The Jews in Poland: Then and Now

I’ve seen an awful lot on the twittersphere and elsewhere recently on the subject of the Jews in Poland.  In particular – and I think this is laudable – modern day initiatives enhancing Jewish life in Poland today.  From an increasingly popular annual “Limmud” (Jewish-themed conference – literally “Learning”) in Warsaw to the first postwar Polish animated fairy tale in Yiddish to the massively popular summer Krakow Jewish Festival to Polish prisoners tending sites of Jewish heritage to the spectacular new Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews (opening 2013).  Not forgetting more long-standing work such as research into Polish Jewish heritage by Polish Universities and the conservation of Polish synagogues and cemeteries by Jews and non-Jews, Poles and foreigners alike.  But for those not well versed in it, what is the history of the Jews in Poland?  In Polska Dotty I devote an entire chapter to this, but here’s the essence…

The Jews began to settle in Poland as far back as the Middle Ages.  At a time when their sophisticated and wealthy cousins were being expelled from Spain (1492), Polish Jews began to find peace in Poland, even making a play on the word Poland, corrupting it to “Po-Lin”, Hebrew for “Here, one rests”.  They were favoured by Polish Kings because they represented a commercially-savvy class, for example, lending money for interest at a time when Christians were loathe to do so.  But this, along with other causes such as their ghettoisation and increasing power, made the Jews more and more unpopular.  There was something “other” about them.  Nevertheless, they were largely happy in Poland – a point I emphasise in my book given a strong tendency to stereotype the Poles as anti-Semitic – and by the outbreak of WWII comprised 10% of the Polish population, some 3.5 million out of 35 million.  At that time far more Jews resided in Poland than any other European country.

It’s what happened next – the Holocaust, post-war Polish pogroms against the Jews, as well as the longstanding pre-war tensions I’ve mentioned – that have resulted in Polish-Jewish relations remaining highly strained to this day.  Which brings us back to the beginning of this post and the fact that a plethora of Jewish themed initiatives in contemporary Poland can only help the slow process of improving those relations.  Some of these seem a bit whacky or intense – I’m not sure I could handle a week long Limmud! – but the very fact they are happening on Polish soil is important.  I remember when I lived in Poland, at the tail end of the 90s, seeing a tall, slim Hasidic Jew walk down the street in downtown Warsaw in full, black regalia (a throwback, incidentally, to the garb worn by Jews in 17th century… Poland).  Admittedly he did look rather imposing, black fur and velvet “shtreimel” top hat ‘n all, but the Poles regarded him as if they were seeing an alien.  No more than fear of the unknown, I suspect, but hopefully increased visibility of, and familiarity with Jewish culture now will breed greater tolerance and understanding.  I suspect Polish-Jewish relations will remain sensitive for a while to come because of the past, but wouldn’t it be nice if this tide of Polish Jewish events could lead to a sizeable Jewish community – not the case yet – reestablishing itself in Poland, with all that may flow from that?



Filed under Anti-semitism, History, Jews, Krakow, News, Poland, Poles, Polska, Polska Dotty, Racism, Religion

3 responses to “The Jews in Poland: Then and Now

  1. Pingback: The Jews in Poland: then and now « Kraków Polska

  2. Pingback: The Jews in Poland: then and now « Warszawa Polska

  3. Pingback: The Jews in Poland: then and now « Gdańsk Polska

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