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Polonia in Israel

The concept of Polish Diaspora and antisemitism.

August 23, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Memorial for the Jewish Soldiers in the Polish Army in World War II, Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Adam Fagen (cc) flickr.com

Polonia is the Latin-language form of the name of Poland. However, following the rise of Polish ethnolinguistic nationalism in the 1880s, the term Polonia came to mean the diaspora of Polish emigrants outside the historic lands of Poland (popularly, though incorrectly, equated with Poland-Lithuania). Emil Habdank Dunikowski – a traveler and geologist working at the University of Lwów (Lviv) in Austria-Hungary – made a fortune in the then nascent oil industry and published the volume Wśród Polonii w Ameryce (‘Among the Polonia in the United States’) in 1893. He understood the term ‘Polonia’ as ethnically Polish emigrants, that is, speakers of the Polish language. In this early age of ethnolinguistic nationalism, such a language-based understanding of Polishness replaced the earlier estate-based definition, which had equated the Poles exclusively with the former Poland-Lithuania’s nobility and their descendants .

Polonia’s use as the accepted term for the diaspora of ethnically Polish emigrants stabilised in interwar Poland, a fact that can be gleaned from the 1934 volume Pięć lat pracy dla Polonji zagranicznej (‘The Report on the Work, During the Last Five Years, for the Sake of the Polonia Abroad,’ edited by Stefan Lenartowicz). However, the officialisation of this term had not been completed yet since it was still commonly qualified with the adjective zagraniczny (abroad) in order to distinguish the ‘Polonia Abroad’ (Polish diaspora) from ‘Polonia’ as a poetic name for the Republic of Poland. That is why the first-ever organization of this Polish diaspora, Światowy Związek Polaków z Zagranicy (Worldwide Union of Poles Living Abroad), which was founded in 1934, did not feature the term ‘Polonia’ in its name. It was only the authorities of communist Poland who, in 1955, established the Towarzystwo Łączności z Polonią Zagraniczną ‘Polonia’ (‘Polonia:’ The Society for Linking the Polonia Abroad). In this organization’s somewhat convoluted and bureaucratic name, the interwar term ‘Polonia Abroad’ was unequivocally equated with ‘Polonia.’ In communist Poland, the Latin-language name of this country was not employed in any mainstream patriotic propaganda so there was no lexical dilemma in limiting the usage of the term Polonia exclusively to the Polish diaspora. As a result, the communist period played an instrumental part in stabilising the usage of the term.

Importantly, ethnic Poles living outside of communist Poland but in the territories of former Poland-Lithuania (that is, in the Soviet Union’s republics of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine) were explicitly excluded from the term Polonia as a representation of the Polish diaspora. Prior to the fall of communism, ethnic Poles in the Soviet Union remained a taboo subject for the People’s Republic of Poland. The Kremlin preferred that Warsaw speak as little as possible about these Soviet citizens of Polish origin. This exclusion of such ethnic Poles from the term Polonia continues largely unchanged to this day. It hinges on the rationalisation that today’s Polish minorities in the now independent Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine are not emigrants or descendants of emigrants, but Poles living in the ‘historically Polish’ lands which find themselves outside the present-day Polish nation-state. Obviously, this rationalisation stems from the ideological association of Poland-Lithuania as synonymous with the modern Polish nation-state, a claim that studiously disregards the Belarusian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian claims to the shared Polish-Lithuanian past and heritage.

The end of communism in Poland led to the replacement of communist Poland’s Towarzystwo Łączności z Polonią Zagraniczną ‘Polonia’ with the brand-new organization Stowarzyszenie ‘Wspólnota Polska’ (Association ‘Polish Community’), founded in 1990. In contrast to its communist-time predecessor, this new association also covers ethnic Poles living in the post-Polish-Lithuanian territories, including today’s Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Hence, the new term ‘Polish Community’ is construed as composed from the Polonia (Polish emigrant diaspora) and the Polacy z zagranicy (‘Poles from abroad’). The latter neologism refers to the aforementioned communities of ethnic Poles in the former Polish-Lithuanian territories, located east of present-day Poland’s eastern frontier.

However, in popular parlance, the handy term Polonia tends to be extended to cover also the ‘Poles from abroad’ living in Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Nowadays, such collocations as Polonia litewska (‘the Lithuanian Polonia’) or Polonia na Białorusi (‘the Polonia in Belarus’) are commonplace across the Polish mass media. Rarely do commentators maintain the distinction between Polonia (the emigrant diaspora) and the ‘Poles from abroad’ (non-emigrant Polish communities in the Polish-Lithuanian territories outside Poland). In the 21st century, two extensive references were published on the Polish diaspora, namely, Polak w świecie. Leksykon Polonii i Polaków za granicą (‘The Poles Across the World: A Lexicon of the Polonia and Poles Abroad,’ 2001) and Wielka encyklopedia Polonii świata (‘The Great Encyclopedia of the Polonia Across the World,’ 2014).


