave the Polish capitalists an independent state that they had long ceased to want. After the failure of the 1863 insurrection against tsarism, they had begun to see the Russian empire as a huge market and saw no reason to cut themselves off from it. The enemy, they argued, was not Russia but the Jews and the German Protestants who dominated 'their' home market. Nationalism became the preserve of the working class and its Polska Partja Socjalistyczna (PPS). The First World War saw the capitalist National Democrats, the so-called Endeks, backing the Tsar, and the right wing of the PPS, lead by Jozef Pilsudski, setting up a Polish Legion for the Germans as the lesser of the two evils, since they intended to turn later on Germany. However, the imperialist collapse compelled the two factions to unite in order to set up a reborn Polish state. Pilsudski had left the PPS during the war and moved to the far right; thus the two camps could now agree on a programme of anti-Bolshevism and the recreation of a Polish empire. 'Marshall' Pilsudski had welcomed Jewish soldiers into his legion and still despised anti-Semitism, which he identified with tsarist backwardness; however, he had no control over those generals who came into the army via the Endeks' tsarist military, and he backed Petliura's pogromists. Murder and persecution of Jews reached such proportions that the Allies had to intervene and impose a minority-rights clause into the Polish constitution as a condition of recognition. Only when the Endeks realised that Jewish pressure could affect Warsaw's credit with foreign bankers did the pogroms tail off. But the end of the pogroms only meant that anti-Semitism was changing its form. The regime determined to 'Polonise' the economy, and thousands of Jews lost their jobs as the government took over the railways, cigarette and match factories and the distilleries.

In the early 1920s the Polish Jewish community amounted to 2,846,000 --10.5 per cent of the population. It was far from politically homogeneous. On the far left were the Communists (KPP). Although the proportion of Jews in the KPP was always greater than 10.5 per cent, the Communists were never a significant proportion of the Jewish population. Although the PPS had always welcomed Jews into its ranks, it was imbued with Polish nationalism and was hostile to Yiddish; as a result the post-war PPS had little Jewish following. Instead the largest left-wing force among the Jews were the Yiddishists of the Bund, whose Polish section had survived its defeat in the Soviet Union, but they were still a distinct minority in the larger community. In the 1922 elections for the Polish Parliament (Sejm) they received only a fraction over 87,000 votes and were unable to win a single seat. On the right stood Agudas Yisrael, the party of traditional orthodoxy, with approximately one-third of the community loosely behind it. Its members took the position that the Talmud required loyalty to any Gentile regime that did not interfere with the Jewish religion. With their passive conservatism they could have no influence on any of the more educated elements who sought an activist solution to anti-Semitism. A small following, primarily intellectuals, followed the Folkists, a group of Diaspora Yiddish nationalists. All of these elements, though each for different reasons, were anti-Zionist.

The dominant political force within the Jewish community were the Zionists. They had taken six of the thirteen Jewish seats in the 1919 Sejm, and the 1922 elections gave them an opportunity to demonstrate that they could counter the still virulent anti-Semitism. The largest faction within the movement, led by Yitzhak Gruenbaum of the Radical Zionists, organised a 'Minorities Bloc'. The non-Polish nationalities constituted almost one-third of the population and Gruenbaum argued that if they united they could be the balance of power within the Sejm. The Bloc, comprising Gruenbaum's Zionist faction, together with elements from the German, Byelorussian and Ukrainian nationalities, had 66 of its candidates elected, including 17 Zionists. Superficially the pact seemed to have succeeded, but in fact it quickly demonstrated the divisions both within the Zionist movement and the minorities in general. The Ukrainian majority in Galicia refused to recognise the Polish state and boycotted the elections. None of the other nationalist politicians would support the Ukrainians' fight and the Galician Zionists, anxious not to antagonise the Poles, stood in the election as rivals to the Minorities Bloc. The Galician Zionists won 15 seats, but as their success was due to the Ukrainian abstention they could not pretend to represent the region. Even within the Minorities Bloc there was no commitment to long-term unity, and after the election it fell apart. There were now 47 Jews in both houses of the Sejm, 32 of them Zionists, but their electoral opportunism had discredited them.

