1920’s Polish-Jewish Relations: An American View
Review of Poland the Unexplored, by Grace Humphrey. 1931. Bobbs-Merrill Co. Publishers, Indianapolis.
Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Poland in the 1920s, With Details on Polish-Jewish Relations
Humphreys, an American visitor to Poland, has much to say about her travels all over Poland. She shows much insight into everyday Polish life.
The author has an evident appreciation of Poland’s heroes. She writes: “It was in Lwow too that I saw a statue that belonged, by right, in Warsaw–the shoemaker Kilinski, who led the citizen-soldiers in withstanding a Russian siege in 1794; as great a leader as Kosciuszko, some Poles told me. I thought of Nathan Hale when they translated the inscription: `I have one soul and I offer it as a living shield to protect my country.'” (p. 87). Humphrey also repeats the poignant account of a seven-year-old boy who ran away from home, and, having located an encampment of some soldiers involved in the January (1863) Insurrection, insisted on joining them because he wanted to fight for Poland. (p. 102).
On another subject, realizing that there was a legacy of Polish mistrust of Jews owing to the earlier Jewish divided loyalties, she interviewed some Jews who told her that Jews did not know who they should support while Poland had been under foreign rule. (p. 268). In doing so, they tacitly acknowledge that Poland’s Jews, unlike her Poles, did not find it a self-evident duty to back the Polish cause.
Although the author does not use the term Litvaks (Litwaks), she alludes to them and their lingering influence as she quotes a Pole, who says, “‘All the Jews trained in German or Russian schools learned a scorn of everything Polish. It’ll take two or three generations to undo that teaching.'” (p. 264). [The persistence of tsarist-era Litwak thinking among Poland’s Jews can help explain the later reappearance of the Zydokomuna (Jewish-Soviet collaboration) in 1939 and again in 1944.]
Humphreys elaborates on the self-imposed apartheid (my term) that Poland’s Jews practiced. For instance, she thus quotes a Pole: “‘They [the Jews] were a separate group, apart from the peasants, from the country gentry, from the nobles. They made their own laws, had their own courts, their own schools, their own district to live in; and of course complete religious freedom. That was where Poland made a mistake. To-day, more than seven centuries later, they are not Poles. Their presence is a real problem.'” (p. 256). Jews felt the same way: “Asked their nationality, they answer `Jewish’ as unhesitatingly as the Poles who lived under the czar [tsar] used to reply, `We are Poles,’ and never `We are Russians.'” (pp. 267-268). She adds: “Seventy per cent of the Jews in Poland cling to their traditional costume, which emphasizes their isolation.” (photo caption facing p. 260).
The author explains how Jewish-Polish economic rivalry had developed: “The Jews were invited into Poland and given special privileges because they were business men, money-lenders, small shopkeepers. It was against the law for Poles to engage in trade.” (p. 265). Then things changed. Humphreys continues: “About 1850 the Poles set about creating a middle class–nobles and gentry putting their sons into business, the more intelligent of the peasants encouraged to start stores for themselves…(Poles) opened cooperative stores…every new store meant loss of trade for the Jews…Where the Jews have had the whole trade of a community for generations, it’s not surprising that they resent an association’s opening a store and nursing it along till it gets on its feet; and not surprising, either, that the Poles feel it’s patriotic to buy from Poles. This led to a wide-spread boycott at the end of the war.” (p. 265). To make matters worse, there were far more shops in Poland than the economy could support, causing poverty for both Poles and Jews. (p. 266).
Some Poles could outsmart the Jews and beat them at their own game. Humphreys describes a progressive, entrepreneur-oriented patriotic Polish woman who built a Community House that included a store containing a diversity of high-quality products for the following purpose: “This is to teach the peasants of that village and that neighborhood that they don’t have to buy from the Jews.” (p. 206).
Humphreys and her Polish guide had firsthand experiences with aggressive peddling by Jews. After haggling over prices, the Jew chased after them and pleaded that he was losing money in the deal. The Polish guide remarked: “‘He isn’t,’ she assured me when we were on the street again. `You paid enough. And if by any chance he is losing, the Jewish rule is to add the loss of the price you quote to the next customer. That’s why nothing is marked.'” (pp. 258-259).
The author had conversations with those involved with the American Red Cross in Poland. One of the officials asked that clothing provided by the Red Cross never be sold, because of the following experience: “‘In a hospital of convalescents he’d given out a supply of sweaters–this was in the dead of winter–only to find, two days later, that every Jewish second-hand shop was offering them for sale. On investigation he found that the soldiers were dismissed from the hospital without a cent of money; and as they left Jews stood at the gate and offered a few ZLOTYS in cash–in cash, mind you!–for their sweaters. I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame our poor soldiers, yet I understood how the Red Cross felt too.'” (pp. 122-123). Although Humphreys does not consider this, one cannot help but wonder how this incident might have influenced any perception of Jews being exploiters and crooks.
The author quoted a rabbi who said that Poles and Jews generally get along well together (p. 262) and she concluded that relations between the two groups had been steadily improving. (p. 263). For a time, the numerus clausus at universities had been lifted, and there were now classes where the Jews outnumbered the Poles. (p. 263). Jews were harmed by the Sunday-closing laws, which forced their businesses to be idle two days a week. However, the same situation existed in the USA. (pp. 263-264).