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Antisemitism: the foundation of the Polish nation?

The modern Polish nation was ultimately forged out of a union between former Poland-Lithuania’s nobility and Slavophone Catholic peasants. This process of creating ethnic Poles was anything but easy, with antisemitism often used as a means of overcoming the estate chasm between nobles and peasantry.

January 17, 2024 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Statue of the chief ideologue of the National Democracy political movement Roman Dmowski in Warsaw. Photo; Fotokon / Shutterstock

At the turn of the 20th century, the leaders of the Polish national movement adopted antisemitism in order to build a Polish nation from two distinct groups. These were namely the Polish-Lithuanian nobility and “their” Catholic and Slavophone serfs. The Polish national idea excluded Jews but its supporters had no qualms with claiming Jewish property and cultural achievements whenever possible and useful for the nation-building project.

With time, this rapacious antisemitism was written out, and even whitewashed, from the Polish national master narrative taught at Polish schools. This was also done through the partial incorporation of the competing socialist and ethno-religious projects concerning the Polish nation, the first being vaguely civic in its character and the second allowing membership through conversion to Catholicism. This process of forgetting about antisemitic atrocities has been helped by the “vanishing” of Poland’s Jews, first in the Holocaust and subsequently in the country’s ethnic cleansing of Holocaust survivors under communism. Yet, with the authoritarian turn in Polish politics after 2015, antisemitism is back in political practice and programmes. Notwithstanding the absence of Jews as a visible community, antisemitism – quite frighteningly – still attracts votes at the ballot box.

Anachronism and national myths

In the Polish national master narrative, as fashioned at the turn of the 20th century, Poland-Lithuania is presented as an “early Poland”, or even as the first Polish Republic (pierwsza Rzeczpospolita Polska). However, this is an anachronistic myth. The full name of Poland-Lithuania was the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Rzeczpospolita Królestwa Polskiego y Wielkiego Xięstwa Litewskiego). The realm was a composite kingdom, similar in its character to Sweden-Norway or Britain, which was built on the basis of the 1707 union between England and Scotland.

Hence, Poland-Lithuania was radically different from the Polish nation-state founded in 1918. This nation-state is unitary and intended exclusively for a single nation of Polish-speaking Catholics. Confusingly, but for the sake of bolstering Polish nationalism, the national polity is supposed to be a reincarnation of the Commonwealth, also known in today’s Polish under the anachronistic but quite colloquial designation of the first Polish Republic. In order to bolster this anachronistic claim, interwar Poland is dubbed informally as the second Polish Republic. In the spurious continuity alluded to in this numbering, post-communist Poland is posed as the third Polish Republic. Not much thought is given to the exclusion of communist Poland from such ennumeration. Yet, this exclusion serves well to mask the territorial and political continuity between interwar, communist and post-communist Poland, as all the nation-state’s three incarnations are steeped in ethnolinguistic authoritarianism.

However, in present-day terms, the territory of Poland-Lithuania overlaps with Belarus, southern Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, central and eastern Poland, Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad and western and central Ukraine. Nowadays, all these nation-states, created during the past century or so, have a claim to the pre-modern (early modern) shared Polish-Lithuanian heritage, alongside Austria, Germany and Israel. The German claim hinges on the fact that Prussia emerged from an eponymous Polish-Lithuanian fiefdom, while the Electorate of Saxony and Poland-Lithuania were bound by a personal union between 1697 and 1763. Saxony’s dynasty of the Wettins ruled both realms.

In turn, following the partition of Poland-Lithuania in the late 18th century, the Habsburgs moulded their share of the spoils into the land of Galicia, where the basis of Polish national statehood and modern Polish culture were formed during the second half of the 19th century. Last but not least, most Jews who built Israel in its early phase came from the former Polish-Lithuanian lands, or their families stemmed from this area. Confusingly, in literature they are referred to as “Russian” Jews. But Russia acquired the Jewish populations in question only after the seizure of four-fifths of Poland-Lithuania’s lands. Hence, from the historical and cultural perspective, these Jews were of Polish-Lithuanian extraction.