The failure of the Minority Bloc opened the way for another adventure to be organised by the Galician General Zionist leaders, Leon Reich and Osias Thon. In 1925 they negotiated a pact, the 'Ugoda' (compromise) with Wladyslaw Grabski, the anti-Semitic Prime Minister. Grabski was seeking an American loan, and needed to prove that he was not an unmovable fanatic. The deal with these two Zionists made it look, at least to unwary foreigners, as if his regime was capable of change. In fact the government only agreed to minor concessions: Jewish conscripts could have kosher kitchens and Jewish students would not have to write on Saturdays as all other students had to do. Even within the Zionist movement Thon and Reich were seen as having betrayed the Jewish community.

Anti-Semitism was only a part of the reactionary line of the post-1922 governments, and the majority of the people, including the Jews, backed Pilsudski's May 1926 coup d'état in the hope of a change for the better. The entire Jewish Sejm delegation voted for him for President on 31 May.[(2)] The position of the Jews did not improve, but at least Pilsudski made no efforts to increase discrimination and his police suppressed anti-Semitic riots until his death in 1935. The 1928 Sejm election was the last more or less free national election in Poland. The General Zionists were again split: Gruenbaum's faction entered another Minority Bloc, and the Galicians supported their own candidate. Pilsudski was popular with conservative Jews for putting down attacks and many voted for his supporters out of gratitude. This, together with the entry of the Galician Ukrainians into the electoral arena, served to reduce the Jewish representation to 22, of whom 16 were Zionists. By 1930 the Pilsudski regime had tightened into an intense police state with severe brutality towards political prisoners. Pilsudski kept the Sejm alive, but he rigged the election and ruled above it and the results of the 1930 elections were largely meaningless. The Jewish representation declined again, to eleven, six of whom were Zionists.

With the intensification of the dictatorship the Zionist parliamentarians showed more interest in the anti-Pulsudski opposition, but these tendencies were brought short by Hitler's victory in neighbouring Germany. Polish Zionism had originally underestimated the Nazis. Before he came to power the Zionist daily newspapers Haint, Der Moment and Nowy Dziennik had assured their readers that once he took office Hitler would be restrained in his anti-Semitism by the presence of the conservatives like von Papen and Hugenburg in his coalition Cabinet. They thought the needs of the German economy would soon make him adopt a more moderate approach. A few weeks of the New Order destroyed such fantasies and the Polish Zionists' next worry was that the Nazis' success would trigger a wave of extremism in Poland. All interest in an opposition bloc ceased, and Pilsudski became the man of the hour again as he made sounds against the regime in Berlin . The Zionists' sharp reversal of opinion toward the dictator brought cries of protest from the opposition parties resisting Pilsudski. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on a debate on the Jewish question in the Sejm on 4 November 1933:


Deputy Rog, the leader of the Peasant Party... denounced the antiJewish attitude of Hitler Germany. The crime which is being committed against the German Jews is a world crime, he said. Poland will never, he declared, take an example from Hitler Germany. He could not understand, however, he went on, how Jewish politicians who are fighting against German dictatorship can reconcile with their conscience the support they are giving in Poland to the Polish dictatorship. It is not a good thing, he said, for the Polish masses to bear in mind how the Jews are supporting their oppressors.


On 26 January 1934 Pilsudski signed a ten-year peace pact with Hitler. That same year the Warsaw authorities, observing the impotence of the League of Nations in dealing with the German problem, decided to repudiate the Minorities Treaty signed under duress at Versailles. Nahum Goldmann met Jozef Beck, the Polish Foreign Minister, in Geneva on 13 September 1934, to try to persuade him to change his mind, but without success. As usual the WZO refused to organise mass protest demonstrations abroad, and relied instead on diplomatic intervention from London and Rome. The Polish Zionists remained loyal to Pilsudski until his death on 12 May 1935, and then Osias Thon and Apolinary Hartglas, the President of the Polish Zionist Organisation, proposed a 'Pilsudski Forest' in Palestine in his memory. The Palestinian Revisionists announced that they were going to build an immigrants' hostel to be named in his honour.


