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Jews and the Fate of Poland
By William Zukerman
April 2, 1938
Vol. 146, No. 14, p. 379-381
Thirty-one years ago, when the Russian Empire seemed to be at the height of its power, the reactionary "Real Russian" Party, known as the Black Hundred, sent a memorandum to the Czar's Prime Minister, M. Stolypin, proposing that the Poles, who were then a national minority in Russia, should be segregated in a Polish ghetto just as the Russian Jews were segregated at that time.
In those days the Polish problem was one of the most troublesome questions of Europe. The partition of Poland hung like a cloud over the liberal nineteenth century. An act which in our fascist era would be considered a matter of practical politics did not let decent people of a more liberal age rest. Every liberal newspaper thundered against the wrong done Poland; every progressive and revolutionary social movement had a plank in its program advocating the restoration of Polish independence. The cumulative effect of democratic public opinion on the question often made the Czar's government uncomfortable. Hence the bright idea of the "Real Russians" to solve the problem somewhat as the problem of the Jews had been "solved," by means of a ghetto. Fortunately even the czarist regime in its decay had enough wit to realize that a new ghetto would not be any better solution than the old one had been for a similar problem, and the proposal was never carried out. It is recalled only as an interesting historical item.
Poland is no longer divided among the nations. As a result of the Great War the wrong of 1790 has been rectified. Poland is no longer politically mutilated and oppressed. It is a great state, with not only its own territory restored but that of other nations added to it, with sovereignty not only over its own people but over ten million people of other nationalities. No other state gained so much from the war as the Poles.
And yet such is the irony of history that this peoplewhich has known nationalistic oppression more than others, which for over a hundred years filled the world with the tale of its woes and with appeals for justicenow that justice has been given to it, has turned into the worst oppressor of the post-war period and is treating its own national minorities with a cruelty greater than that shown by the czarist regime. The ghetto which the "Real Russians" only proposed and the Czar's government did not introduce for the Poles, the Polish Nationalists are now demanding for the Jews, and the government has actually started to introduce it.
It is characteristic of the Polish Nationalists that they have chosen to introduce the ghetto first in, of all places, the universities and other higher schools of learning. Their ultimate aim is, of course, to segregate the Jews from the Poles in every walk of social, cultural, and economic life, in railways, theaters, cinemas, concert halls, cafes, and restaurants, in the professions, in business enterprises, and in residence districts. Nor is this a theoretic program only. Already there are hundreds of ghetto markets in Poland where Jewish traders and stall-keepers are separated from the Poles; already in certain cities Jewish coachmen and taxi drivers are segregated in stands and zones of their own; already nationalistic Polish lawyers demand separate benches in the courts for their Jewish colleagues; and nationalistic doctors demand similar segregation for Jewish doctors. In some places even Jewish porters are made to wear special badges announcing that they are not members of that new aristocracy of the human species, the Polish race.
But all this is as yet not legal or official. The government does not discourage this activity "so long as it is not accompanied by acts of violence," but neither does it sanction it. It has remained for the higher schools of learning to take the first step in making this abomination legal and compulsory. With the consent of the Ministry of Education the rectors of the Polish universities have recently officially introduced the ghetto. Jewish students are segregated from their non-Jewish colleagues and obliged to sit on special benches. If they refuse, as they invariably do, to submit to this humiliation and prefer to stand, they are brutally beaten by the Nationalist students and forced to sit on the seats assigned to them, or they are expelled from the schools by the administration.
To the credit of the Polish people it must be said that not all sections of it have approved or even acquiesced in this return to the medieval principle. Polish labor and the democratic Polish intelligentsia have raised protests. And a number of the leading Polish professors and scientists have openly revolted against the official order of the rectors. Like all Slavs, the Poles have a strong moral sense, which is capable, when aroused, of producing marvels of social heroism and courage. Nothing in the social history of the new republic has evoked such a spontaneous revolt and produced so many dramatic acts of true nobility reminiscent of the old revolutionary Poland as has this latest abomination of the Nationalists.
Noteworthy, for instance, is the courageous stand of the doyen of the medical faculty of the University of Warsaw, Professor M. Michalovicz, a veteran of Polish science and a personal friend of the late Marshal Pilsudski, who on the first day of the ghetto system announced that in his lecture-room he would never allow that relic of medievalism to be introduced and that he would never lecture to a class divided into Jews and non-Jews. He has since been attacked by every Nationalist newspaper in Poland; he has been blackmailed and threatened with lynching; but he has remained true to his principle. In his lecture-room there is no ghetto.
Professor Katarbinsky of the philosophy department of the same university has become known as the "standing professor" because he insists on lecturing standing up as long as his Jewish students are not allowed to sit like equals with the others but are obliged to stand. Again and again he has been asked by his students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to give up his unique protest, which is a considerable hardship for him, a man of advanced age, but he continues to lecture standing "for moral reasons," as he puts it.
Professor Czyczevicz, after reading out to his students the rector's order introducing the ghetto, said: "Gentlemen, all this is official, and I was obliged to read it to you. But unofficially I want to tell you that as a scientist and as a Pole I consider the introduction of the ghetto benches a return to medievalism and a shame to Polish culture." When they began to move the belongings of the Jewish students of his class into the new ghetto, Professor Theodore Miller of the Warsaw Commercial College called out that they should move also the crucifix, "for Christ, too, belongs in the ghetto." For this remark Professor Miller, a younger and less prominent man than Professors Michalovicz, Katarbinsky, and Czyczevicz, was immediately dismissed from, his position without notice and without a pension.
Nor are the professors alone in making dramatic protests. All the democratic members of the student body have risen spontaneously against the measure. In most of the schools Polish democratic and Socialist students have announced that they will sit with their Jewish colleagues in the ghetto. Many of them stand with the Jews in sympathetic protest, even if this involves them in daily fights with the Nationalist students.