Who was a Pole?

In Poland-Lithuania, nobles constituted the country’s ruling stratum. Only the nobility enjoyed direct influence on the realm’s politics, and they prided themselves on being “Poles”. This ethnonym was not applied to or claimed by the overwhelmingly German and Yiddish-speaking burghers (town and city dwellers), let alone the peasants who accounted for 90 per cent of the Commonwealth’s overall population. Nobles referred to peasants with the disparaging Slavic term chłopi, which originally meant “slaves”. This meaning survives in the historic usage of the Russian and Ukrainian word kholop. Unlike in early modern Western Europe, the peasantry in Poland-Lithuania did not constitute an estate of commoners (especially after the 16th century). Instead, they were slave-like serfs, indirectly owned by the noble gentry.

In Poland-Lithuania serfs were legally obliged to work on their noble owner’s lands. In return, the lord gave them the use of a plot of land for sustenance. A serf could not be sold as chattel, yet land with villages of serfs on it was traded widely and freely. Serfs and nobles had nothing in common, apart from the traditional system of compulsory exploitation. No serf would dare to call himself a “Pole”. Poles – that is, nobles – were the owners and oppressors of serfs in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Serfdom survived the partition of Poland-Lithuania and was phased out during the first half of the 19th century in Austria and Prussia, while in the second half of this period across Russia.

In present-day Poland, Polishness is commonly defined through the Polish language. This promotes the idea that all Polish speakers are identified as Poles, that is, members of the Polish nation. Furthermore, there is a strong normative compulsion that a “true” Pole must be a Catholic, or at least of Catholic extraction. Yet, in Poland-Lithuania, nobility trumped any linguistic or confessional differences. In the north of the realm, from today’s Baltic port of Gdańsk in Poland to the Latvian capital of Riga, Polish-Lithuanian nobles of the Lutheran confession spoke in Low German (like present-day Dutch) and wrote in (standard) German. In the eastern half of the Commonwealth, Orthodox (or Greek Catholic) nobles spoke Ruthenian (or the forerunner to today’s Belarusian and Ukrainian) and wrote it down in Cyrillic. Also, Muslim nobles of Crimean Tatar extraction lived in this area. They preferred to jot down Ruthenian in Arabic letters. In the western half of Poland-Lithuania most nobles were Catholic Polish speakers. In the dynamic trade relations that existed between Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire, Armenian nobles excelled. They adhered to a “monophysitic” form of Christianity, spoke the Turkic language of Kipchak and wrote it down in Armenian letters. What united all the realm’s nobles – irrespective of their various official languages, community vernaculars and writing systems – was their loyalty to the Polish-Lithuanian monarch, alongside Latin and Polish as the languages of legal acts and political debate respectively.

However, apart from some cases of conversion, there were no Jewish nobles in Poland-Lithuania. For two millennia, Christianity imbued Europe’s politics and populations with deeply-ingrained antisemitic sentiment. But in the Commonwealth, Jews enjoyed ethno-confessional autonomy, unlike in Western Europe or Muscovy to the east. From the first area, Jews were expelled in the wake of the Black Death. On the other hand, Muscovy’s elite saw Jews as defiling Orthodoxy and thus barred them from entering the tsar’s “pure” realm.

Between antisemitic Western and Eastern Europe in the early modern period, Jews – as versatile traders and skilful artisans – were actively attracted to Central Europe, namely, Poland-Lithuania, the Kingdom of Hungary (including today’s Croatia, northwestern Romania, Slovakia and southwestern Ukraine), the Khanate of Crimea and areas across the tricontinental Ottoman Empire. All these polities cultivated non-territorial autonomies in order to accommodate useful populations of different confessions. This type of autonomy was known as a millet among the Ottomans and as the Seym żydowski (Jewish parliament) in the Commonwealth. This autonomy did not make Jews equal, for instance, to nobility in Poland-Lithuania. Yet, their status was markedly elevated across this realm in comparison to the downtrodden serfs, or the ancestors of the majority of today’s Poles.

