Antisemitism  - the phrase ‘anti-Semitic’ appeared quite unexpectedly on 2 September 1879 in ‘Allgemeine Zeitung des deutschen Judentums’ in an announcement of a new weekly newspaper with an ‘anti-Semitic’ profile. This fact came as a surprise since the publisher, a well-known journalistic writer Wilhelm Marr (whose work Der Sieg des Judentums ueber Gemanentums was published in as many as 12 editions between 1874 and 1897), had been consistently using the adjective ‘anti-Jewish’ until that time. The new term was embraced by certain circles of Berlin intelligentsia who were hostile towards the Jews and remained opposed to liberalism. During the same month, the local press published inserts about the foundation of an ‘anti-Semitic league’.

The first major work which used this term, Die antisemitische Bewegung in Deutschland, was published in Zurich in 1884. In France, a journal under the name ‘L'antisémitique’ was founded in 1883, and three years later Eduard Drumont announced his intention to establish the ‘Alliance antisémitique universelle’. The adjective ‘anti-Semitic’ is a derivative of the term ‘Semitic’, coined in late 18th century by J. G. Einchorn to describe the Semitic tribes which kept using the ‘Semitic language’. During the first half of the 19th century the term became so widespread that – to give an example – Ernest Renan used it to refer to all peoples who shared the same type of culture and character, manifested through similar talents and achievements. Artur Gobineau and Eugen Duehring connected the concept of race with a language group: they no longer used opposing languages as classification units but, instead, they referred to peoples who passed on ancient physical and psychological characteristics, talents and gifts from one generation to another. The Semites who spoke Semitic languages were juxtaposed with Indo-Europeans, mostly inhabiting Europe, also called Indo-Germans or Aryans. As a race, the Aryans were positively assessed for their talents and innate morality, which they were deemed to use to make the world a more civilised place.

The great achievements of Indo-Europeans were allegedly threatened by ‘immoral materialists’, i.e. Semites (mostly Jews living in diaspora). The term ‘Semitic’ ousted the older and commonly used term ‘Jewish’ since the former did not apear to be associated with religion but, rather, with science. The term put psychophysical and cultural unity (deeper and insurmountable) before historic national and religious traditions. This term was also in line with the latest challenge which the world of science was facing, i.e. biological Darwinism, which focused on the selection of species and on natural selection.

In practice, some Europeans who were hostile towards Jews wrote about ‘Semites’ and analysed attributes of certain people living in dispersion, mostly in Europe. Such authors described these attributes as both unacceptable and not amenable to change; it was these attributes that allegedly enable the Semites to exploit other peoples like parasites, thereby making social coexistence difficult. The term ‘anti-Semites’, with the prefix ‘anti’, referred to people who were definitely hostile towards Jews, discovered the Jewish ‘threat’ to the world and actively resisted it.

At the core of the 19th century anti-Semitic ideology lied a negative stereotype pertaining to Jews as a group; it was this set of beliefs and views which formed the driving force behind all anti-Semitic movements. The modern (ideological) anti-Semitism focused on the constant “unmasking” of the allegedly clandestine activities of Jews which were aimed at gaining control of their host communities and to materially exploit them. Those views coincided with a taste for conspiracy theories of various sorts (some of which involved the freemasons or the Jesuits) which was particularly apparent among some of the writers and novelists who enjoyed popularity at the time. However, those views did not mean that the traditional hostility, reflecting the aversion of Christians towards their religious rivals, had completely disappeared. On the contrary, the alleged moral inferiority of Jews was supposed to manifest itself most vividly in their religious zeal. In this way, anti-Semitism made a reference to anti-Judaism and became inseparably connected with Christianity. Although protected by the mighty and wealthy (including bishops and popes) due to their professional talents, Jews had been blamed for all cataclysms such as plagues (e.g. the Black Death in 1348), crop failures, or even the ultimate decline of crusades and the failure to gain control over Palestine and, subsequently, the growing Turkish threat. Jews were accused of having murderous instincts, allegedly expressed in their ‘rituals’.

The first accusation of ‘ritual murder’ was made in 1144 in England. The most famous of the numerous accusations of the desecration of the Host, dating back to 1453, is connected with the name of John of Capistrano. Accusations of well poisoning appeared in France in 1319. According to those beliefs, such rituals were allegedly codified in the Talmud (following a dispute on this matter, many copies of the Talmud were burned in 1242 in Paris). For these reasons Jews were expelled from the majority of Western European countries throughout the 15th and 16th century.

