By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
For the long-suffering Polish nation, which had lost its sovereignty by the end of the 18th century, the end of the First World War entailed more than an end to the fighting.
November 11, 1918, the date of the armistice that ended what was then called The Great War, also provided a promise to recreate a sovereign Polish state, with its large Jewish population.
Jewish settlement on the territory that comprises modern day Poland can be traced back more than 1,000 years with the settlement of Jews seeking relief from persecution in Western and Central Europe.
The medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been one of Europe’s largest states. At the turn of the 17th century, its population of some seven million comprised 4.5 million Poles, the rest being Lithuanians, Jews and Ukrainian Ruthenians. By the beginning of the partitions, about ten percent of the population was Jewish, and part of the fabric of Polish life.
Though Poland was created as a nation state, it promised to protect the integrity of minorities within its borders. The Minorities Treaties had been drawn up between the Allied victors, on the one hand, and 14 newly created or expanded states in Europe and the Middle East, including Poland.
They governed eligibility for citizenship in the latter states and granted citizens belonging to racial, religious, or linguistic minorities certain collective rights, including protection by the state for their members to use minority languages; and the right for them to establish and control educational, religious, and social welfare institutions.
Jews throughout the world greeted the treaties with enthusiasm, believing that the policies would inaugurate a new era of security -- but their hopes were soon dashed. Efforts in the 1920s to invoke the treaties and enlist the League of Nations to stop various anti-Semitic actions, including pogroms, brought no tangible results.
In September 1934 Poland unilaterally renounced its obligations under its treaty, as political anti-Semitism increased during the decade.
Between the two world wars the Jewish population, which lived mostly in urban centres, comprised almost 10 per cent. Anti-Jewish boycott agitation grew as the economic situation deteriorated during the depression. Right-wing parties, especially the National Democrats (Narodowa Demokracja, or Endecja), with the silent approval of the authorities, pointed at the Jews as the cause of the distress.
Jews could not work in the civil service, few were public school teachers, almost no Jews were railroad workers, and no Jews worked in state-controlled banks or monopolies. There was also discrimination and exclusion of Jews at the universities, including the creation of “ghetto benches.”
Quotas introduced in 1937 in some universities halved the number of Jews by the late 1930s. The restrictions were so inclusive that, while Jews made up 20.4 per cent of the student body in 1928, by 1937 their share was down to only 7.5 per cent.
Between 1935 and 1937 seventy-nine Jews were killed and 500 injured in anti-Jewish incidents. Escalating hostility towards Polish Jews and an official Polish government desire to remove Jews from Poland continued until the German invasion in 1939.
On the eve of the Second World War, Poland was home to over three million Jews, making it the second-largest community in the world. Warsaw, the capital, had a population of over 300,000 Jews, more than 30 per cent of the population of the city.
The war was a disaster for Poland, of course, since as many as six million people – more than one-fifth of its overall population of 35 million in 1939 -- were murdered by the Nazis.
The death toll included the mass slaughter of the country’s Jewish community, which had numbered about 3.3 million people, and had constituted one-tenth of Poland’s prewar population.
The liquidation of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust, followed by an anti-Semitic campaign that drove thousands of Jews from the country in 1968, meant that for decades the community existed mostly as a fading memory.
Since the end of Communism, the small Jewish community in Poland has been able to reassert its identity and begin the process of rebuilding.
It is difficult to determine an exact figure for the Jewish population of contemporary Poland. The Jewish community is primarily concentrated in Warsaw, but there are also communities in Kraków, Lodz, Szczecin, Gdansk, Katowice and Wroclaw.
Over the past 25 years there has been a reawakening of Jewish consciousness, and the contemporary Polish Jewish community is estimated to have between 10,000 and 20,000 members.