It was a time when the norm was that societies were composed of groups of unequal status, which was typically inherited from one’s parents. If one was unable to become a member of the top group (nobility) in the Commonwealth, one did whatever possible not to tumble down to the very bottom of the social pile, where the serfs eked out an unenviable living. Achieving a place in the middle of this demographic pyramid was a success in its own right. This status was enjoyed by the Jews of Poland-Lithuania, despite flare-ups of murderous antisemitic violence.

Skilled as bankers, administrators, specialized artisans or estate and tavern managers, Jews were welcomed by noble landowners to manage their estates. The noble ethos was not to defile one’s hands with work. As a result, Jews as the agents of nobility often functioned as middlemen between the serfs and their noble lord’s economic interests. From the serf’s perspective, at the level of immediate face-to-face contacts, it was the Jews who were exploiting them. An illiterate serf, not permitted to leave his hamlet, was unable to see that a local Jewish agent was only doing the gentry’s bidding. This discrepancy in perception fed into the myth of magnanimous lords unaware of the sad fate of serfs, supposedly exploited by malicious Jews.

Nascent Polish nationalists (mostly of noble background) seized on this nefarious myth to bridge the gap between nobles and a peasantry that emerged from this group of serfs. This is because they aspired to forge a Polish nation out of a merger of both groups. Peasants were to be recognized as Poles but had to forget their grudges of serfdom and accept the nobles’ culture and language as their own. This was not an easy task. It took until the communist period to fully fulfil this difficult programme (though some educated peasants joined the nationally-minded Polish intelligentsia by the late 19th century). Peasants showed more trust in the Austrian emperor, the Prussian king or the Russian tsar than most of their former noble owners. After all, it was these “foreign” monarchs who did away with the oppressive system of serfdom, not the supposedly “fellow Poles” of noble origin.

On the other hand, the nobles were too few in number to overhaul themselves alone into a “modern” Polish nation that would amount at least to a plurality of a population in any viable territory. Polish-Lithuanian nobles tried this approach twice during their uprisings against the Russian tsar in 1830-31 and 1863-64. Both insurrections failed, because St Petersburg had no qualms at fielding peasants against noble opponents. This issue was finally accepted and early Polish nationalists of noble extraction had to admit that a viable Polish nation would have to embrace the “reeking of manure” peasants. After all, the peasantry accounted for the vast majority of inhabitants wherever the noble Polish nationalists might have dreamt of establishing “their” Polish nation-state.

At the close of the 19th century, this demographic reality began to dictate ideological choices and informed the programme of nation-building. To better mask the now gradually bridged gap between nobles and serfs/peasants, Polish nationalists redefined the two noble insurrections of the 19th century as “national uprisings” (powstania narodowe). Nowadays, the Polish national master narrative anachronistically and against the facts claims that both nobles and serfs were fighting side by side against the Russian tsar. But at the time of these two anti-tsar rebellions, no ethnolinguistically defined Polish nation yet existed.

Now the “real” Pole must be an “Aryan”

It is rarely analyzed and remembered in present day Poland that the definition of the “modern” Polish nation, as developed in the late 19th century, hinges on antisemitism. Catholic Polish speakers (or otherwise Slavophone Catholics), irrespective of their origins (either from the nobility or peasantry), were to be moulded into a “modern” Polish nation. The problem was the chasm of difference and distrust that existed between the nobility and peasantry. First, the living and subsequently intergenerational memory of the crime of slave-like serfdom prevented any rapprochement between both groups and made a joint noble and peasant Polish nation an illusion. Due to this toxic legacy, peasants and nobles saw each other as de facto constituting foreign (and at times, hostile) ethnic groups.