'The Workers have not been Contaminated'


Hitler's victory excited the extremists among the Polish anti-Semites, but as long as the marshall lived his police were under strict orders to repress any kind of street agitation. However, his sucessors, the 'Colonels', could no longer afford politically to maintain his policy. They lacked his prestige and knew that they had to adopt a policy with popular appeal or they would be overthrown. Anti-Semitism was an obvious choice as it pandered to the traditional prejudices of much of the Polish middle class. However, they still tried to maintain order; restrictions on the Jews would have to proceed strictly according to law. The hard-core anti-Semites of the Endeks and their offshoot, the pro-Nazi National Radicals or Naras, understood that the Colonels' capitulation to the anti-Semitic mood stemmed from their weakness, and they frequently defied the police. The country soon was swept by a wave of pogroms. The outrages frequently started in the universities, where the Endeks and Naras tried to establish 'ghetto benches' and a numerus clausus for the Jews. Soon a boycott of Jewish stores was set into effect and roving bands of Jew-haters began terrorising Poles who patronised Jewish shops. Street assaults on Jews became an everyday occurrence.

The Jewish resistance to the pogromists was largely the work of the Bundists. Although they were numerically much smaller than the Zionists until the mid-1930s, nevertheless they had always been the dominant force in the Jewish labour movement. Now they organised 24-hour flying squads at their Warsaw headquarters. On hearing of an attack their Ordener-grupe would sally out, sticks and pipes in hand to enter into combat. At times there were hundreds of Bundists, Jewish unionists and their friends from the PPS militia, the Akcja Socyalistyczna, engaged in pitched battles with the Endek and Nara supporters. The most important of these street fights was the battle in the Saxonian Garden, Warsaw's famous park, in 1938, when the Bund found out that the Naras planned a pogrom in the park and the streets surrounding it. Bernard Goldstein, the leader of the Ordener-grupe, later described the battle in his memoirs.


We organised a large group of resistance fighters which we concentrated around the large square near the Iron Gate. Our plan was to entice the hooligans to that square, which was closed off on three sides, and to block the fourth exit, and thus have them in a trap where we could give battle and teach them an appropriate lesson... When we had a fair number of Nara hooligans in the square... we suddenly emerged from our hiding places, surrounding them from all sides... ambulances had to be called


Earlier, on 26 September 1937, the Naras bombed the Bund's headquarters. The Bund promptly put together a group of thirty: ten Bundists, ten members of a Zionist splinter group, the Left Poale Zion, and ten Poles from the PPS. They went to the Nara's headquarters. The Poles, pretending to be repairmen, went in first and cut the phone wires. Then the rest of the attackers raided the place. Hyman Freeman, one of the Bundists, later told of the raid:


There was a fight, but they really did not have a chance to put up much of a resistance. We attacked them in blitzkreig fashion. We really ruined the place and beat them up quite badly... It was really an extraordinary piece of work.


Although there is a common misconception that anti-Semitism was endemic to all classes in Polish society, the evidence shows that anti-Semitism was prirnarily a middle-class and, to a much lesser extent, a peasant phenomenon. The bulk of the Polish working class followed the PPS, and they understood from the beginning that the Bund's fight was their fight and their aid to the beleaguered Jews was, as in the retaliation against the Naras, vital. In 1936 the Palestine Post told its readers that whenever the Fascist student gangs would swarm out of their sanctuaries in the universities to start a pogrom:


the non-Jewish Polish workers and students speedily come to the aid of the Jews. Recently the Polish Socialist Party [PPS] has arranged a number of huge propaganda meetings... very stirring addresses were heard from non-Jewish Poles who seemed pathetically eager to disassociate themselves from the 'Endek' rowdyism


Jacob Lestchinsky, one of the leading Zionist scholars of the day, described the Polish labour movement's mentality to the readers of Jewish Frontier in a July 1936 article:


the Polish labor party may justly boast that it has successfully immunised the workers against the anti-Jewish virus, even in the poisoned atmosphere of Poland. Their stand on the subject has become almost traditional. Even in cities and districts that seem to have been thoroughly infected by the most revolting type of anti-Semitism the workers have not been contaminated.