On the other hand, the fate of Jews in the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth developed differently. Periods of tolerance intertwined with years of heightened hostility. Jews were taken to court, accused of desecrating the Host (e.g., Sochaczew 1556) and ‘ritual murder’ (e.g., Punia 1574); they were also insulted in satirical writings (e.g., Przesław Mojecki, Sebastian Miczyński). Jews were also the first to fall victim to wars and the tumults, such as  during the Khmelnytsky Cossack uprising of 1648.  However, Jews survived all those cataclysms and their number grew even greater. From the 17th century onwards, Jews have de facto become a separate, fourth estate. As the only class which displayed mobility on the otherwise static social ladder, Jews attracted attention and anger of all those dissatisfied. Meanwhile, the protection afforded by the wealthy and powerful was very costly. Jews have also continued to suffer disrespect because of their different religious views and their constant exposure to finance and commerce, both of which were suspicious in the light of traditional morality of Christian peasants, and often likened with usury and fraud.

Despite the important role which they played in the economy of the Commonwealth at that time, Jews as a social group did not arouse any special interest among the opinion-making circles until the Enlightenment. During the time of the Four-Year Sejm, Jews have become attracted the notice of political activists who were making efforts to reform the structures of the Polish state. The assessment made by those activists was far from positive. In his brochure on transforming Polish Jews into useful citizens, published in 1789 (Sposób uformowania Żydów polskich w pożytecznych krajowi obywatelów), Mateusz Butrymowicz, a deputy from Pińsk, noted: ‘the Jewish people [..] are making themselves a separate nation in the country,’ while remaining ‘under the autocratic rule of their kahals’ and ‘adhering to [...] their old habits in clothing and way of life [...] so they cannot be useful to the country but, on the contrary, have become an unbearable burden.’ This belief that Jews were a group so utterly alien to the society that surrounded them led to a seemingly logical conclusion that Jews should be forced, using all available means, to undergo cultural assimilation, and then, ultimately, Polonisation. It was believed that only after such a change they could be admitted to the national community.

It was believed that if Polish Jews receive political rights, this would accelerate their assimilation (this process was completed in all the partitioned territories of Poland in the 1860s). However, only some of the Jewish elites willingly succumbed to it, whereas the majority of Jews resisted the changes which were seen as undermining their traditional social structure. Moreover, the fact of belonging to a Jewish commune ensured some minimum social security in uncertain times, and the communal structures continued to defend their religious traditionalism. This played a particularly important role in those communes where Hasidim enjoyed the dominant position.

Polish anti-Semitism was an ideology professed by those parts of society which could not keep pace with the changes of modernisation. Anti-Semitism reflected the anxiety and fears of those people and aversion towards the sizeable Jewish community which was scattered across a vast territory and exhibited diverse cultural habits and levels of wealth. The anti-Semitic ideology reflected the complete failure to understand ‘the Others’ who lived nearby. Common in its mild forms such as xenophobia displayed on an everyday basis and the envy at specific instances of success, anti-Semitism sometimes took on pathological forms of non-acceptance, fierce envy, sense of inferiority, rejection and violence.

Under those conditions, the long-standing set of views known as anti-Judaism became a component of the anti-Semitic ideology. It was reinforced by common-sense, superficial observations and a stereotype-based discourse of the Catholic clergy, drawing on medieval scholastic philosophy.

For Poles, the Jewish religion was as dark and mysterious as its most noticeable followers, the Hasidim. Religious practices of those groups were viewed as extremely archaic by all Polish commentators, regardless whether they adhered to a positivist, conservative or downright anti-Semitic views. Whereas the positivists saw this just a ballast which hindered progress and change, conservative clericalists saw Jewish religious principles as the essence and source of insurmountable differences. Those practices were viewed as a powerful source of Jewish ‘tribal solidarity’, as well as exclusivism, and hostility towards the entire non-Jewish world, particularly Christianity, permitting even the most atrocious misdeeds related to ‘ritual practices’. Various wild fantasies related to this theme were the specialty of writers related to ‘Rola’ [The Land], a weekly paper published in Warsaw, including J. Jeleński, F. Lutrzykowski (known under the pseudonym of Bolesław Szczerbiec) and K. Kułakowski (known under the pseudonym of Zenon Kościesza) as well as some of the local clergymen. 