Faced with this existential dilemma, the ideologues of Polish nationalism chanced on the idea of making antisemitism into “social glue” for the needs of nation-building. Antisemitism had existed as a minor trend among Poland-Lithuania’s nobility but had never entered into the Commonwealth’s political mainstream. After all, Jewish converts to Catholicism had been consistently rewarded with the status of new nobles. But on the contrary, antisemitism was widespread among peasants, as fuelled by priests. Nationalists of noble origins could use this visceral hatred in order to evoke strong passions and instil political convictions among the peasantry. This “common national enemy” was easier to use for the purposes of national unification than the Austrians, Prussians (Germans) or Russians, because the Jews had no means of defence. So, they constituted an “ideal object” of generalized hatred.

The experiment worked though not as swiftly as the national leaders would hope. The “social glue” of antisemitism, skilfully applied, welded nobles and peasants (who previously perceived each other as “foreign”) into an intended Polish nation. Grudgingly, erstwhile serfs and their noble oppressors began to see each other as equals, as (ethnic) Poles of the same Catholic faith and Polish language. Meanwhile, a rapidly growing number of anti-Jewish pogroms at the turn of the 20th century became an apt measure of the success of this nation-building effort. Finally, the entailed erasure of the serf-noble divide allowed for entrusting the top post of the Polish prime minister to peasant Wincenty Witos in 1920.

In this process of building an ethnolinguistically defined Polish nation, unsurprisingly, Jews were not allowed to become members, even if speaking faultless Polish and converting to Catholicism. However, numerous Jews adopted Polish and remained loyal to the socialist project of a civic Polish nation. Supporters of this project were sufficiently numerous to have a chance of success had democracy survived in interwar Poland or been revived in the country after the Second World War.

From the perspective of ethnic Polish nationalists, the irony was that the best interwar Polish poets and writers, such as Jan Brzechwa, Zuzanna Ginczanka, Bolesław Leśmian, Bruno Schulz or Julian Tuwim were Jews, either by conviction or through heritage. The same was true of the much-hailed 19th-century national poet Adam Mickiewicz. Without them, Polish literature would not be worth mentioning. After 1945, Holocaust survivors continued to contribute to the excellence of Polish belles lettres. These include the playwright Tadeusz Różewicz and the internationally renowned science-fiction novelist Stanisław Lem. Yet, they took care to conceal their Jewish origins. They would have stood no chance in a heads-on confrontation with their country’s antisemitism. That is why the arguably best novel ever written in communist Poland, namely Bogdan-Dawid Wojdowski’s Bread for the Departed, is neglected though not completely forgotten. Not only was the writer open about his Jewishness, but as a Holocaust survivor he also devoted the book to his childhood experience in the Yiddish-speaking Warsaw Ghetto. To Polish nationalists’ chagrin, Wojdowski’s perfect Polish-language prose brought back to life the lost Yiddish-speaking part of modern Poland.

Initially, the concept of a unified but antisemitic Polish nation was implemented to a limited degree in the interwar Polish nation-state. Only after 1935 were laws instituted that excluded Polish citizens of Jewish background from some occupations in blatant breach of the Polish constitution. Afterward, such a Polish nation was fleshed out fully in communist Poland. The Holocaust instigated by Nazi Germany had exterminated most of the country’s Jewish citizens, creating an “opportunity” for replacing the country’s predominantly Jewish middle class with “real” Poles. Without giving too much thought to the fact, Catholics stole their Jewish neighbours’ real estate, workshops, businesses and movable property on the assumption that the owners must have perished in the genocide.

Hence, a Polish prime minister of Jewish origin, like Benjamin Disraeli in Britain, would have been a fantasy, a sheer impossibility, be it in interwar or communist Poland. In post-communist Poland, Tadeusz Mazowiecki served as the country’s first non-communist prime minister. Subsequently, in late 1990, he ran for the position of Polish president to replace the communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski. Yet, Mazowiecki’s political foes spread false rumours that he was a Jew, and hence “not a Pole, at all”. Bishop Alojzy Orszulik’s public announcement that all relevant ecclesiastical documents had been diligently checked reaffirmed that Mazowiecki was of purely Polish Catholic stock. No one else but a “real Pole” (or “Aryan”, in light of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws of 1935) may be permitted to govern Poland and the Poles. The example of the brave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in neighbouring Ukraine under neo-imperial Russia’s attack, who is proud of his Jewishness, has not changed Polish attitudes a jot in this regard. In today’s Poland, a politician of Jewish background stands no chance of election to posts of state-wide significance.

