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Interview # 1. Jews in the 19th century

How did the Jews and the Poles relate to each other and to the partitioning powers in the 19th century?


Wladyslaw Bartoszewski replies: The issues concerning Polish-Jewish relations in the 19th century and the attitude of each group toward the imposed rule are complex. There are no simple explanations here. We do know, however, that the 19th century brought a new social and cultural environment; a level of education and communication different from that of the 18th century, when the Polish State had still been in existence. Any effort to sort out the issues is further complicated by the differences in the three territories annexed in 1772-1795 by Tsarist Russia, the Habsburg Monarchy and Prussia.


The Jewish minority, from the beginning of the 18th century, was one of the most numerous national minorities in the Polish territories, constituting about 10 percent of the population. Contrary to popular opinion, Poland was never inundated by Jews. Generally speaking, until the 19th century, religion constituted the main criterion in defining a Jew. The secularization process current at that time in many religions, including the Jewish (Mosaic) faith, alienated some people from their religious core. They formed agnostic groups where sense of identity was not rooted in religion, but rather in language and culture. It should be noted that the linguistic criterion is not precise - often different languages were spoken at home and at work.


Poland had been recognized as a relatively benevolent - perhaps even very benevolent - place for Jews, as long as the multinational Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth existed (even in its decline under the rule of king Stanislaw August Poniatowski). The influx of Jews to Poland over many generations was not accidental: they came not because Poland offered that much, but because everywhere else it had been much worse. In Poland, the situation of Jews was an improvement despite all the wars and other dramatic historical events. We need to remember, though, that this relative advantage lasted only as long as the Polish State existed.


The Polish state ceased to exist in 1795. We cannot talk about Polish statehood in the years 1795-1918, since the political entities that appeared during that time, like Warsaw Grand Duchy or the Congress Kingdom of Poland, were short-lived territorial fragments and not independent states.


When the Polish state ceased to exist, the Jews fell under the rule of three other states, all of them more or less authoritarian. As far back as the end of the 18th century, there was an authoritarian system in Prussia. The Tsarist system had always been authoritarian. The system in the Austrian Empire remained rather authoritarian until the mid-1860s. In the last decades of the 19th century, the so-called Galicia Region enjoyed some civic liberties. There was more respect for human rights (although this term was not used at the time) in Galicia than in Russia or Prussia (the United Germany after 1871), whose border provinces were populated by the Poles.


Though It is not widely known, modern anti-Semitism was actually born in Tsarist Russia. The word "pogrom" is originally Russian. It entered the Polish vocabulary and, unfortunately, Polish life in the 19th century.


Russia took advantage of its richest Jews in various ways. These privileged Jews could pay their way up. However, the strong link between the Russian throne and the Russian Orthodox Church, effectively blocked access to higher positions for all who belonged to other religions, including Polish noblemen. It spefically applied to Jews if they did not convert to the Russian Orthodox religion.


In the 19th century, many rich Jewish families who lived in big cities, such as Lvov, Warsaw, Cracow, Lublin or Bialystok, converted to the Protestant or Catholic religions. The Jewish population in the territories of the former Polish state faced the dilemma of multiple loyalties: in addition to their background and customs, the majority observed, or pretended to observe, the religious customs as dictated by the synagogue.


There was loyalty toward the place of employment, toward the state and administration, which was Russian (on most of the former Polish territories), or Austrian or Prussian (German from 1871). All these states had a negative attitude toward Poles. In the Russian-occupied territories, the authorities tried to Russianize the Polish population or at least demanded a formal loyalty toward theTsar. In the Prussian-controlled Polish regions, the authorities tried to Germanize the population, especially during the Bismarck. era, when intense pressure was brought to bear. Nonetheless, there are still many Poles today who believe that the Jews of that time should have been fierce Polish patriots. And indeed, some were. They chose the stateless and persecuted nation, the nation of Mickiewicz, Slowacki and Krasinski and later Orzeszkowa, Prus and Zeromski. But they were not in the majority. The majority of Jews, like most other people, adjusted to the demands of the new regime, for political and linguistic reasons.


Schools in the Tsarist-occupied territories were basically Russian. Very few Polish schools were created before the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries. Jewish youth attended Russian schools. These were better than the Jewish religious schools, which were small, backward and did not offer any credentials. Those who wanted to continue their studies and obtain degrees or professional qualifications had to graduate from a Russian high school.


The Russians followed the old ?divide et impera? rule to create antagonism between Poles and their minorities. The Tsarist invader supported all minorities (Belorussians, Ukrainians and, to a certain degree, Jews) against the Poles. This resulted in thousands of problems and conflicts for individuals and families. It is unreasonable to expect a person having no strong Polish or Christian roots to be first of all a Pole and not just a Jewish subject of the Russian Empire or a Jewish citizen of Prussia or Austria. We simply have to accept that.


In spite of these circumstances, many outstanding individuals from Jewish families (of Mosaic religion) contributed to Polish cultural and economic life. The names of the Wawelbergs, Kronenbergs, Rotwands, and many others belong to our common Polish-Jewish history. I think that should be remembered.


We also need to remember that the attitude of the Poles towards the partitioning powers varied according to their social group. Polish society was composed of peasantry, nobility and burghers. The burghers were the smallest group. Their number increased only after the Napoleonic period. The burghers were not integrated with other groups. The aristocracy rejected them and the landed gentry treated them with reserve.


In the 19th century, the Polish peasantry was not consistent in its attitude toward the partitioning powers. We have several painful chapters, like the Szela rebellion of 1846 inspired by the Austrians, or the peasants' indifference towards the Polish national uprisings of 1830 and 1863. The peasants received medals from the Tsar for capturing Polish insurgents and handing them over to the Russians. All this is Polish history. We cannot, however, blame the peasants, given their lack of education and limited national consciousness.


In conclusion, the Polish population did not have a unified attitude towards the partitioners of Poland. The same is true of the Jewish population. The Wawelbergs, Natansons or Rotwands had a different attitude towards the Russian invaders than their common brethren. Tailors, shoemakers, and small storekeepers who had to fight for survival opted for loyalty to the regime in order to avoid problems. There was no homogenous behavior among different social groups, irrespective of education and the language spoken at home. It was not religion that determined attitudes but the personal situations of families and individuals.