Among the latter one could name a number of clergymen from Cracow, such as the preacher from the parish of St Anne, M. Jeż (author of The Jewish Secrets, published in Cracow in 1898), or the Jesuit philosopher M. Morawski (creator of the doctrine of anti-Semitism). Ignacy Kłopotowski (editor of ‘Polak-Katolik – ‘The Catholic Pole’ magazine) was one of such authors in Warsaw. During the interwar period, anti-Semitic writings were published by priests such as J. Gnatowski (editor of ‘Przegląd Katolicki(the Catholic Review) and ‘Wiara’ (Faith) in Warsaw), J. Kruszyński, Cz. Oraczewski (active in ‘Rozwój(Development), an anti-Semitic society, in early 1920s), J. Władziński and S. Trzeciak (the rector of the church of St Hyacinth in Warsaw from 1928, known for promoting a fabricated text entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).  

Anti-Semites believed that the Jewish religious tradition, codified in the Talmud, has also shaped the views of the so-called Jewish unbelievers, who became numerous in the 2nd half of 19th century. Their secular and progressive stance was regarded as a mask and façade designed to conceal their absolute lack of morality. They were thought to care only about their own material interests and to hold the belief that undermining religious faith might make it easier for them to fulfil the greatest of all their desires – global domination. In ‘What are Jews and Where are they Heading?’ (Czem są Żydzi i dokąd zmierzają?, Warsaw 1909), Kułakowski wrote: ‘For those Jews never acknowledge our Polish ideals but, on the contrary, continue to impose their own Jewish ones.’

Jewish entrepreneurs undoubtedly played a significant role in the industrialisation processes in the 2nd half of 19th century. Nevertheless, their successes, notably the material ones, aroused envy rather than admiration. Jews were denied the right to enjoy success. It was believed that their wealth had been gained unlawfully, through usury and machinations, forcefully taken away from Polish noblemen and peasants. K. Wzdulski, a conservative activits, wrote in ‘Polish Jews in the Light of Truth’ (Żydzi polscy w świetle prawdy, Warsaw 1887): ‘It has soon transpired that Polish Jews saw only one thing worthy of attention in their equality of rights with other Poles – a window of opportunity for the exploitation of others, one which they have decided to use for their own advantage without hesitation, using all the efforts and strength they could muster. This window of opportunity had been the ownership of land.’ In ‘Jews in the countryside’ (Żydzi na wsi, Warsaw 1880), Jan Jeleński added: ‘Having a Jewish landlord is the most clever way to deprave the peasant, unable to understand or fathom all the devices and traps which the profiteer sets up for him.’

Many Poles whose living standard has failed to improve despite the advent of liberalism and capitalism have started to wonder: ‘Why are Jews getting richer, but we are not? And isn’t that happening at our expense?’ The assessments made by positivists, including mostly Aleksander Świętochowski and Eliza Orzeszkowa, proved that the business activity of Jewish entrepreneurs was beneficial to Poles (new patterns, new jobs, more affordable products). However, few were convinced. For the majority, post-feudal corporationism was the ideal model, giving them an illusion of enhanced social security linked to what they believed was a universally moral way of life based on their shared religious beliefs.

Those commentators of public life who harboured aversion towards Jews noticed that economic advancement does not entail the disappearance of cultural separation, at least for the majority of Jews. The Polish public was often outraged by the different language, clothing and customs, by the separate religious and social organisation, their apparent consistency and solidarity, and the wide range of distinctive behavioural patterns, many of which were the result of the premature rise to fortune. Such attitudes were graphically described by authors such as Bolesław Prus and Klemens Szaniawski. Assimilationism was expected to remake all Jews in the likeness of Poles, but those hopes were never realised. The first generations of the so-called ‘civilised Jews’ included mostly bourgeoisie and those who engaged in the pursuit of liberal professions. Both groups got actively involved in the Polish economic and political life. Their descendants – doctors, attorneys and journalists, immersed themselves in the Polish community, and, in most cases, also changed their faith. The next generation (1880s, educated in Polish schools) did not have such serious opportunities for social advancement because their aspirations collided with similar hopes among the Polish youth, mostly from noble families, who wanted to take up those professions which were associated with the intelligentsia.