“Antipolonism” or Polish antisemitism?

The Polish public at large, politicians and intellectuals all bristle at the oft-repeated accusation that “Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk”. They rightly see this opinion as biased, unsubstantiated and even racist. After all, Poland-Lithuania and then interwar Poland used to be home to at least a plurality of the world’s Jews. This fact, among others, is presented as an important “proof” of the “centuries-long tradition of Polish tolerance” (tradycja polskiej tolerancji). To this day, such ossified and unreflectively voiced collocations and claims on some innate Polish tolerance pop up time and again in the Polish press, school textbooks and public discourse. They serve to deflect attention from a Polish popular culture that is imbued with antisemitism.

Deniers and detractors of this lofty proposal of “innate Polish tolerance” are resoundingly condemned as “unpatriotic”. Since the turn of the 21st century, their questioning stance has been disparaged with the neologism “antipolonism” (antypolonizm) by self-declareddefenders of the Polish nation”. Obviously, anti-Polish sentiments, as exemplified by the American slur “Polack” exist, including in Israel. Yet, unlike in the typical antisemitic tropes, no Jew believes that Poles intend to rule the world, kill the Jewish God or drink Jewish blood in their rituals.

Nevertheless, critics of this myth of innate Polish tolerance point to the fact that not a single Jewish locality or cohesive urban community of Jews remains in today’s Poland. Yiddish ceased to be spoken in the country’s everyday life long ago. The argument is insufficient for Polish patriots, who seek to show that such “antipolonists” are mistaken in their “unfounded” opinions. Above all, a patriot of this kind would emphasize that the majority of Poland’s Jews perished in the Holocaust, which was planned and carried out by wartime Germany (that is, with the Austrians’ willing participation).

A tenth of the Polish Jews, or around 250,000 to 300,000 people, survived this genocide. Most survived in the Soviet Union, safely out of the Einsatzgruppen’s murderous reach. After 1945, these Holocaust survivors recreated a modicum of Yiddish-speaking society and culture in communist Poland. Numerous pogroms and murders of returning Jewish neighbours by local Polish Catholics, convinced most not to come back to their original home towns or villages. Instead, these patriotic Poles of Jewish extraction built their new post-war socialist and Yiddish-speaking world (Yishuv) in Lower Silesia (נידערשלעזיע Nidershlezye). This was one of the pre-1945 German regions east of the Oder-Neisse line, which at Potsdam the Allies had handed over to Poland.

Soon, it turned out that limitations imposed on the Holocaust survivors’ political, religious and cultural life had made a travesty out of their promised cultural autonomy (though for half a decade the country’s Jews enjoyed a slightly better position than Poland’s other – hardly acknowledged – minorities). The deteriorating situation convinced most of them to leave the communist country, whenever permitted. The political thaw that followed destalinization in the late 1950s coincided with the first massive wave of Jewish emigration from communist Poland. In 1968, the state-directed ethnic cleansing of the remaining Jews spelt a definitive end to any organized Jewish life in Poland. Around 13,000 Poles of Jewish religion or extraction were forced to leave the country. Some individuals, who despite all odds decided to stay, had to hide their Jewishness deep to be able to lead relatively undisturbed lives. But the current defenders of Poland against defamation maintain that it was the communists, not Poles, who were responsible for this act of ethnic cleansing. This statement is as truthful as proposing that it was the communists, not any Poles, who ethnically cleansed post-war Poland of Germans and Ukrainians.

However, the end result has been such that for the first time during the country’s millennium-long history there are only a few tiny Jewish communities left in Poland. One would think that in the absence of the object of politicized (or even normalized) social hatred, this very hatred should have become a thing of the past too. But obviously, in the first place, antisemitism had developed among Europe’s Christian populations as a political and cultural feature, independently of Jews themselves. Their presence or absence has nothing to do with antisemitism.