There were others who were pro-Jewish. Among the Ukrainian masses, anti-Semitism had grown alarmingly as many nationalists had become pro-Nazi. They deluded themselves that Germany, out of hostility to both the Polish Colonels and Stalin, would help them win their independence at some unspecified time in the future. However, the tiny stratum of Ukrainian students, who had to confront the chauvinism of the Polish middle class in its university strongholds, never became infected with the folk anti-Semitism. They understood what would happen to their career chances, if the Endeks and Naras triumphed In December 1937 the Palestine Post reported that:


In Wilno and in Lemberg [Lvov] Universities the White Russian and Ukrainian students have joined almost in a body the anti-Ghetto front and are helping the Jews in their fight against the medieval measures.


The peasants were divided on the Jewish question. The richer ones tended toward anti-Semitism, particularly in western Poland. In the south, and to a lesser degree in the central region, the rural masses followed the Peasant Party. In 1935 the Peasants had taken an inconsistent position, simultaneously insisting on the principle of democratic rights for all Jews in the country and calling for Polonisation of the economy and Jewish emigration to Palestine and other places. However, by 1937 the party was insisting that the anti-Semitic campaign was nothing but a ruse to divert attention from the real political issues, particularly the need for land reform. In August 1937 a large proportion of the peasantry came out in a ten-day general strike. Although the police killed fifty demonstrators, in many areas the strike was complete. Alexander Erlich of Columbia University, then a Bund youth leader, reports that: 'During the strike you could see bearded Chassidim on the picket lines together with peasants.' The government was only able to survive because the old-guard Peasant 1eaders were unwilling to work with the socialists.

The Bund and the PPS involved the masses in the struggle against the anti-Semites. The murder of two Jews and serious injury to dozens more in Przytyk on 9 March 1936 compelled a definitive response, and the Bund called a half-day general strike for 17 March with the PPS Supporting the action. All Jewish businesses --a significant proportion of the economic life of the country-- stopped. The PPS unions in Warsaw and most of the major cities supported the strike, and much of Poland closed down. It was truly the 'Sabbath of Sabbaths!' as it was described in the Jewish press.

In March 1938 the Bund declared a two-day protest strike against the ghetto benches and the continual terror in the universities. Despite Fascist attacks, which were driven off, many of Poland's most distinguished academics joined the Jewish community and the PPS unions in the streets, a magnificent accomplishment in a country where mothers quietened their children by threatening to have a Jew take them away in a sack.


Electoral Victories that Lead Nowhere


The masses began moving towards the Bund in the Jewish community elections in 1936, and the Bund and the PPS both registered a strong increase in support in the municipal elections that same year. However, here the severe limitations of the PPS were sharply revealed. In Lodz, Poland's most industrialised city, the PPS refused to unite electorally with the Bund, because its leadership was concerned that they would lose votes if they identified with the Jews. Nevertheless, in practice, the two parties did ally themselves in daily working life and they continued to gain support. The Social Democratic reformists of the PPS could never abandon their electorally opportunist mentality and again they refused to run a joint slate in the city council elections of December 1938 and January 1939. The Bund had to run separately, but they then cross-endorsed in areas where either was a minority. De facto allied, they won majorities in Lodz, Cracow, Lvov, Vilna and other cities, and prevented a government majority in Warsaw. The PPS won 26.8 per cent of the vote, the Bund another 9.5 per cent and, although they were only loosely combined, their 36.3 per cent was seen as socially much more influential than the 29.0 per cent for the Colonels' slate or the Endeks' 18.8 per cent. The New York Times wrote of the 'striking victory' of the left, and the loss of ground suffered by the deeply divided anti-Semites. In the Jewish districts the Bund devastated the Zionists and received 70 per cent of the vote, which gave them 1 7 of the 20 Jewish seats in Warsaw with the Zionists holding only one seat.