A considerable proportion of Poles have soon come to identify Jews with liberalism (with certain patterns originating from Germany and France having played a certain role in this regard), and some believed that liberalism was a Jewish idea that gave advantage to Jews – and Jews alone. Anyone who was disappointed or wronged during the transformation was eager to blame Jews for their own misfortunes. A chance to return to the ‘good old times’ or to create a new, beneficial social order could, in their view, only appear only if Jews were pushed to the margins of economic and social existence. The idea of ‘grassroots work’ to reform the Polish society, formulated by Warsaw-based positivists, emerged in a distorted, radical right-wing form in the circles of ‘Rola’, a Warsaw-based weekly founded by Jan Jeleński in 1883.

The social programme of that group was rather uncomplicated: the society consisted of beneficial classes, such as Polish peasants, townsmen and landowners, as well as those classes which had a detrimental effect, i.e. capitalists and burghers of German and Jewish origins. This stratification was supposed to be confirmed by religious divides: the “beneficial” classes professed Roman Catholicism. The group believed that the Polonisation of industry and commerce would be in the interest of the country. Subsequently, the followers of the views espoused in ‘Rola’ planned to Polonise the ‘progressive intelligentsia’ which, at that time, had too many ‘foreign elements’.

The growing sense of mutual strangeness shaped a wide range of anti-Semitic attitudes at the end of 19th century, from the so-called asemitism (priest Marian Morawski) to the publications contained in ‘Rola’. In the central part of the political scene, aversion towards Jews thrived both among aristocrats and noblemen (‘Czas’ [Time] in Cracow, ‘Gazeta Narodowa’ [The National Newspaper] in Lviv, ‘Niwa’  [The Field] in Warsaw, ‘Kraj’  [The Country] in St Petersburg) and among envious peasants (followers of priest Stojałowski and the Peasants’ Association of thr Potoczek brothers). In addition, one must also consider the avowedly anti-liberal stance expressed in ‘Głos’  [The Voice] in Warsaw. Sometimes, the tone of statements made about Jews by left-wingers associated with PPS (Polish Socialist Party) and PPSD (Polish Social-Democratic Party) was close to the opinions expressed by representatives of the aforementioned circles. Of course, each group perceived the ‘strangeness’ of Jews somewhat differently, yet they shared the idea that certain ‘Jewish traits’ obstructed the understanding between the Poles themselves and hindered the joint efforts towards the achievement of the common good.

The ideologisation of the hostile or scornful attitudes towards Jews and the arbitrary identification of attributes allegedly shared by all Jews went hand in hand with the politicisation of the Polish social life.  Influential circles which have started to transform into political parties created their own images of Jews and used them in the course of their political games. The landscape of the Polish political scene would decide whether the balance would tip towards the negative views and pessimism of the right or towards the optimistic neutrality of the left. However, everyday life would mostly depend upon the stance towards the Jews of the centrist parties focusing on the interests of the peasants. In the religiously reinforced old-style anti-Judaism, professed by the majority of peasants, Jews were considered as “the others” due to their “strangeness”, and yet they also remained “neighbours” or “those who live close by” due to the fact that in the economically and culturally backward environment surrounding them, they still remained the necessary intermediaries.

The politicisation of social life and the ideologisation of attitudes also occurred among Jews themselves. Acculturation went slightly ahead of Polonisation among a fairly sizeable group of people describing themselves as ‘Polish Jews’. This was the generation of 1870s and 1880s, educated in Polish secondary schools and universities, in the Kingdom of Poland and in Galicia. Many of them represented liberal professions but mostly those were industrialists, bankers and tradesmen. Incidentally, this trend seemed to be driven more strongly by political rather than cultural considerations. Nevertheless, it was the life experience of the members of this group that caused the failure of the idea to resolve ‘the Jewish question’ through Polonisation. It was this group which promoted the idea of defending the Jews’ right ‘to be different’.

This group clashed most strongly with Liga Polska (Polish League) and Narodowa Demokracja (National Democracy), i.e. the vanguard of the Polish nationalist movement, and with neoconservative activists from Stronnictwo Postępowe (Progressive Party) and a wide group of non-organised xenophobes. The latter included the supporters of the old social order and the time-honoured customs associated with the life in country manors of the nobility as well as lower middle classes who mostly worried about everyday financial problems and managed their lives prudently and cautiously as if the only thing they cared for was the fate of their children.

