EssaysFeature

Jews and Poles

Together for 800 Years But Not Together

(First published in the Jewish Daily Forvets September 17, 1944.)

Why is this? – Alienation rather than hatred. – A time when Jews were virtually the only intellectuals in Poland. – Why assimilation was impossible. – The modern Jew and the modern Pole.

Several weeks ago, Stanisław Mikołajczyk – Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile – stated that there were still 800,000 Jews in Poland. How many Jews are actually left will only become known once Poland is fully liberated. And yet there is hope that several hundred thousand Jews will remain after the Nazi massacres, and that a fair number of them will continue to live in Poland, at least temporarily.

In this connection, every Jew is faced with a question: have the Poles at least learned anything from the recent events? Will thugs continue throwing stones at Jews? Will Jews be mocked and have their beards cut off in the new Poland as well? Will a Jewish child be afraid of going outside town in the new Poland, too, to avoid being beaten up and having thugs set dogs on them?

This question is hard to answer. It depends on very many circumstances.

But in relation to this, it is worth above all considering Polish-Jewish relations. We are dealing here with two peoples living together in one country for some 800 years. How have they come to remain so alienated? And if these two peoples did influence each other in something, what constitutes this influence? What did we Jews take from the Poles? And what did they learn from us?

To give a comprehensive answer to these questions, it would be necessary to write a thick book. Here we shall only consider certain facts.

At the time when Jews came to live in Poland, the Polish people were one of the most backward nations in Europe. The Italians, the French, the Spanish were by then highly cultured peoples. The Arabs played an important role in spreading science and philosophy. Even the Germans began to be seemingly civilized. But in Poland people still lived quiet, sleepy, primitive lives. There were virtually no writers, painters, engineers, doctors; not even decent shoemakers, tailors, or goldsmiths. Trade in the full sense of the word did not exist either. In large parts of the country money was non-existent, and people bartered goods, a custom of the ancient times when people still lived in caves.

Naturally, there were exceptions. There were a handful of educated monks, a few statesmen, and a number of noblemen who’d had a taste of education. But a few swallows don’t make a summer. The Polish people slept. The Polish language of the time comprised a very small number of words. It is a fact that the Poles later borrowed a great many words from German. Some Polish philologists believe that a full 40% of words in the Polish language were borrowed from various German dialects. Take, for instance, such a truly Polish word as dziękować, to thank. Every well-mannered Pole says dziękuję, thank you, many times a day. This word, however, derives from the German verb danken. The Pole changed the ‘d’ to a ‘dz’ and added a Polish flection at the end. The stem, however, is German.

The question is: why did Poles have to borrow such a simple word from German? How was it that they didn’t have their own?

The answer is that the common Pole did not know of such a thing as thanking. The habit of thanking for every favor is a product of civilization. The common man is not inclined to use such expressions. It is a fact that a peasant hardly uses the expression dziękuję to this day. When someone does a peasant a favor, he says, “Bóg zapłac,” may God repay you.

The fact that Poles were so ignorant at the time had a great influence on the history of Jews in Poland. The Jew felt from the very beginning that he had nothing to learn from the Pole. The Pole, on the contrary, had a lot to learn from the Jew. The Jew knew his own language, Judeo-German, and also some Hebrew. The Jew could count, more or less, was good at trading, and knew various crafts. A large number of Jews knew the Bible and Talmud well, and were accustomed to thinking about various matters in a logical way. The Jew was an intellectual not only compared to the peasant, but also compared to the nobleman.

The fact that the Jew stood so much higher spiritually than the Pole caused, firstly, the Jews to rise to a higher position in the country. The Polish kings granted Jews various privileges. Jews even minted coins with Hebrew inscriptions. The noblemen appointed Jews to claim taxes and even granted them rights over prisons and churches. Incredible as it may sound, Jewish lessees kept the keys to the Polish churches. When peasants wanted to go to church, they had to first go to the Jew to unlock the door. Polish peasants were not entirely clear on what to do with a key. Neither could they be trusted with one. They would’ve lost it. For hundreds of years, Polish peasants looked upon Jews as a superior people naturally blessed with ample brains and talents. The Jews were the intelligentsia of the country.

The Jews, for their part, completely ignored the Poles. Jews were afraid of the nobleman, but all those who were under the nobleman were also under them. The Polish Jew studied the Bible and delved into the Talmud knowing that outside the Bible and Talmud there was almost nothing to study. It is true that Jews were aware of the existence of the Jewish apocrypha, heretical books. But this, too, Polish Jews learned from the Talmud. The Polish Jew never saw any books with his own eyes. There were almost no books in Poland, with the exception of a few “‘unclean and forbidden” non-religious books. Hundreds of years went by without Polish Jews ever being tempted to learn anything from Gentiles. The Jew knew it all better – both religious and secular matters.