'I Wish that a million Polish Jews might be Slaughtered'


The Jewish masses began abandoning the Zionists in the late 1930s. When the British cut the immigration quotas after the Arab revolt, Palestine no longer seemed a solution to their problems. Polish emigration to Palestine fell from 29,407 in 1935 to 12,929 in 1936, and to 3,578 in 1937, and finally to 3,346 in 1938. However, there was another basic reason for the move away from Zionism. The movement was discredited by the fact that all the anti-Semites, from the government to the Naras, favoured emigration to Palestine. 'Palestine, took on a morbid quality in Polish political life. When lewish deputies spoke in the Sejm the government and Endek representatives would interrupt with shouts of 'go to Palestine!' Everywhere the anti-Jewish boycott pickets carried the same sign: 'Moszku idz do Palestyny!' (Kikes to Palestine!) In 1936 the Endek delegates to the Piotrkow city council typically made a symbolic gesture proposing an allocation of one zloty 'to further the mass-emigration of the Jews of Piotrkow to Palestine'. On 31 August 1937, ABC, the organ of the Naras, declared:


Palestine alone will not solve the question but it may be the beginning of mass emigration of Jews from Poland. Consequently it must not be neglected by Polish foreign policy. The voluntary emigration of Jews to Palestine can reduce the tension of Polish Jewish relations.


The Colonels were hardly in need of any prompting from the Naras; they had always been enthusiastic philo-Zionists and warmly supported the Peel Commission's proposed partition of Palestine. Weizmann met Jozef Beck in September 1937 and was assured that, when the frontiers of the new state were defined, Warsaw would do its utmost to guarantee the Zionists the largest territory possible.

The Zionist movement had never believed it was possible for Poland's Jews to solve their problems on Polish soil. Even in the 1920s, while he was manoeuvring with the other national minorities, Gruenbaum had become notorious for his proclamations that the Jews were just so much 'excess baggage' in the country and that 'Poland has a million more Jews than it can possibly accommodate'. When the British discovered Abba Achimeir's diary after the Arlosoroff murder, they found that view expressed more forcefully: 'I wish that a million Polish Jews might be slaughtered. Then they might realize that they are living in a ghetto.'

The Zionists consistently played down the efforts of the PPS to help the Jews. The Palestine Post, in the same article in January 1936 which recorded the workers' street battles against the anti-Semites, wrote that 'it is decidedly worth while putting on record this hopeful manifestation slight as it admittedly is'. In June 1937 the American Labor Zionist Newsletter reiterated this scepticism:


It is true that the PPS is now showing its solidarity with the Jewish masses in Poland with unprecedented courage and vigor. But it is very doubtful whether the Socialists and genuinely liberal elements in Poland are in a position to muster enough effective resistance to block the forward march of the Polish brand of Fascism.


In fact, although the Labour Zionists were supposed to be a part of the same Socialist International as the PPS, they hoped to be able to ignore the latter and negotiate a deal directly with the enemies of the Polish socialists. In an editorial in its 20 September 1936 issue the Newsletter wrote:


Attention was attracted in the world of international politics by a statement that the Polish government is preparing to press its demand for colonies... Realistic observers are of the opinion that the question of the redistribution of colonies is on the way to becoming a vital one. For this reason such plans and proposals on the part of countries with large Jewish populations should be given due attention by Jewish world leadership.


In reality, Poland had no possibility of 'a place in the sun', but in giving credence to the lunatic fringe of the Polish right the Zionists hoped to persuade world opinion that the answer to Polish anti-Semitism lay outside the country.

Although the WZO was eager to accommodate the Warsaw regime, after the British had abandoned the Peel partition plan and cut the immigration quotas, its followers no longer had anything to offer the Polish Colonels and it was the Revisionists who became the most intimate collaborators with the regime. Jacob de Haas summed up the Revisionists' attitude to the Polish Jews in October 1936:


Of course it is unpleasant to be told that the Jews are anywhere 'superfluous'. On the other hand to be thinskinned about the phrases that are being used, and will be used, in matters of this kind is to expose oneself to unnecessary pain. We ought to be capable of swallowing a whole lot more if a healthy result is produced.


Jabotinsky had proposed to 'evacuate' 1,1/2 million Jews from Eastern Europe over a ten-year period, and most of these would come from Poland. He tried to put a good gloss on this surrender to anti-Semitism, but in 1937 he admitted that he had difficulty in finding an appropriate term for his proposition:


I had first thought of 'Exodus', of a second 'departure from Egypt'. But this will not do. We are engaged in politics, we must be able to approach other nations and demand the support of other states. And that being so, we cannot submit to them a term that is offensive, that recalls Pharaoh and his ten plagues. Besides, the word 'Exodus' evokes a terrible picture of horrors, the picture of a whole nation-mass-like disorganised mob that flees panic stricken.