Poles professing the Mosaic faith were the first to experience what other Poles thought of them, and they shared that experience with other Jews. In a sense, they also acknowledged that the most typical attitude was an anti-Semitic one. It was filled with contempt, rejected any ideas of rapprochement and blamed Jews for the failure of assimilation due to their insurmountable innate characteristics. Despised and rejected, Jews locked themselves in the world of Jewish affairs, focusing on the reorganisation of their own community, limiting the contacts with Poles to a routine exchange of goods and services.

The issue of a strict dividing line between those two phases of Polish-Jewish relations is a separate issue. It distinguishes certain rapprochement and hopes for symbiosis from clear antagonism. The analysis of anti-Semitic texts proves that the years 1905–1914 played the most important role in the process of creating a new definition of a Jew as the main enemy of Poland and Poles, and more dangerous even than the partitioning powers. During those years Polish nationalists started to explain those allegedly harmful Jewish inclinations, accusing them of immorality and bad faith, allegedly shared by all members of the Semitic race. In 1909, in ‘Separatism of Jews and its Sources’ (Separatyzm Żydów i jego źródła, Warsaw 1909), Roman Dmowski wrote: ‘Given the existence of the Jewish camp and its opposition towards the Polish camp, and given the fact that this camp strives to win over the hearts and minds of our own Jewish masses quickly, it will become increasingly difficult to accept the existence of any persons who straddle the line, i.e. those whose identity could be described as both Jewish and Polish [...] We hear so much today about assimilation as a programme to resolve the Jewish question, whereas the unrelenting necessity is actually pushing it in the opposite direction’. Two years later, Andrzej Niemojewski stated in ‘Composition and March of the Army of the Fifth Partition’ (Skład i pochód armii piątego zaboru, Warsaw 1911) that Jews were pretending to be democrats and liberals but, in fact, they were preparing the fifth partition of Poland and, in the near future, they would take control over the entire country. This conclusion was in line with the claims made in the greatest ‘anti-Semitic bestseller’, printed in 1902, i.e. the fabricated text commissioned by the tsarist Okhrana, i.e. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As ideological anti-Semitism gained currency, political conflicts became more intense. In Galicia, in 1907 three Zionists were elected members of parliament and they did not become members of Koło Polskie (the Polish Circle). In Warsaw, during the elections to the 4th Duma in 1912, Jewish primary electors, who held a dominant position in the electoral circle, supported socialist Eugeniusz Jagiełło against the conservative Jan Kucharzewski. In subsequent elections in Galicia (1911), Poles used their administrative system against the Zionists. In Chodorów some Jews were shot at, and in Warsaw the National Democracy announced a boycott of Jewish shops (which turned out to be quite effective). Nevertheless it should be stressed that no strictly anti-Semitic political party based on either the German or the French model was ever formed in the Polish territories.

The Jewish-Polish relations were much exacerbated by World War I. However, many issues remain unclear. There is no clear distinction between the objective background of the conflict (overall impoverishment, economic exploitation of land by partitioning powers, ruination of the Kingdom of Poland by the retreating Russians, ravages in Eastern Galicia) and the political life, the radicalisation of the prevailing views, the growing anxiety about everyday life and the future and the euphoria of activists who were building ‘castles on ice’ based on the enigmatic enunciations made by the leaders of the countries participating in the conflict.

A considerable majority of Jewish people supported the Central Powers but this enthusiasm was not shared by the Poles, especially those associated with National Democracy. This was a harbinger of further conflicts. From today’s perspective, the Jewish support for the German-Austrian coalition seems entirely logical and justified. For Jews, Russia was a country of the pogroms, whereas Germany and Austria were the home of the Haskala, liberalism and highbrow spiritual culture which many Jews of Central Europe gravitated towards.

