The common phrase “traditional Polish anti-Semitism” is a platitude with very little historical justification. Anti-Semitism came to Poland as part of Western culture and civilization. The word “pogrom” is Russian and the phenomenon is Western European, originated by the crusaders who massacred Jewish communities while marching to free the Holy Land from the “infidels”. The blood libel, first used against the Jews in 12th-century England, triggered the “pogrom of York”. It was also a Western idea to accuse the Jews of “desecrating the Host,” or poisoning Christian wells. When a Polish prince (Bolesław Pobożny) issued a charter for the protection of Jews on his territory (1265), he did so primarily to protect them from attacks by their Christian neighbors of German origin or descent wo were also settling on Polish lands bringing with them their religious intolerance and — as Abba Eban writes in My People — “their custom of political oppression.”
Nothing anti-Semitic was ever invented in Poland – almost everything came
from a centuries-old Western European tradition. There was very little new even in the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Jewish book-burning was pioneered in France by Louis IX (in 1242); he was considered a “moral authority” among contemporary European rulers and a “patron of scholarship,” and eventually became a saint. Another tradition which has reached our times is burning Jews alive: all the Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in the main synagogue after the city was finally “liberated” by the Crusaders in 1099. Pope Innocent III introduced, in 1215, still another anti-Jewish tradition which reappeared in the 20th century: laws forcing the Jews to wear special badges in public, and forbidding Jews to live in the same house as Christians or to hold offices giving them control over a Christian. These medieval inventions were revived in the Age of Enlightenment by Pius VI, who issued his own “Edict Against the Jews,” which provided for yellow badges, the censorship of Jewish books, a ban on Jewish shops outside the ghetto, and even introduced a ban on tombstones in Jewish cemeteries -- the latter is practiced in some countries even today with the same purpose: to erase the memory of and Jewish presence.
Europeans had a habit of making pogroms also during their “progressive of patriotic uprisings. This was the case during the Munzer peasant battles in Germany, Chmielnicki’s revolt in the Ukraine, and the White and Red Guard campaign during the Russian Civil Was, not to mention the acts committed by the Ukrainian peasant army lead by Makhno. True, some pogroms were committed by the Polish troops of Stephan Czarnecki during this uprising against the Swedes (mid-17th century), but in all the pogroms through Polish history up to World War II, fewer Jews were killed than in one such slaughter in Prague – then considered an important center of Western –culture in 1389, when 4,000 Jews were put to death by a fanatical mob. The Chmielnicki pogroms are often misunderstood by those with no knowledge of Eastern European history: it is true they happened on “Polish territories” (the entire Ukraine was a part of the Polish empire in those days), but the pogroms took place in the Ukraine and were perpetrated not by Poles but exclusively by Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants (people often mistakenly assume that Chmielnicki was a Pole because of the Polish sound of his name). In fact, the Polish armies, who were at war with them, were the sole defenders of the Jews, for the Jews and Polish nobility were allies against a rebellion which viewed them both as enemy. Jews were commonly invited by Western European rulers to develop trade and business, and then, after native Christians had learned and mastered those trades themselves, a vocal majority would cry: “Jews have taken over our trades and business!” That example was merely followed by Poland, where such cries could be heard until World War II. During the Dreyfus affair, it was France who set the example for anti-Semitic behavior typical of a Western European society. Crowds beat up Jews in the streets of Paris, plundered Jewish stores, shouted “Death to the Jews!”, wrote petitions demanding the expulsion of all Jews from France; the nationalist press urged that all Jews be fired from their jobs. Herzi as an eyewitness stressed in his diary that all this was happening in “republican, modern, civilized France, one hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” If similar moods and slogans were to be observed in Poland in 1936-39 and 1968-70, it should be pointed out that they were not manifestations of any traditional Polish anti-Semitism,” but rather a letter-perfect copy of the French tradition, with the exception of the irrational element: in Poland, “treason” was assumed a priori – without any pretexts of mock-trials. When speaking of Paris – the capital of European culture for at least two centuries – one should remember also that in that famous city, on July 16-17, 1942, the French police handed over 13,000 Jew to the Germans. Jews were taken out of hiding places, not just rounded up in a ghetto. I doubt that here were 13,000 cases of Jews being handed over to the Germans throughout the German occupation in Poland. Many thousands more were seized in unoccupied France (under the Vichy regime) in August 1942. Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, in their book Vichy France and the Jews, stressed the fact that the Vichy legislation of October, 1940 “Status des Juifs” went beyond the German regulations of that time. The authors also point out that when the Italians (then German allies) occupied part of southern France, they felt they had to protect the Jews there from the Vichyists. And yet it is not the French who are single out as “collaborators” in the Nazi extermination of Jews. The anti-Semite needs anti-Semitism in order to project is own vices onto somebody else; to be able to blame someone else for his own failure (a device needed by individuals as well as by governments and whole political, social, and philosophical systems); to work off his frustrations (as husband and wife use each other); anti-Semitism is at times as necessary as a dog is for an Englishman or a German (who feels he has to be someone’s master). Deprived of any other virtues of merits, an anti-Semite sees his not-being-Jewish as a decided virtue and therefore he denies any positive qualities in Jews, refuses to grant any praise or recognition to Jews, and sees their success as a result of some deceit or swindle – not a