Gradually, the situation changed. Polish literature slowly emerged. The Polish language became richer. Poles learned various crafts and even undertook trading. The Polish University in Krakow produced increasingly more educated people. Polish nobility also increasingly began sending their children to foreign universities, especially to Italy. But Polish Jews were so absorbed in religious piety, and so rooted in the belief that they had nothing to learn from the Gentile, that they nearly missed the whole thing. As a result, Jews and Poles lived for the most part of their coexistence in complete spiritual detachment. Rarely did a Jew find it necessary to learn the Polish language well; rarely did a Jew take an interest in Polish history or Polish politics.

When the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, arose in Germany, it started to find its way into Poland too. At the same time, however, Poland saw the rise of Hassidism, and the majority of Polish Jews became even more absorbed in religious piety. The situation at the time changed so much that the average urban Pole looked at the Jew as an ignorant fanatic. Urban Gentiles partially surpassed the urban Jew in secular matters. Above all, they had all the rights and their power increased. On the contrary, Jews, who had never been more than an intermediary between noblemen and peasants, lost one position after another and became impoverished and wretched.

The result of all this was that, in Poland, there in effect lived two peoples – as distant from each other spiritually as heaven and earth. Even in recent years it was still unusual for a Jew to speak good Polish. Of the three million Jews living in Poland, some two and a half million could not write a letter in Polish and made glaring mistakes when speaking. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland for whom Polish was as alien as Turkish. The writer of these very lines has his roots in Poland – going back many generations – yet his father knew no more than two words in Polish, and it never occurred to him that there was anything wrong here.

This situation caused the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Poland to take shape in many respects differently than in other countries. If there was hatred between Jew and Gentile, it was not hatred of people who knew each other intimately and were familiar with each other’s errors, but rather hatred of people who had nothing in common.

Polish Christians never found out who the Jews were who lived in their country. They did not have, and could not have, any idea of what was written in Jewish religious books. They knew nothing about the spiritual world in which the Jew lived. They only saw the exterior: men in long gabardines, with big beards and disheveled side locks, and women in wigs, bonnets, and long garments. They saw that almost all the Jews kept small shops and that they lived on average a little better than the peasants, even though the latter worked harder. Polish Christians, walking past a Jewish study house, heard voices which sounded strangely alien to them. People nearby appeared to lead bizarre secret lives, as if they lived in Persia or China and not in Poland. Yet at the same time they ate bread that grew on Polish soil.

Not much more did the average Jew know about the Gentile. Jews knew that the country was full of noblemen who regarded themselves as people of great privilege, but what that privilege was they did not know. The Gentiles celebrated Christian festivals, got drunk, fussed over Jesus, waged frequent wars, but none of it made any sense to the average Jew. Any affection between these two estranged elements was out of the question.

Strange though it may sound, nor did the alienation stop after a large number of Jews were modernized and even became great scholars of the Polish language and history. The thaw, it seems, came too late.

As a mass phenomenon, the spiritual thaw between Jews and Poles came after the First World War, when Poland became an independent state again. Large numbers of Jews started sending their children to Polish schools. Young Jewish people started learning Polish. A single generation managed to get well acquainted with things that many generations had entirely missed and ignored. Yet, in many cases the familiarity between Jew and Gentile emphasized even more strongly the alienation between the two peoples.

The majority of modernized Jews in Poland were Zionists. Their objective was to build Palestine, and it cannot be said that the Poles felt a great connection to those people. A fair number of them were communists, and most Poles regarded them as dangerous characters. There was a small number of socialists, who neither wanted to emigrate from Poland nor bring about an imminent revolution. These were the Bundists. They, however, preached in recent years that Jews must raise their children in Yiddish and demanded a national autonomy, that is, that Jews should have their own elementary schools and high schools and universities. It goes without saying that this, again, could not reassure most Poles that they were dealing with their own kind. The only modernized Jews who wanted to live like the Poles in the full sense of the word were the assimilated Jews. Their number, however, was always small and grew even smaller from year to year. The Pole therefore came to the conclusion that the modern Jew in Poland was just as alien an element as the old-fashioned Jew. On the contrary, many Poles felt that the old-fashioned Jews were closer to them. At least they kept to themselves for religious reasons. The modern Jew wanted to remain isolated for national reasons. This is how the average Pole perceived this.

This was the state of affairs in a nutshell, and it was not a good one. It was a bad match from the start, which only got worse as time went on.

The Polish anti-Semites and Nazis used this tragic situation for their own base agenda. It can be boldly stated, however, that due to the Jewish situation in Poland being complicated, anti-Semitism never had much success here. It can be said that to the very last day, the alienation was greater here than hatred. We can compare Jews and the Poles to a couple who has lived together for forty years and has remained as alien to each other as they were on the first day.

These facts must be taken into consideration when asking the question: do the Jews have a future in Poland? The question is, is there a hope that the two groups will be able to take a step towards each other, and if so, how? Under what circumstances?

Used with the permission of the Zamir Revocable Trust care of Susan Schulman Literary Agency New York. Copyright 2018 The Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust . All rights reserved.

Translated from the Yiddish by Lena Watson, who is a Yiddish translator based in London.

Read David Stromberg’s interview with Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies and
Professor of History at Fordham University, about this piece here.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer

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