The activities of local Zionist activists and their allies from Berlin (Komitee für Osten which remained active in Warsaw) were seen by the Poles as a form of treachery. It was claimed that Jews had abused their influence to separate themselves without the consent of the Poles as a legally recognised national minority. The guarantee for those rights was supposed to have been offered by the Germans. For the Polish national camp, the voice of Zionists – few in numbers yet relatively active – became the final proof that there is no chance for mutual understanding since only the host country was in a position to guarantee rights to minorities. Again, Jews were too late to notice that the attitude of the Germans to the ‘Jewish question’ changed dramatically after their exposure to traditional Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) and that it was the Poles who should be considered as the more important partners. However, the idea of national autonomy had already began a life of its own.

It was this burden that Poles and Jews had to face following the restoration of independence. For the Poles, the news from the East were the main cause of anxiety as they were forced to watch as imperial Russia was being reborn under the tyrannical rule of the Bolsheviks; the situation in the West that was another cause for concern, as the Poles were wondering whether the Germans have been weakened enough already and whether the residents of Poznań have already mustered the strength to seize the approaching opportunity. The Jews, on the other hand, took advantage of the Western public opinion and influential financial circles to ensure the rights of a national minority for themselves. Both nations came out victorious from the struggle.

The peace treaty in Riga was signed, as was the treaty on minority rights, and the newly elected president was not a nationalist. However, both nations were no longer standing hand in hand but, instead, were now facing one another, separated by the wall of mutual “strangeness”. Moreover, the first months of independence and the fledgling Polish state saw a number of tragic events such as the pogrom in Lviv (November 1918) and near Rzeszów (May 1919), as well as multiple other cases in which the angry mob directed its rage against the Jews. There was also hostility on the part of some military formations, with some troops cutting off the Jews’ beards or assaulting them physically. The soldiers of general Haller’s army have become particularly infamous for their deeds.

In the inter-war Poland known as the Second Polish Republic, the previous social gaps between Poles and Jews have widened considerably. The Poles were building a nation state and have failed to take the aspirations and interests of minorities into account, despite the fact that the said minorities constituted as much as one third of the society at that time. For over three million of Jews, who had economically strong and politically organised elites, the price they would need to pay was an important issue.

Throughout the twenty years of the interwar period, the vast majority of Poles were deeply distrustful towards Jews as regards their loyalty towards the newly built state. It was commonly believed that Poles had a lot to catch up in terms of the economy and, to some extent, in terms of cultural and social life, because they lived under a foreign rule for many decades. Minority interests were considered significant only to the extent to which they were not in conflict with the Polish national interests, and these were interpreted in a rather egoistical fashion. The majority of Poles enthusiastically welcomed the fact that the Jewish population was granted cultural and religious rights only; any thoughts of granting them political rights that might allow them to create any form of self-government were shunned like plague. This kind of policy was equally detrimental to all national minorities, even though Jews did not jeopardise the territorial unity of Poland, unlike the Germans or Ukrainians.

During the first years after the war, when the struggle for national boundaries was still ongoing, Jews were suspected of all kinds of alliances with the enemies from the outside. The Jewish National Council in Lviv announced neutrality in the Polish-Ukrainian war; this declaration prompted the progrom during which over a hundred people were killed. Soon afterwards, in Pińsk the local Jews were accused of being allies of the Bolshevik army; a few dozen local Zionists were arrested during a meeting and then executed by a firing squad. Other, less bloody pogroms took place throughout the Eastern Borderlands. The myth of Jewish responsibility for the Russian revolution, the promotion of communism in Poland as well as for other conspiracies often led to tragic consequences. Jews were persecuted because it was not believed that they could be loyal to the independent Polish state, let alone participate in its defence. This obsession of treachery led to an event which was a disgrace for Poles: in summer of 1920, during the breakthrough clashes with the Soviet army, 17.000 of Jewish conscripts and even volunteers were interned in a camp in Jabłonna near Warsaw. This fact served as a portent that Jews in Poland would not be able wash off the stigma associated with their perceived “alien” status.

Zionists who consistently yet ineffectively fought for the recognition of Jews as a national minority, became more influential also due to this situation, which allowed them to create a relatively numerous parliamentary representation. They hoped that in this way they would be able to achieve the much-sought after concessions. The idea to establish a bloc of national minorities has failed, provoking ever fiercer attacks from Polish right-wing groups. When Gabriel Narutowicz was elected president in December 1922 thanks to minority support, many Poles considered this to be a Jewish conspiracy against vital Polish interests. The ruthless attacks directed against the president elect created an atmosphere which ultimately led to his subsequent assassination. This fact demonstrated that right-wing Poles would stop at nothing in their fight for their own ideal of the Polish state.