The most hopeful part of this great protest movement is that it is not confined to the academic world. It is long since the Polish liberal press has shown so much courage and revealed so much of its pre-war liberal idealism as it does now. Polish labor, too, has joined the great revolt. During the general strike which the Polish Jews recently called in protest against the introduction of the ghetto, Polish workers everywhere joined their Jewish comrades. Often they go out into the streets to help the Jews fight the hooligans who invade the Jewish quarter to stage a pogrom. A hopeful aspect of the situation is that the relationship between Polish and Jewish workers has not been better for almost a generation. Never before has the Polish Socialist Party (the P. P. S.) worked so harmoniously with the Jewish Labor Party (the Bund) against anti-Semitism. The Polish labor press is no less vigorous and courageous than the liberal press in protesting against the ghetto.
But with all this the government, although not outspokenly Nationalist, unofficially supports the Nationalist Party and does not revoke the ghetto order. Acts are committed daily which make one doubt whether Poland is in Europe. A band of Nationalist students breaks into the operating room of Warsaw University just as an operation on a child is to be performed. The little patient is on the operating table; the anaesthetic has been administered; the surgeon has put on his mask in preparation for the operation. That is the moment the "Endeks" choose to break in and beat up the surgeon, Dr. Altman, a Jewish assistant of Professor Michalovicz, for his chief's stand against the ghetto. A motor car filled with Endeks drives into a crowd of Jewish spectators, mostly women and children, at a labor demonstration. The Endeks open fire, killing a child of five and wounding four others. Incendiary bombs are thrown into crowded Jewish tenements at night when the people are asleep. In one month there were 3 major and 79 minor pogroms against Jews in various parts of Poland. In these, 220 Jews were severely wounded and 280 more were treated in hospitals or as out-patients; hundreds of Jewish enterprises were demolished and their owners ruined. Nor was this an exceptional month. For the last two years the Jews have suffered almost incessant physical assaults and pogroms.
This outburst of anti-Semitic bestiality has no equal in Europe, not even in Nazi Germany, where despite the vicious propaganda of the Stürmer and the cruel anti-Jewish decrees of the regime, the people have not degraded themselves by a single anti-Jewish pogrom. One is bewildered by its violence, at a loss to find the source of such cruelty on the part of a people which less than twenty years ago was itself a victim of the worst persecution and humiliation. Poland, it is true, has a difficult and grievous Jewish problem, but it is not the cause of the present outburst. Seventy-six per cent of the Polish population consists of peasants, most of them on the point of starvation; yet the Polish peasantry as a whole is not anti-Jewish. In most of the villages when the Nationalist agitators come to organize pogroms they meet with the resistance of the peasants. The peasants insist on trading with Jews even in the ghetto markets. The Polish workers, the worst-paid in Europe, are not anti-Semitic. Even the Polish intelligentsia and academic youth have no real grievance which could provoke such barbarism. For the number of Jewish students in the universities and the number of Jewish professional men are strictly regulated in Poland by a percentage quota which never exceeds and often is much smaller than the percentage of Jews in the country. The population of Warsaw is more than 30 per cent Jewish, but there are only 2,300 Jewish students in all the universities and colleges to more than 15,000 Poles. In the provincial schools the percentage of Jews is much smaller. Even the conservative press admits that the number of Jewish students in the universities is not an adequate reason for the introduction of the ghetto. In the city of Lublin the college had only three Jewish students, and yet these three were placed in a ghetto. What is behind the desire to inflict such cruel, senseless humiliation? What is the purpose of all this lawlessness and brutality?
One comes to the conclusion that the answer to this question cannot be found within the narrow confines of the Jewish problem, but must be sought in other fields. Since the World War anti-Semitism in Poland, as in other countries, is but a thermometer registering the temperature of society as a whole and not only of the particular groups in relationship with the Jews. The Jew-hatred of the Polish Nationalists, genuine and strong as it is, is nevertheless but a mask under which are hidden other feelings, ambitions, plans, and movements, flowing from other than anti-Jewish sources and going far afield. The forces of extreme nationalism and reaction, always strong in Poland, have grown in power since the death of Marshal Pilsudski. They control the army. The government does their will, though it is not entirely and officially their tool, and though they have not yet succeeded in suppressing every other social force in the country. To do this, and to establish a totalitarian dictatorship without even a pretense of democracy, is the goal toward which they are forging full speed.
For the attainment of this ambition anti-Semitism has been and is their greatest weapon. Poland inherited from czarist Russia its complicated and painful Jewish problem; it has taken over from Nazi Germany an anti-Semitism which is almost morbid in its manifestations among the middle classes. The Nationalists exploit this strong anti-Jewish feeling to attain their larger ambitions. Their campaign of terror, directed ostensibly against the Jews, in reality accomplishes other purposes: it seriously embarrasses the government; it undermines the morale of the people; it creates a mood of anarchy in the country and a feeling that only the strong hand of the Nationalists can bring peace and order. This is a common device of fascism. It was used successfully by the Nazis in Germany, and the Polish Nationalists are brazenly imitating them.
It may sound strange abroad, but in Poland it is a generally accepted truth that the present anti-Jewish drive, with all its terror, barbarism, and revival of medievalism, is directed more against Polish democracy than against the Jews. Polish democrats, liberals, and Socialists are well aware of this. They understand the tactics and the aims of the Nationalists. They know that the introduction of the ghetto is a danger not only to the Jews but to themselves and to their country. That knowledge is behind their present opposition to the Nationalists' campaign. The fate of Poland, as well as of the Polish Jews, depends on their revolt. If it fails, Poland will be heading toward a greater catastrophe than a second partition.