The Jewish Minority in Inter-War Poland

We are proud to publish here the third post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Yoav Peled (Tel Aviv University), discusses the difficult situation of the Jewish minority in interwar Poland. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

Q – “What is Bolshevism?”

A – “A conspiracy by international Jewry against Christian nations.”

Q – “What have the Bolsheviks given the worker?”

A – “The rule of Jewry.”

Q – “What do the communists want from Poland?”

A – “To turn her into a Russian province ruled by Jews appointed by Moscow.”

                            (“A Bolshevik Cathechism,” Gwiazda Poranna, 1921.)

Since its inception in 1918, the Second Polish Republic had to face two daunting tasks: forging a state and a nation out of disparate ethnic elements and solving the country’s acute economic problems. Catholic ethnic Poles made up only 70% of the population of the newly emergent state, with Ukrainians comprising 14%, Jews 10%, and smaller numbers of Byelorussians and Germans making up the rest.[1]

Its 1921 constitution declared Poland to be the state of the Polish nation, with Polish as the sole official language. But it also established a democratic republic, with universal suffrage, a bicameral legislature, and semi-proportional representation. The constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, with the Roman Catholic faith as first among equals. Ethnic minorities were to enjoy equal citizenship rights and the right to organize autonomous institutions, including their own school systems.

Respect for the rights of ethnic minorities was forced upon Poland by the Minorities Treaty it had to sign as part of the Versailles peace agreements. The Allied Powers insisted on this treaty in view of the widespread anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the various battles to determine Poland’s eastern borders in 1918-1919 (and again the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920), and the treaty included two articles relating specifically to Jews: Article 10 guaranteed autonomous Jewish control over Jewish-language primary schools that were to be set up and paid for by the state, and Article 11 guaranteed that Jews would not be forced to violate their Sabbath, and that no elections would be held on that day. The limitation of Polish sovereignty by the treaty, and the role played by Jewish organizations in bringing it about, were a sore point for Polish nationalists. In response, as long as the right-wing National Democrats (Endecja) were in power, the state dragged its feet in regularizing the citizenship status of non-ethnic Poles, particularly Jews, who resided in territories annexed to Poland from Russia, Germany, and Austria. This delaying tactic ended only in 1930. In 1934, after signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Poland unilaterally abrogated the Minorities Treaty.

Polish politics in the inter-war period fell into three main tendencies: the Endecja, headed by Roman Dmowski; the centrist Sanacja (cleansing), led by Marshal Joseph Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland; and the Left, centered on the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The Endecja advocated an aggressive nationalizing policy towards the ethnic minorities, pressuring the Slavic minorities to assimilate and the Jews and the Germans to emigrate, while the Left favored allowing the minorities to develop their own cultures within the Polish nation-state. As for the Jews, the Endecja advocated exclusionary policies, up to and including physical expulsion from the country, while the Left advocated equal protection and uncoerced assimilation.

Piłsudski assumed state power in a coup d’état in 1926. He and his Sanacja successors (Piłsudski died in 1935), who held state power until 1939, gradually came to adopt the aggressive nationalism of the Endecja.  Thus, whether under the Endecja or under the Sanacja, “the Poles were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible.”[2]

Of Poland’s ethnic minorities, only the Jews could neither plan to establish their own state on Polish territory nor wish to unite with any foreign country. (Most of them, however, demanded collective rights within the Polish state.) Still, the Jews were viewed by all political tendencies, except the Left, as most threatening, suspected, inter alia, of being Communist agents. This perception placed the Jews, together with the Germans, in the category of inassimilable minorities. However, while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable.

The 19th century Polish national movement included two ideological undercurrents with regard to the Jews: an exclusionist, anti-Semitic undercurrent, and an integrationist undercurrent that considered Jews to be part of the Polish nation. The latter view was captured in the slogan of the nineteenth century uprisings against the Romanov Empire, “our freedom and yours.” Moreover, “the most important post-1863 school of Polish social thought … the Warsaw Positivists, condemned and rejected anti-Jewish beliefs, at least until the first decade of the twentieth century.”[3]  

In the inter-war period, the anti-Jewish stance gradually gained the upper hand. One major reason for that was the stunted development of the Polish economy. Dmowski, the most prominent integral Polish nationalist and anti-Semite, set the tone for the public discussion of the national and Jewish questions. In 1934, he wrote: “Even if Jews were morally angels, mentally geniuses, even if they were people of a higher kind than we are, the very fact of their existence among us … is for our society lethal and they have to be got rid of.”[4] To counter this lethal danger, Dmowski called, already in 1912, for an economic boycott against the Jews, and his political program was centered on the need to Polonize the urban economy and induce the Jews to emigrate.

In 1925, Dmowski stated: “The economic and financial crisis is the axis of our present-day politics …”[5] One indication of the crisis was hyper-inflation. The rate of exchange between the Polish mark (in effect until the introduction of the złoty in 1924) and the US dollar was 1:186 in July 1920 and 1:20,000,000 by the end of January 1924.[6] In most areas of industrial and agricultural production the levels of output reached by the end of the inter-war period were lower, in physical terms, than they had been in 1913.[7]

The crux of Poland’s economic problems was in agriculture, which sustained two-thirds of the population. In 1921, 1% of landowners owned close to 50% of Poland’s arable land while almost two-thirds of all farms had less than the minimum required for subsistence – five hectares. In spite of two land reform bills, passed in 1920 and 1925, by 1939 only 15% of the farmland had been reparcelled. The urban economy was not developing nearly fast enough to absorb the surplus rural population, and emigration became increasingly difficult as the inter-war period progressed.