All that was left for the Jews was religious and cultural autonomy, which they could enjoy in their communes. The rights of the minority could be defended only by Jewish deputies, yet their number shrank from one election to another. There was much to be defended, since the overdue legislative issues were resolved without much haste. For Jews (except, perhaps, the most radical, orthodox circles), any difficulties in fulfilling their own needs and aspirations served as a proof of anti-Semitism in both the state and in society.

The first issue which generated controversy was the slow pace of progress with respect to the elimination of discriminatory legal norms, a legacy of the period of the partitions. This process was not finalised until 1931. Formal equality before the law, as a foundation of the civic society system which was never openly renounced in Poland did not always correspond with actual equality. In practice, the ban on working on Sundays, enacted in 1918 following the demands of the workers’ movement, seriously limited the earning opportunities for religious Jews, who celebrated the Shabbat. They were also affected by the 1936 regulations restricting the ritual slaughter of cattle (shechita), regarded as non-humanitarian. In reality, this law was driven by the attempt to eliminate Jewish merchants and craftsmen from trade and cattle slaughter. The issue was reconsidered by parliament and the procedure to introduce a total ban on the shechita was well under way in 1939. This issue was also of interest for the Muslim population.

During the final years of the Second Polish Republic, some voices postulated an introduction of more serious limitations in the civil rights of the Jewish population. Disputes in the parliament covered issues such as restriction of Jews’ rights to change surnames (a draft by MP S. Jóźwiak, intended to obstruct assimilation of Jews, a practice which was not accepted by anti-Semitic right wingers). Radical nationalist activists, inspired by the legislation of the Third Reich, proposed that Jews should be deprived of their civil rights and suggested solutions which, although not  formally racist (racism as such was condemned by the Roman Catholic church) in fact exhibited many racist inspirations. In the end, however, these proposed laws were never actually discussed in parliament. The Polish parliament did however enact a law which allowed administrative authorities to deprive any individuals who stayed abroad uninterruptedly for a period of five years of the Polish citizenship. Internal instructions recommended that this should be targeted primarily at Jews during the so-called Polenaktion.

All those concepts stemmed from the rise of xenophobic ideas in society, which drew a clear line between the majority of citizens (who viewed themselves as hosts) and anyone who was ‘alien’ in terms of religion (right-wing political groups have coined the term ‘Catholic Pole’ at that time) as well as from the growing national awareness. Politicians who were at the reins at that time officially declared equality for all citizens, yet in 1939 some ministries prepared lists of people ‘of non-Aryan ethnicity’. Ethnicity became one of the criteria which enabled or barred the exercise of full civil rights.

The rising wave of xenophobic, nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments was additionally intensified by the extremely difficult economic situation, especially during the great global economic crisis of 1929–1935 and the depression which ensued afterwards. In most cases, impoverished and largely helpless citizens had no choice but to rely on assistance from the state (central or local government bodies), and such bodies worked primarily in the interest of the majority. In practice, Jews were affected by many regulations that might have initially appeared entirely rational, such as the 1934 industrial law (specifying the requirements for a craftsman holding the title of a master), provisions specifying hygienic requirements in shops and workshops of craftsmen, standards for products intended for export (especially foodstuffs) etc. The boycott of Jewish shops, which was promoted by anti-Semitic organisations, was to be made easier thanks to the rigorous application of regulations whereby the full names of owners were to be disclosed on the signposts of retail shops and craftsmen’s workshops.

In the competition for influences among circles favouring anti-Semitism, especially lower middle class, only radical phraseology could ensure success. The national democratic faction (including, in particular, its most radical parts) was in a better position in this respect, in comparison with the political followers of Marshall Piłsudski who came to power after his death. Radical nationalists did not confine themselves to legislative projects and demagogic propaganda but, starting from 1930, they gradually became more radical in the actual actions they performed. The boycott slogans were followed by pickets at Jewish retail shops and workshops, which, over time, led to violent attacks on customers. Shortly before 1939, a number of bomb attacks against such facilities occurred.