So, antisemitism persists and is doing quite well in post-communist Poland. In 2015, the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in Poland. Since that moment, the ruling party has encouraged antisemites and made sure that they would not be punished for their crimes of inciting racial and ethnic hatred. Instead, it is the researchers of the Holocaust who are repressed for their findings, which contradict the Law and Justice leaders’ cherished myth of the “millions of Poles” (that is, the Jews’ Catholic neighbours) that had supposedly saved Jews during the war.

This myth stands at odds with the mere 40,000 to 60,000 Jewish survivors in German-occupied Poland. What is more, recent research shows that out of the quarter of a million Jews who escaped from the ghettoes and death camps, only 35,000 survived. The rest, or over 200,000, were denounced and given up for a pecuniary reward to the Germans by their Catholic neighbours and Polish fellow citizens. Critics say that these numbers are estimates and projections. Fine. However, recently, researchers proved on numerous meticulously researched small-scale cases that two out of three Jews who tried to survive in hiding were either killed by Catholic Poles, or denounced by them to the Germans.

Politics of history

Impunity for today’s antisemites and repressive measures for researchers, who uncover dark pages of the Polish past, simultaneously help to deny and enable antisemitism. Under the cover of the official propaganda of millions of (Catholic) Poles saving Jews (that is, Poles of the Jewish religion or extraction), antisemitism is normalized as an acceptable political opinion or even policy choice. In this way, post-war Poland’s first-ever openly antisemitic party of state-wide significance came into existence. In 2019, far-right and anti-European activists and politicians, not satisfied by the ruling party’s authoritarian programme that they deemed “too liberal”, formed an electoral alliance. This group was named the “Confederation Liberty and Independence” (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość), or in short, the Confederation.

In its origins, political sympathies and programme, the Confederation is a Polish counterpart of Germany’s protest party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD). Its radically “brown” programme contributed decisively to the run-away success of this fledgling Confederation party. The programme can be summarized in the Confederation’s so-called catchy “High Five” saying, namely, “We don’t want Jews, gays, abortion, taxes and the EU” (Nie chcemy Żydów, gejów, aborcji, podatków i UE). Mind you, they want a “Poland without Jews” first of all. A lunatic programme one would opine, but according to the polls in July 2023, almost 17 per cent of Polish would vote for the Confederation. (Fortunately, in the parliamentary elections in October 2023, a mere 7 per cent of voters cast their ballots in favour of the Confederation.) Similarly, the approval ratings of the AfD hover now around 18 per cent in Germany.

At present, the AfD endeavours to cover up its antisemitic leanings by attracting into the party’s ranks disgruntled post-Soviet Jews who settled in Germany. Meanwhile, having risen to the position of the third most popular political party in Poland, the Confederation has adopted a course of officially distancing itself from less savoury elements in its programme, including antisemitism. Yet, at the subliminal level, antisemitism remains one of the Confederation’s stronger attractions. At times even its leaders are unable to stop themselves from committing antisemitic attacks.

In the three post-communist decades, Polish politics has “progressed” from vetting a presidential candidate to check if he is a Jew to the meteoric rise of yet another major state-wide party that is openly antisemitic, though a tad ashamed of this fact. What is next? The noble-serf divide was successfully overcome at the Jews’ expense and is now a thing of the past to which few give any thought.

Yet, I fear, antisemitism may soon play an increasingly important role in the country’s political and social life, which unfolds in the looming shadow of growing authoritarianism and Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine. Certainly, anti-immigrant, homophobic and anti-German feelings are clearly now stronger in Polish politics. The public display of these prejudices attracts more votes than antisemitism alone. However, the future in Poland looks uncertain. Steeping politics in any kind of group hatred is anti-democratic in its character and could facilitate the installation of a populist dictatorship.

I thank Konstanty Gebert for his comments, corrections and suggestions. Obviously, it is I alone who is responsible for any remaining deficiencies.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.


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