As I walk around Gallery 6 of the Museum of the history of Polish Jews, I realise that I know very little of what life was like for Jews in Poland between 1918 and 1939. I know that as the nineteenth century drew to a close there are already signs of active anti-Semitism, but it is still a surprise to realise that the Germans weren’t coming into territory free from that scourge.
So what of the interwar Jewish story? This account is a bit of a patchwork, resulting from two visits to this gallery. On the second I indulge in an audio tour and find it richly informative, especially since I’d previewed the exhibits it is describing on my first visit.
In the early days of independent Poland after World War 2, belief that “Polish people will not stain their hands with Jewish blood” was challenged after “bloody experience” in towns like Łwów, Częstochowa, Kielce, and Łódź. Another pogrom occurred when the Polish army moved into Vilna in 1919: the excuse was suspected collaboration with the Bolsheviks. 55 people died and the Jews of Vilna funded a gravestone for the writer Aron Wajter in the shape of an eagle (the Polish symbol) with a broken wing symbolising lost hope for the new Poland.
In spite of the fact that Jews played a role in the fight for independence their position is obviously not secure. Even Jews who won the Order of Military Virtue were detained in concentration camps in 1920, although a Jew, Szymon Askenazy, represented Poland at the League of Nations between 1919 and 1923.
In 1920 the Jewish community in Dęblin welcome Piłsudski, First Marshal of Poland, and General in the Battle of Warsaw that defeated the Russians, with traditional bread and salt, believing he would respect their rights.
There are anti-Semitic incidents during the inauguration of the Sjem (the Polish parliament) and Jewish MPs try unsuccessfully to get a guarantee of Jewish cultural and national autonomy, not convinced that “all citizens are equal before the law” in the constitution is enough protection.
In 1924 tax laws are passed to increase taxes for merchants and artisans, disproportionately Jewish. 50,00 Jews move to Palestine largely as a result of these reforms. Between the wars, more than 140 000 Jews leave Poland for Palestine, although it is difficult to get a certificate allowing this from the British Mandate, especially in the 1930s. Sometimes whole families, like the Giladis photographed on Warsaw station, migrate, although two family members were left behind in Łódź. A Jewish National Fund collected money to buy land and develop settlements in Israel. Pushkes were placed in private homes and the proceeds collected monthly.
Despite uneasiness, Jewish life flourishes. Each of the three main strands of Judaism has its own schools, newspapers and sports clubs. The Zionists, about 140,000 strong, develop farms on the model of kibbutzes. Aguda defends secularism and actively supports the government. The Bundt, the socialist labor party, is hostile to Zionism and immersed in Yiddish language and culture. Jews are over-represented in the illegal communist party.
Cultural life is strong: a huge variety of newspapers; lively cafe society of writers; thriving cinema and theatre.
Anti-semitism increases as the century rolls on, in both small towns and academic centers. There are boycotts on Jewish shops and bans on kosher slaughter because Jewish butchers offer fierce competition. Emmanuel Ringelblum, who later studies history and is remembered as archivist of the ghetto, fails at first to get into Warsaw University in 1921-22 in the medical faculty because of quotas applied to Jews. Jews who are admitted have to sit on ghetto benches, separate seating in lecture rooms. Right wing parties speak of “meticulous Jewish-Masonic action aiming to take over the Polish state.”