Wikipedia article ‘Poles in Malta’

Despite the explicit ethnolinguistic espousal of the equation of the Polish nation and its diaspora with the speech community of the Polish language, all the aforementioned terms, organization and references – whatever definitional and ideological differences may exist among them – exclude those Polish-speakers who profess Judaism, or whose ancestors were of this religion. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia articles on the Polish diaspora faithfully, though always tacitly, reflect this religious distinction in this exclusion. There is no mention about any Polish community in Israel in the exhaustive article ‘Polish Diaspora’, which among others, leads to the follow-up article on ‘Poles in Malta’. Only in the Polish-language Wikipedia’s article on ‘Polonia’, is Israel mentioned as a home to a 4,000-strong Polish community. The information is not supported with any reference or explanation; the number refers to non-Judaist (Catholic) Poles who moved to Israel for work after the end of communism. On the other hand, Israeli statistics record 344,000 Polish citizens who arrived to the country between 1948 and 2012. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ authoritative yearbook on the Polonia, Raport o sytuacji Polonii i Polaków za granicą 2012 (‘The Report on the Situation of the Polonia and Poles Abroad,’ 2013) covers even Iceland, but not Israel.

Each constitution of the interwar, communist and postcommunist Polish nation-state proclaimed that discrimination on religious grounds is illegal. Ergo, in the light of this ethnolinguistic definition of the Polish nation, every single Polish-speaker should be seen as a member of the Polish nation, regardless of religion. However, the program of Polish ethnolinguistic nationalism, that developed at the end of the 19th century and was subsequently implemented during the first half of the 20th century, de facto excludes Jews from the Polish national community. From the confessional perspective, this national community is tacitly earmarked for Catholics only. Of course, exceptions were made for the famous Lutheran strongman of interwar Poland like Józef Piłsudski, or the Greek Catholic Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki (Andrei Sheptytskyi). However, many nationally-minded Polish Catholic activists and commentators were at a loss at how to deal with the fact that many of the best Polish writers of the 20th century were Judaists or of Judaist origin. The poets Julian Tuwim and Bolesław Leśmian and the writers Bruno Schulz and Stanisław Lem are a prime example.

Officially, they were seen as Poles, although in everyday life they were often denigrated as ‘not real Poles’ (nieprawdziwi Polacy) or merely ‘Polish-speaking’ (polskojęzyczni) writers. Most of their kin perished in the Holocaust, which deepened the cleavage of memory and status between ‘real Poles,’ (Catholics) and ‘Polish-speaking’ Jews. Notwithstanding the absence of Jews as a community in postwar Poland after 1968, some high-ranking functionaries in early communist Poland were seen as the ‘proof’ that ‘un-Polish Jews’ seized control of Poland. In postwar Poland, the Nazi stereotype of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ became widespread. In 1968, the authorities reinforced this sentiment to fortify the population’s flagging support for the communist regime by ordering the expulsion of the remaining Poles of the Judaist religion or extraction. Researchers of Polish literature, who at that time discovered the Judaist origin of the ‘Polish national’ poet Adam Mickiewicz, made sure their findings were not publicised.


The Polonia sources estimate that 200,000 ‘Polish-speakers’ (or Judaists) live in Israel, apart from 4,000 ‘Poles’ (that is, Catholics). Source: Polonia w liczbach: 2015 rok. Główne ośrodki polonijne [The Polonia in Numbers in 2015: The Main Polonia Centers]. 2014. Bibuła. Pismo niezależne. 29 Dec.

The highest ranked Polish university (260th) on the Shanghai list is the University of Warsaw. This university enjoys its relatively high position thanks to its two graduates who received Nobel awards, namely, the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (known as Mieczysław Biegun in interwar Poland) and the British physicist Joseph Rotblat (known as Józef Rotblat in interwar Poland). However, they do not feature in the typical listing of the Polish Nobel laureates, because ‘they were Jews.’ 

Despite the ritualised claims of 10 million ethnic Poles in the United States, prior to the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, the largest market for Polish-language publications outside of Poland was in Israel. The largest number of Polish writers active outside of Poland who created poetry, prose and plays during the second half of the 20th century also lived in Israel. They numbered as many as 130 people according to the 2012 reference Literatura polska w Izraelu. Leksykon (‘Polish Literature in Israel: A Lexicon’). The continued exclusion of Zuzanna Ginczanka’s poetic oeuvre from the canon of Polish literature is symptomatic in this regard. She was triply excluded from the mainstream of interwar Poland’s intellectual life as a woman who was seen as ‘un-Polish,’ due to her Judaist background and the fact that her family language was Russian. Ginczanka made a conscious decision to write in Polish. None of these disadvantages prevented her from making a stellar career as a poet. Her career was cut short by her untimely death during the Holocaust at the age of 27, as a result of a Polish Catholic woman’s denunciation to the German occupation authorities in 1944. Ginczanka’s last and most haunting poem is a heart-felt accusation of the fellow Pole who condemned her to certain death. ‘Non omnis moriar,’ is well known but has not been included in school curricula yet. Ironically, the most famous among the Polonia (Polish émigré) writers in the United States are Henryk Grynberg and Jerzy Kosiński, both Poles of a Judaist origin.