After 1935, pogroms were provoked in some towns (although fatalities were rare), usually inspired by radical nationalists. The government could not afford to tolerate criminal acts but it did not take any decisive steps to curb the rise of anti-Semitism. The infamous statement by Prime Minister Feliks Sławoj Składkowski made in parliament in June 1936: ‘economic struggle there may be, but no harm must ever be done’ might have condemned violence but also contained a promise that the government would not oppose economic boycotts or any other forms of anti-Semitic action as long as they did not openly contravene the provisions of applicable laws. This practice was taken even further, since the authorities usually gave way in cases when they were unable to take a decisive stance against  discrimination, e.g. on universities, where disciplinary regulations were introduced which, in fact, sanctioned vertain forms of anti-Semitism (such as the ‘ghetto benches’ set up at the Lviv University of Technology as early as in 1935 ). This also applied to relations in professional organisations, where some of them introduced an ‘Aryan rule’ (a statutory ban on membership for individuals considered to be Jews).

These developments were accompanied by the propaganda of the Roman Catholic circles which condemned the so-called ‘inferior Jewish morality’ and demanded a total separation of Jews, who were accused of disseminating pornography, scandalising Christians, supporting Bolshevism, engaging in fraud and in a struggle against Christianity. Indeed, primate cardinal August Hlond condemned physical violence in his pastoral letter (1936) and stated that there are also honest, pious Jews, but he treated them as an exception and devoted much more time to stigmatising the alleged Jewish misdeeds. He also endorsed the boycott and postulated strict separation of the Christian population and the Jewish population in all spheres of life, in order to avoid the allegedly corrupt Jewish influences.

Those arguments were reiterated by the Catholic press in a rather primitive form, adapted to the needs of uneducated readers. Such titles included, notably, the publications of the Franciscan order in Niepokalanów (‘Mały Dziennik’, [The Little Journal] ‘Rycerz Niepokalanej’  [The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin Mary] and others), and even some established journals (e.g. ‘Przegląd Powszechny’  [The Common Review] published by the Jesuits). In fact, the aforementioned priest S. Trzeciak was considered an authority in this respect for the propaganda officers of the Third Reich.

Distrust, aversion and even hostility towards Jews among a considerable proportion of the Polish society, negative opinions of Jews and accusations that Jews do not care about Polish interests but only about their own goals were still prevalent when World War II broke out. The atmosphere created by radical nationalist groups and a considerable proportion of the Catholic press, especially after 1935, made the task of rescuing Jews during the Holocaust more challenging, although the consequences of this atmosphere are extremely difficult to assess in an even-handed manner today. It is a fact that even some Catholic activists, who believed that it was a Christian duty to ‘save thy neighbour’ in need and who risked their own lives to help Jews, nevertheless claimed that Jews were the greatest threat to Poland. Another commonly held view was that Polish-Jewish relations deteriorated because Jews behaved in an unfriendly way towards the Poles under Soviet occupation, with many cases of treason and denunciation.

The stereotype of ‘Jewish communists’, Jewish “strangeness” or “foreignness” and their harmful influence survived after the liberation and persisted in Poland under communist rule. The very last signs thereof were the Kielce pogrom in 1946 and the 1968 events, when one of the factions of the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party) has started to use nationalistic slogans and forced a considerable proportion of the remaining Jews (or people considered to be Jews according to racist criteria) to emigrate.


  • H. H. Arendt, Korzenie totalitaryzmu (The Origins of Totalitarianism), Antysemityzm (Anti-Semitism), Warsaw 1993;
  • M. Brown (ed.), Approaches to Antisemitism. Context and Curriculum, New York-Jerusalem 1994;
  • L. Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme, vol. I, II. Paris 1981;
  • F. Ryszka, A. Jasińska-Kania, Antysemityzm polski. Szkic do opisu i diagnozy (Polish Anti-Semitism; A Blueprint for Description and Diagnosis), Warszawa 1993;
  • A. Żbikowski, Dzieje Żydów w Polsce. Ideologa antysemicka 1848–1914. Wybór tekstów źródłowych (History of Jews in Poland. Anti-Semitic Ideology 1848–1914. A Selection of Source Texts). Warsaw 1994.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Andrzej Żbikowski

Quoted after: Tomaszewski J., Żbikowski A., Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon. [Jews in Poland – Their History and Culture. A Lexicon.], Warsaw 2001. 

The following text comes from the book entitled "Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik", by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP

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