Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Poland’s Jews in an Independent Poland


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.


Poland’s Independence After a Century


By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlotttown, PEI] Guardian

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.

The three empires that had partitioned the country – Austria-Hungary, Prussian Germany, and tsarist Russia -- all fell victim to defeat and revolution.

Out of the rubble of the First World War were born new states. Some, like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were multi-national. The others, including Poland, were created as nation states. 

However, they all promised to protect the integrity of minorities within their borders. The Minorities Treaties were drawn up between the victorious Allies, 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.

But efforts in the 1920s to invoke the treaties and enlist the League of Nations to stop discrimination brought no tangible results. In September 1934 Poland unilaterally renounced its obligations under its treaty.

After the 1918 armistice, the Allied Supreme Council, which was determining the frontiers of the re-established Polish state, had created a temporary boundary marking the eastern frontier of Poland, known as the Curzon Line.

However, the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920, in which Poland was victorious, provided Poland with almost 135,000 square kilometres of land east of the Curzon Line. Most of its inhabitants were not Polish but Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian.

Overall, a full 31 per cent of the population were non-Polish minorities. Of these, according to the 1931 census, 15 per cent were Ukrainians, 8.5 per cent Jews, and 4.7 per cent Belarusians. 

The Second World 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 postwar 1946 census found just 23,930,000 people left in the country.

The death toll included the mass slaughter of the country’s Jewish community, which numbered about 3.3 million people, and had constituted one-tenth of Poland’s prewar population. 

As well, Poland lost its large eastern territories, inhabited largely by non-Polish minorities, to the Soviet Union, as its border was moved westward along a line almost equivalent to the Curzon Line.

But it gained new territories in the west, wrested from Germany – and in the process expelled about five million Germans from those lands, in what we today would call “ethnic cleansing,” replacing them with Poles displaced from the lost eastern territories.

So, in a sense, it was two of the greatest mass murderers in history, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, who “solved” Poland’s minority “problem,” and thus paved the way for today’s Poland.

The “dirty secret” of Polish homogeneity is that it is the war, with its genocide, ethnic cleansing and massive war crimes, that made the country one of the most ethnically and religiously uniform nations in Europe.

Today around 98 per cent of the population of 38.4 million identifies as ethnically Polish, and 87 per cent belong to the Roman Catholic Church.

Frau Merkel’s Troubles Mount

By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint, John, NB] Telegraph-Journal

Angela Merkel is becoming the Cheshire Cat of German politics, as her power slowly fades. In fact, she’s a lame duck, having announced she’ll be stepping down as chancellor within two years.

Two state elections in Bavaria and Hesse saw her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Christian Social Union (CSU) Bavarian affiliate, continuing to lose votes, with much of it going to the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The same malaise affects her federal coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), with the Greens eating into their support.

Now in her fourth term in office, Merkel has served as chancellor for 13 years, and voters are saying it is time for her coalition government to go.

Both the CDU and the SPD in last year’s national election dropped to their worst postwar results.

In the Bavarian state election held Oct. 14, the CSU, which used to have a stranglehold on power, lost the absolute majority they had enjoyed for all but one term since 1962.

Their share of the vote plummeted by 10.5 per cent to 37.2 percent, even though they had publicly criticized Merkel’s migration policy and twice nearly brought down the federal coalition.

It was a deliberate CSU strategy to prove to Bavarian voters that the party could be just as tough on borders and security as its rivals in the AfD. It didn’t work.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats collapsed into the single digits, their vote halved to 9.7 per cent.

The fringe parties are no more. While the combined share of the vote won by the SPD and CSU was down more than 20 per cent since the last Bavarian election in 2013, the Greens doubled their vote to 17.5 per cent while the AfD entered the state legislature for the first time after gaining 10.2 per cent.

The CSU will now have to cooperate with other parties to steer legislation.

On Oct. 28, voters went to the polls in Hesse, delivering another blow to the two establishment parties.

Merkel’s CDU, which has governed Hesse for two decades, won 27 per cent of the vote, good enough for first place, but in its worst performance since 1966, down 11 per cent since 2013.

The Social Democrats fell from 30.7 per cent to 19.8 per cent -- a 72-year low.

The Greens doubled their vote to 19.8 per cent, slightly ahead of the SPD, while the AfD claimed 13.1 per cent. The AfD now has seats in all 16 state legislatures.

The CDU will almost certainly remain in charge in Hesse, with coalition partners.

Niche and more extreme parties are gaining as the electorate splinters into smaller fragments. Merkel, who is also stepping down as CDU head, will be in even less control after these two state elections. 

This past week, in fact, she has faced calls to resign as chancellor immediately.

As the face of German and European stability for years, her downfall signals the end of an era.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Hitler's War on German Culture

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

November 9 marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom ordered by Adolf Hitler in which more than 1,000 synagogues were set on fire or destroyed, and at least 91 Jews murdered, in more than 1,000 cities and towns across Germany.

Most articles and books about Hitler deal with his anti-Semitism and military aggression.

But Hitler also concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany. 

In September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in these than the Weimar Republic had done.

This, he contended, would be necessary in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk

From 1933 to 1945, the Reich Chamber of Culture exercised a profound influence over hundreds of thousands of German artists and entertainers in the fields of music, theatre and the visual arts.

States, declared Hitler, had the sacred duty to defend national art against the degenerative force of global cosmopolitanism. 

He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933. 

Jewish composers and music, too, were banned. The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics fired their Jewish members and ceased to perform the music of Jewish composers. 

While Jewish performers fled, eminent men like Karl Bohm, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss stayed behind and served the Reich. 

The Vienna orchestra would become a fixture at the Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies. Just after the German army overran Poland, it performed in Krakow, under the baton of Furtwangler, who called music the art that expressed the soul of the nation most completely.

The Berlin Philharmonic, within a couple of weeks of the occupation of France, staged three concerts in Paris and Versailles. 

The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.”

Movies, too, needed to be restored to “Aryan” control. According to Ofer Ashkenazi, in his book Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity, cinema in Germany prior to the Nazi takeover was a crucial space for “the contemplation and exhibition of Jewish experience in Germany” and a significant body of films (mostly by Jewish filmmakers) worked “to promote the formation of a liberal, multicultural, transnational bourgeois society, in which ‘the Jew’ could be different, but equal.” 

This was obviously unacceptable to the Nazis. Film became an important ingredient in the toxic brew of Nazi propaganda. 

The German film industry came under the complete control of the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Its head, Joseph Goebbels, believed ideological indoctrination worked best when conveyed through entertainment, so Nazi cinema put forth its political propaganda in the form of genre films such as comedies, musicals, and melodramas. 

The most famous and controversial films produced were documentaries by Leni Riefenstahl. She directed films that extolled the values of physical beauty and Aryan superiority. Triumph of the Will, a celebration of a 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, is one notorious example.

The Nazis also saw modern art as “Jewish-Bolshevist” and condemned it. This culminated in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, where Hitler delivered a speech declaring “merciless war” on cultural disintegration.  It included 650 works of art confiscated from 32 German museums.

The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to “reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.”

Whole movements were labeled as “diseased,” including Expressionism, Impressionism, New Objectivity, Surrealism, and Cubism. Many of Germany’s most talented and innovative artists suffered official defamation. 

With this exhibition, the visual arts were forced into complete submission to censorship and Nazi “coordination.” 

Initiated by Goebbels and by President of the Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts Adolf Ziegler, the exhibition travelled to twelve other cities from 1937 to 1941. In all, the show drew more than three million visitors.

Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are now considered among the greats of modern art.