fruit of talent, genius, or courage. Thus an anti-Semite cannot tolerate the emancipation of Jews and equality with Jews, or the existence of an independent Jewish state with equal rights and in free competition with other nations. “Not being a Jew provides them consolation for not being a state councilor,” said Ludwig Borne about the Germans anti-Semites of the early 19th century. The fact that Jews are the chosen people for such a psychological device is no more than the product of certain historical and religious circumstances. Anti-Semitism is an anomaly of the human mind, and its most characteristic symptom is the confusion of cause and effect. Russian anti-Semites still justify their hatred for the Jews by accusing them of being enemies of Old Russia who worked for the downfall of the Tsarist regime. They do not take into account the “Pale of Settlement” and 600 other anti-Jewish laws of that regime, the Okhrana’s (tsarist police) anti-Semitic campaigns at the turn of the century, and the Bailis blood-libel trial manifestations of Tsarist Russia’s hatred for the Jews and perhaps an explanation for a reciprocation of feelings.… ….Poland’s World War II record is better than that of the other occupied countries. Just as the term “traditional Polish anti-Semitism” is historically a great exaggeration, the accusation that Polish society collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews is equally unjust. In fact most other occupied nations collaborated to a greater degree. There is absolutely no basis to the theory that Poland was chosen for the Holocaust because of “Polish anti-Semitism.” It was chosen because it contained the largest concentration of Jews in Europe and because the territory itself was conveniently isolated by the war situation. In both absolute and relative numbers, more Jews were murdered by Austrians (the Nazi core in charge of the death camps and concentration camps), Rumanians (the Bucharest pogrom of 1941 and the extermination of Jews in Bessrabia and Odessa, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Latvians (police detachments engaged in the liquidation of Warsaw, Białystok, and Vilna Ghettos), Croats (particularly on Serbian territory), and Bulgarians (also on occupied Yugoslav lands). Very few historians seem to recall the fact that 100,000 Slovakian Jews were deported to the Majdanek death and concentration camp (it had a double function) by an action requested and even petitioned (in writing, to Berlin) by the autonomous Slovakian authorities, who finally, after getting Berlin’s permission, executed the deportation with their own police. Polish anti-Semitism, which never displayed such a murderous component as in the above examples, was never any nastier than French, Russian, Hungarian, or Argentinean anti-Semitism. To stigmatize the Poles in this case is very much like the irrational stigmatizing of Jews by anti-Semites. Accusations against the Poles resulted partly from the fact that Poland became the site of the largest extermination of Jews. That fact causes one to remember all the cases of blackmail and betrayal with took place there, although they were less numerous than in other countries, not only in relation to the number of Jews, but often in absolute numbers (as in the case of Paris and Vichy). Poland got a bad name once again in the late sixties when anti-Semitism, as in the 1930s, became a card in a political gamble. In both cases, anti-Semitism was bid for: the competition for power demanded more anti-Semitism and the government gave in to that pressure in order not to leave such an effective and popular weapon in the hands of its rivals. In both cases, the blows fell on the Jews. The anti-Semitic campaign of the 1960s seemed even more morbid since there were very few Jews left in Poland, and more shameless, coming, as it did, after the Holocaust and at the site of the Holocaust. Yes, the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1930s and 1960s were the most compromising episodes in the history of Polish-Jewish relations, but not so behavior of the Poles during the Holocaust (Poles outnumber other nationalities among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem) and those episodes still do not make Poland traditionally more anti-Semitic than most other nations. This is especially obvious now, when the “Jewish question” comes up with increasing frequency and under code names. Until recently, it used to be an “internal affair” (as Gazeta Polska stressed in 1939), but in today’s more confused world the Judeo-centric obsession with anti-Semitic pathology have assumed an international dimension, appearing under the euphemism of the “Middle East problem,” then with increasing frequency as the “Palestinian question,” and may soon become an “Israeli question,” with the clear implication that something has to be done about Israel, whose existence is, symptomatically, a hindrance to so many states and nations. This disease is the more ominous in that it is now spreading throughout the post-Holocaust world, which knows its potential for cruelty and ruthlessness, while the “bothersome” Jewish state is a creation of a refuge for those who miraculously escaped from the international murderers. Pathology like this on an international scale is very dangerous especially in a world prone to inflection and mental plague because of extreme centralization and the technology of communication and information – the latter always accompanied my misinformation. Neither the past nor the present of such a world justifies stigmatizing the Poles.
Source: Midstream, Monthly Jewish Review, August/September 1983
Henryk Grynberg (born 1936 in Warsaw) is a Polish-Jewish writer and actor who survived the Nazi occupation. He is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright and essayist who had authored more than thirty books of prose and poetry and two dramas. Grynberg, known as the “chronicler of the fate of the Polish Jews”, tackled in his writings the Holocaust experience and the post-Holocaust trauma.
Grynberg and his mother were the only survivors from their family. He spent the years 1942 to 1944 in hiding places, saved from German nazis by the Polish families. After the war, he lived in Łódź and Warsaw. In the early 1990s Grynberg returned to Poland with film maker Paweł Łoziński. The latter filmed Grynberg as he interviewed people in his native village in search of what happened to his father Abram Grynberg during the war. The documentary was released in 1992 under the name "Miejsce urodzenia" (Birthplace).
Is Polish Anti-Semitism Special?
by Henryk Grynberg