In 1939 the Revisionists sent Robert Briscoe, then a Fianna Fail member of the Irish Parliament (later famous as the Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin) to make a proposition to Colonel Beck:


On behalf of the New Zionist Movement... I suggest that you ask Britain to turn over the Mandate for Palestine to you and make it in effect a Polish colony. You could then move all your unwanted Polish Jews into Palestine. This would bring great relief to your country, and you would have a rich and growing colony to aid your economy.


The Poles did not waste their time asking for the Mandate. It will be recalled that Jabotinsky planned to invade Palestine in 1939. That operation was first planned in 1937, when the Poles agreed to train the Irgun and arm it for an invasion of Palestine in 1940. In spring 1939 the Poles set up a guerrilla training camp for their Revisionist clients at Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. Twenty-five members of the Irgun from Palestine were taught the arts of sabotage, conspiracy and insurrection by Polish officers. Weapons for 10,000 men were provided, and the Revisionists were preparing to smuggle the guns into Palestine when the Second World War broke out. Avraham Stern, the prime mover behind the Zakopane camp, told the trainees that a passage to Palestine through Turkey and Italy was a 'matter of diplomatic negotiations that have possibilities', but there is no evidence that the Italians, and certainly not the Turks, were involved. Stern was one of the hard-core Fascists within Revisionism, and he thought that if Mussolini could see that they really meant to challenge the British he could be induced to revive his pro-Zionist policy. The invasion had originally been planned as a serious bid for power, and when Jabotinsky proposed to turn it into a symbolic gesture aimed at creating a government-in-exile there was a bitter debate within the Irgun command. The discussion was cut short by their arrest by the British on the eve of the war.

It will be difficult to believe that any Jewish group could have seriously concocted such a utopian plan and persuaded the Poles to back them. However, it did have the advantage to the regime of keeping thousands of Betarim out of action against the anti-Semites. They boxed and wrestled and did a little shooting but, unless they were attacked, they never fought the Fascists. According to Shmuel Merlin, who was then in Warsaw as the NZO's Secretary-General:


It is absolutely correct to say that only the Bund waged an organised fight against the anti-Semites. We did not consider that we had to fight in Poland. We believed the way to ease the situation was to take the Jews out of Poland. We had no spirit of animosity.


The Failure of the Socialists and the Betrayal of the Zionists


It must not be thought that the Polish workers were all strong supporters of the Jews. The PPS was hostile to Yiddish and looked upon the fanatic Hasids with good-natured contempt. However, the party always had assimilated Jewish leaders, as with Herman Liebermann, its most prominent parliamentarian, and many of its leaders were married to Jews. In 1931 the PPS made a momentous offer to the Bund: the PPS militia, the Akcja Socjalistczyna, would protect the Bund's section of their joint May Day demonstration and the Bund's Ordener-grupe would protect the PPS's contingent. The Bund turned down the magnificent proposal. It appreciated the spirit of the gesture, but declined on the grounds that it was the duty of Jews to learn to protect themselves.[(38)] The unwillingness of the leaders of the PPS to build a united front with the Bund for the last crucial municipal elections was not based on their own anti-Semitism but on a Polish application of the uniformly baneful Social Democratic preoccupation with winning votes. Instead of trying to win the votes of the most backward workers, they should have been calling for the unity of the most advanced workers and peasants for an assault on the regime. But by its incapacity to recognise the immense potentials that flowed from the 1931 defence proposal, and its general inability to understand that the Jews could never irrevocably defeat their foes --nor attain socialism with their own party, isolated from the Polish working class, the Bund also contributed to the nationalist rift in the working class. Both parties were reformist in essence; the Colonels had suffered a severe defeat in the municipal elections, but they had no forward thrust, and they waited passively for the regime to fall of its own weight. In the interests of 'national unity' they called off their 1939 May Day rallies when Poland's only possible salvation lay in their militantly putting the masses before the regime with the demand for the arming of the entire people.

But if the Bund and the PPS failed the ultimate test, at least they did fight the Polish anti-Semites. The Zionists did not. On the contrary, they competed for the support of the enemies of the Jews.