Poland’s economic policies favored agriculture over trade and industry and large farms over small ones. Since Jews held a prominent position in trade and (small) industry, and, in the countryside, depended on the economic fortunes of the peasants, they suffered disproportionately from those policies. Fewer than 6% of the Jews were engaged in agriculture, while in the cities they numbered between one-quarter and two-thirds of the population. In 1921 over 40% of them were engaged in commerce and 34% were engaged in industry, mostly as artisans and handicraft workers. Jews constituted over 60% of all those engaged in trade and commerce, 56% of the medical doctors in private practice, over 40% of the teachers, and one third of the lawyers.[8]

Independent Poland moved quickly to dismiss Jews from their public sector jobs in the formerly Austrian territories, the only areas where Jews had been employed by the state. By 1929, only 1% of central and local government employees were Jews. In 1928, there were only two Jews among the 4,000 workers of the municipal tram system in Warsaw, a city that was 35% Jewish. In addition, Jews were excluded, as employees, suppliers and distributors, from state enterprises, which enjoyed monopoly status in such traditional Jewish industries as tobacco, alcohol, matches and salt. Moreover, unlike their Polish counterparts, few unemployed Jews received any assistance from the state.

In 1919, Sunday was designated by law as a mandatory day of rest for all businesses. This meant that Jews had to either violate their Sabbath or remain idle two days a week, contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minorities Treaty. Small businesses, which were predominantly in Jewish hands, were discriminated against both by the government’s tax policy (Jews paid between 35% and 40% of Poland’s tax revenue) and by the credit policy of the state-owned banks. These administrative steps were accompanied by a popular economic boycott and occasional bursts of violence against Jewish-owned businesses. Moreover, “ethno-nationalist papers … frequently stressed that ‘eight million Poles are forced to live outside their homeland, while four million Jews occupy Poland’, and that ‘polish peasants, instead of emigrating to foreign countries in search of bread and work, should find such bread and work in towns and cities in their homeland’ [in place of the Jews].”[9]

These measures, however, failed to dislodge the Jews from the urban economy. Between 1921 and 1931, the share of Jews among those active in trade and commerce declined from 62.6% to 52.7%, in industry from 23.5% to 20%, and in public service and the professions from 14% to 13.4%.[10] Jewish petty traders managed to stay competitive throughout the Depression as well, and “apart from a few fanatics, most Polish consumers ignored all other considerations, including pastoral letters instructing them to boycott Jewish traders,” and continued to patronize them.[11]

In 1936, the Sanacja Prime Minister officially endorsed the economic boycott against the Jews, as long as it was carried out without violence. In the same year a bill to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter (shkhite), modeled after a law initiated by the Nazis in Bavaria in 1930, was introduced in the Sejm. The prohibition of shkhite would have breached the guarantee of the Jews’ religious freedom and undermined their equal status as citizens. For unlike the Sunday rest law, that gave Jews the option to still observe their Sabbath at an economic cost, the shkhite law was intended to forbid them to perform one of the most basic and indispensable rituals of their religion. Incredibly, this issue took up about half of the parliamentary time in the fateful years of 1936-1938, more than any other issue then on the agenda. But the efforts to forbid shkhite were unsuccessful until the German occupation authorities forbade it in October 1939.

In summarizing the dynamics of the Sanacja government (1926-1939) in relation to the Jewish minority, Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski has concluded that,

The most important changes in the legal status of the Jewish population occurred after the May [1926] coup d’état, when the authoritarian regimes were able to break the resistance of the nationalist right-wing … and purge the local administrative apparatus of its supporters and followers … [However,] at the end of the 1930s the same authoritarian government was able to ignore the democratic opposition and adopt some elements of the nationalist conceptions. Although, before September 1939, Poland avoided the establishment of any openly discriminatory laws, some initiatives born at the beginning of 1939 might well have led in this direction (Tomaszewski 1994:127).[12]

Yoav Peled is Professor Emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is author of The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland (Routledge 2014), co-author, with Horit Herman Peled, of The Religionization of Israeli Society (Routledge 2019), and co-editor, with John Ehrenberg, of Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman and Littlefield 2016).

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] For detailed references please see my The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland, 2014.

[2] Stephan Horak et al., Eastern European National Minorities 1919-1980: A Handbook, 1985.

[3] Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, 2006.

[4] Cited in A. J. Groth, “Dmowski, Piłsudski and Ethnic Conflict in Pre-1939 Poland,” Canadian Slavic Studies 3:69-91, 1969; original emphasis.

[5] Cited in Anthony Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government, 1972:97.

[6] F. Zweig, Poland Between Two Wars:A Critical Study of Social and Economic Changes, 1944.

[7] Z. Landau and J. Tomaszewski, The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century, 1985:121.

[8] Mendelsohn, Ezra, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 1983:23-29; R. Mahler, The Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars: Socio-Economic History in Light of Statistics, 1968 (Hebrew).

[9] Michlic, op. cit:88.

[10] Mahler, op. cit:109, 137, 157.

[11] Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939, 1983:245.

[12] J. Tomaszewski, “The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939,” Polin 8, 1994:115-127.