Interview # 4. Jews in Poland under Communism

Why did so many Jews belong to the communist party, the Security Service (secret police) and participate in other centrally controlled public institutions in the Polish People's Republic?


Wladyslaw Bartoszewski replies: Yes, statements of this nature are often heard. If you have a minority, not only religious but also political and, which moreover serves the communist party of the Soviet Union, a perceived enemy of Poland, that minority can expect a negative attitude from the majority.

However, the very formulation of this question is already an accusation and is biased. First we are assigning a special role to Jews in those public institutions. Are we talking about Jews as a nation or as a religious group? If we?re talking about Jews as a religious group, this is pure nonsense. For a religious Jew it was impossible to take guidance from marxist dialectical materialism. If we single out Jews as a nation, then we exhibit a racist way of thinking. The assimilated Jews considered themselves citizens of Poland. They thought and acted within the political context of Poland. There had also been purely Polish communists in pre-war Poland, such members of intelligentsia as Wanda Wasilewska, Stefan Jędrychowski and his wife, Jerzy Sztachelski and his wife, and other leading non-Jewish communists; ?Aryans? in Nazi vocabulary - fortunately such distinctions had not been in mainstream use in pre-war Poland. Generally, non-religious Jews were culturally and politically assimilated. They identified themselves as Poles. So which Jews are we talking about here?

I have already talked about Zionists and Bundists in our second interview. Zionists were treated with hostility by the communist party. They left Poland right after the war or around 1948-49. When the state of Israel was created in 1948, Jews left Poland in big numbers despite obstacles. Others, against their tradition, became supporters of the new regime. This was also the case of many Poles..

Members of the Bund were social democrats and enemies of communism. However, they were ordered to join the Polish United Workers? Party. As a result the Bund was disbanded in 1948. The Polish Socialist Party experienced a similar fate. For the members of the Bund there was no politically comfortable place in Poland. So, we have crossed out the Zionists and the Bundists. Again which Jews are we talking about? We are left only with non-political Jews, opportunists such as existed also among the Polish population and with declared communists, statistically a small group of people.

Now, we can ask the question : why did so many Jews join the communist milieu? The answer is rooted in the interwar years in Poland. The Jewish minorities in Poland, as well as in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states, did not see any future for themselves. Because of their numbers and a relatively high rate of assimilation, the local population was unfriendly. Also the orthodox Jews did not tolerate a different way of thinking among the younger generation.

What roads were open to them ? Either Zionism which offered them a chance to build a utopian life (it ceased to be a utopia after the state of Israel came into being) or communism which trumpeted equality of all people, and the elimination of racial, religious, and national prejudices. It was a big lie but young Jews, like many young Poles, did not realize this. Władysław Gomułka, for example, did not have a trace of Jewish roots, his background was Polish and peasant, and he believed in communism. It was obvious for him that his marriage to a Jewish communist activist came as a natural part of solidarity among the proletarians. Such were his convictions.

Numerous Jews, survivors of the war, who lived through the camps and mass deportations, arrived in Poland from the Soviet Union (over 200 000). Most of them knew how to read and write. Illiteracy, so common among Polish and Belorussian peasants, did not exist among the Jews. Relatively many Jews met the minimum requirement for office work. The Soviet regime very skillfully manipulated the Jews. The Soviets played on Jewish pre-war problems, resentments and fears to bind them to the Soviet power as the only guarantor of a better present and future for their families. The Jews received officer ranks in the army and in the security service which were previously unavailable to the majority of them except for the physicians or the older generation of Piłsudskis legionnaires of Jewish background. Those people received such privileges because the Soviets were certain they were not Polish nationalists. And this guaranteed a minimum of loyalty.

There are no statistical data presenting a precise percentage of Jews in the Polish United Workers? Party, in the Central Committee of the Party or the security apparatus. There is no doubt, however, that the proportions were above 10% in the Party and the security apparatus, even greater at the level of some of the important, higher-ranking positions. At a first glance, there appears to be a lack of balance.

Yes, Jakub Berman and Hilary Minc were in the Politburo - I?m talking here about the initial post-war years in Stalinist Poland - but neither Bolesław Bierut, nor Józef Cyrankiewicz, Marian Spychalski, Władysław Gomułka, Zenon Nowak, Stanisław Radkiewicz (a longtime minister of security) were Jewish. They were perhaps political renegades who ignored or had a different understanding of the Polish raison d?etat, but they were not Jewish.

Why is it that when one talks about negative examples of Jewish behavior in Poland, the same names of interrogation officers with Jewish last names always pop up? Today, among the most infamous are Humer and Serkowski. Humer was of German background, not Jewish. He came from a family of German settlers in Tomaszów Lubelski, where he went to school before the war. There were many other notorious interrogation officers in Mokotów prison like Dusza and Chimczak. They were second league tormentors such as are present in every totalitarian system but by no means Jewish.

Why do we hear constantly that the Jews were in charge of Security in Poland and we don?t hear that it was run by the Politburo? Today, after documents have been opened, we know that Bierut personally endorsed all death sentences. Among the executed were members of the Polish intelligentsia, officers, cadets, students, political activists fighting for independence from different political movements from nationalists to socialists; in other words very different people. Did the Jews really decide about these sentences? I would be very cautious answering this question. The chief executioner, the chief prosecutor of the Polish People?s Army, General Zarako-Zarakowski was not Jewish. He came from a Polish Belorussian family, was born in Polesie, and graduated from the Stefan Batory University in Vilna. Numerous other prominent persons in the military prosecutor?s office were not Jewish. On the other hand, however, there were many Jews among the military defense attorneys.

There were very few Jews in the government of communist Poland. Józef Cyrankiewicz, the longest serving Prime Minister in Europe, was not Jewish. The government consisted of Polish professionals with either socialist or liberal political backgrounds. We need to remember that the communists infiltrated and destroyed the major political parties and re-established them under the names of the United Peasant Party (Zjednoczone Stronnictwo Ludowe) and the Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Demokratyczne). They also established and supported groups of young Catholic activists gathered in the Pax movement with the goal of splitting the Catholic Church in Poland. There were many people who, in my opinion, did a dirty job. But there were very few Jews among them. Accusing Jews of a disproportional role in the communization of Poland offers an easy explanation of difficult subjects.

So, why did some Jews join the Party? Because they saw in it the only guarantee of free life and equality. After Stalinism, many of them started leaving Poland in the years 1956 and 1957. Only several tens of thousands stayed in Poland. Mostly, these were Jews with a Polish cultural consciousness, members of mixed marriages, who being married to Poles decided to stay in Poland. Were all of these people privileged? In 1967-68, the Communist Party - in a struggle inside the party - used them as scapegoats in a disgraceful way from the point of view of its own doctrine. Intellectuals in general became scapegoats, including many non-Jews, liberal and independent-minded people who did not want to accept the fascist course of the red party. The fascist faction was unacceptable to them.

The experiences and choices of the Jews in Poland were not homogenous. To conclude: if out of 300 000 Polish Jews - I?m talking here about the citizens of post-war Poland who survived (four fifths of them in the Soviet Union, one fifth in hiding, in guerilla units or in the German camps) - if out of these people over 200 000 left Poland during the first three years after the war, it means that, from the very beginning, the majority of Polish Jews did not want to build communism in Poland