During the postcommunist decades, extremists among Polish nationalists developed the distinction between ‘real Poles’ (prawdziwi Polacy) and ‘Polish-speaking Poles’ (polskojęzyczni Polacy). Often, the latter group is referred to even more disparagingly as ‘the Polish-speaking’ (polskojęzyczni) alone, or even as ‘Polish-speaking non-Poles (polskojęzyczni nie-Polacy) in order to deny them the very name ‘Poles.’ After the 2015 elections in Poland ushered radical ethno-nationalists into power, this previously marginal extremist rhetoric entered the mainstream of public discourse. It now shapes the minds and views of the population in Poland. In this binary line of thinking, a person of Jewish heritage cannot be a Pole because she is not a Catholic by heritage. The commonality of Polish language and culture as the definition of the Polish nation is thrown out of the window in preference for the biologised and racialised commonality of ethnoreligious decent. It was this understanding of the nation that the Nazis used to ‘rationalise’ carrying out the Holocaust of Jews and Roma and for persecuting Polish Catholics as ‘racially inferior Slavs.’ It is tragic – to say the least – that present-day Poland’s ruling elites have de facto adopted such a racist definition of the nation, despite the experience of the Nazi destruction of interwar Poland and its multicultural nation in the name of imagined racial purity and superiority. Yet, the mythical ten million English-speaking Poles in the United States (90 per cent of whom know next to nothing of Warsaw’s claim that they are Poles) are preferred to hundreds of thousands of Polish-speaking Polish-Israelis (Israeli-Poles) or any other non-Catholic Poles living in Poland or abroad.

This divisive cleavage between ‘real Poles’ and mere ‘Polish-speakers’ is nowadays strongly politicised and has been made into an important instrument of political discourse in Poland. On the other hand, the dichotomy has been long nurtured through the concept of the Polonia (Polish diaspora), as formulated and deployed for organizational ends and scholarly analysis during the 20th century. Sadly, one of the main functions of the concept of Polonia has been to exclude Judaists and other non-Catholics from the linguistically defined Polish nation. One of the unacknowledged sources of this religion-based exclusiveness is the Polish-Lithuanian noblemen Jan Ursyn Niemcewicz’s antisemitic tract Rok 3333, czyli Sen niesłychany (‘Year 3333, or a Dream That Should Not Come True,’ 1858). He prophesised that if Jews were not excluded from Poland, the result would be a Jewish domination over Catholics in Poland and a subsequent transformation of the country to a ‘Judeo-Polonia.’ In the early 20th century, Polish nationalists adopted Niemcewicz’s plot theory as part of their program of ‘battling’ and excluding Jews from the Polish nation. Hence, notwithstanding the commonality of Polish language and culture, the concept of Polonia does not embrace Poles in Israel because in the eyes of Polish nationalists, this would be tantamount to the fulfillment of the feared prophecy of ‘Judeo-Polonia.’

In this narrow-minded manner of interpreting Polishness, Poles of the Judaist religion or heritage were defined as ‘non-Poles,’ despite their fluency in and loyalty to the Polish language and culture. Their fluency in this language, until recently, often surpassed what was observed among the masses of Catholic peasants that had little or no formal education (due to the centuries-long exploitation and discrimination suffered at the hands of noble Poles). At present, this conceptual dichotomy allows the governing party to neutralise effective politicians of the opposition by leveling against them with the default accusation that they are ‘Polish-speaking.’ This is a well-understood code-word for ‘non-Poles’ and ‘not real Poles,’ which replaces the politically incorrect interwar slur żyd(ek) (‘kike’ or ‘Jewish-lover’).

Unfortunately, antisemitism has sat at the core of the otherwise laudable idea of Polonia since its inception. Nothing has changed in this regard during the last three decades, even after the fall of communism and creation of a democratic Poland, which successfully joined the European Union and NATO. As long as Polishness is denied to Judaist Poles, Poles of Judaist origin or heritage, Polish-speaking Israelis, Israelis of Polish origin, or Jews of Polish origin living outside Israel and Poland, the ideal of Polonia will continue to be marred by antisemitism. If a Pole can also be an American (Polish-American), Brit or Icelander without any command of the Polish language, then the same privilege of broadminded inclusiveness should be extended to any Israeli, Judaist or Jew. On top of that, outside of Europe, only the Polonia (Polish diaspora) in Israel have secured a street named after the most renowned Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, in Tel Aviv. There is no street named after this poet in New York, Curitiba, or Sydney.

Adam Mickiewicz street in Tel Aviv. Source: Google maps street view

The Hebrew name Polin (פולין) for Poland has been adopted by the country’s Judaists since at least the 15th century. It is believed to be a phonetic adaptation of the Latin name Polonia. But some propose it was an omen written on a piece of paper that was passed to Jewish expellees from western Europe when they reached Poland-Lithuania. It succinctly said po lin (פה לין), or ‘here [you should] dwell.’ Polonia and Polin are the same, and there cannot be a true Polonia without Polin.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 

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