Polish Jewry Between the Wars

Jewish life in Poland between the wars was characterized by both cultural dynamism and conflict.

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Jewish life in Poland between the two world wars was characterized by political, economic, and cultural change in both the Jewish world and the country as a whole. The Jewish ideological movements that had formed in the Russian empire before the First World War--Zionism, socialism, and their many variations and combinations--became mass movements in the interwar period. These new secular foundations existed alongside and often found themselves in conflict with traditional Jewish religious and communal life.
 
This dynamism took place within the context of a Polish society seeking to determine the character of the newly independent state, which had been partitioned among its neighbors since the end of the 18th century.
poland between the wars
The Jews of Poland comprised the largest Jewish community in Europe in the interwar years, second in the world only to American Jewry. A 1921 Polish national census recorded 2.86 million Jews in a population of 27.2 million; a decade later the Jewish population had risen to 3.1 million in a country of 31.9 million people. Jews urbanized as a result of industrialization that began in the 19th century, so that by the late 1930s, nearly one-third of Polish Jews lived in the 12 largest cities, and 40 percent lived in towns of at least 10,000 people.
 
The Jewish economic structure was significantly different from that of the surrounding population. While a majority of ethnic Poles were employed in agriculture, in 1931 about 96 percent of Polish Jews worked in non-farm occupations, mainly as artisans, traders, or small shopkeepers. Small minorities were industrialists or members of the liberal professions, though they comprised a higher percentage of these professions than the percentage of Jews in the population. In 1931, 56 percent of doctors and one-third of lawyers and other legal professionals were Jewish.
 
The partitions of Poland among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires created regional differences in Jewish life in the newly constituted Polish state. The experiences under the partitions resulted in differences in relations between Jews and the other ethnic groups of each region as well as varying degrees of acculturation and Jewish national sentiment.
 
The reunification of Poland's partitioned regions was accompanied by anti-Jewish violence. Jews were caught in the border conflicts between Poland and its eastern neighbors that followed World War I, resulting in hundreds of Jewish casualties. (At the same time, an estimated 50,000 to 250,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War.)
 
Reunification also led to the recognition of the civil, religious, and political rights of minorities as Poland signed the Minorities' Treaty at Versailles, under pressure from the Allies. Ethnic minorities--mainly Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Germans--accounted for between 30 and 40 percent of the Polish population. The multiethnic nature of the new state was particularly pronounced in the eastern borderlands. As in other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Polish politics was divided between those who viewed Poland as a multinational state and Polish nationalists who sought to define citizenship based on ethnicity.
 
In this crucible of ethnic and national diversity, Jewish political life flourished. The various Zionist parties--General Zionists; Poale Zion, which was Marxist; and the Revisionist Zionists, which formed in the 1920s under Vladimir Jabotinsky--were strongest in the early interwar years but lost strength as the British limited the prospects for emigration to Palestine. The General Jewish Workers' Union in Poland, known as the Bund, a party of Jewish socialists, garnered only limited support until the second half of the 1930s, when its activities to combat economic boycotts and anti-Jewish violence gave it the support of majorities in Lodz, Warsaw, and other towns. Yet a significant proportion of Jews in the interwar years remained religious, and in response to the secular parties, they formed a religious party, Agudas Yisroel.
 
Language was often, but not always, associated with ideological outlook. In the 1931 census, nearly 80 percent of the Jewish population cited Yiddish as their mother tongue. Ideologically, Yiddish was the language of Jewish socialists and others who believed in doikeyt ("hereness" in Yiddish). The Zionists promoted Hebrew, while Polish sometimes suggested assimilation.
 
Corresponding with this breakdown of language by ideology was a dynamic cultural life, centered in major cities like Warsaw, Vilna, and Lvov. The Yiddish press had a large circulation in interwar Poland, with hundreds of publications, including two mass-circulation daily newspapers in Warsaw, Haynt and Moment. A Hebrew press also developed in interwar Poland, but struggled for readers, since Hebrew was not the daily language of most Polish Jews. The Yiddish theater flourished, and the founding of the Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna in 1925 laid the foundations for research on East European Jewish life.
 
The various ideologies found expression as well in private Jewish schools: the Khoyrev and Beys Yankev schools of the traditional religious Agudas Yisroel; the Central Jewish School Organization, known as Tsisho, which promoted a Yiddish-speaking secular culture; and the Zionists' Tarbut schools, where students were taught in Hebrew. Yet most Jewish students attended Polish state schools in the interwar period. These state schools included schools specifically for Jewish students who could not write on Shabbat.
 
Beginning in the late 1920s, as the Depression hit Poland with particularly severity, popular discrimination such as economic boycotts, attacks on students at the universities, and quotas in some liberal professions resulted in a desperate situation for many Jews. Though no outright anti-Semitic legislation was enacted in Poland, as it was elsewhere in Eastern Europe at the time, the Polish government did not oppose economic discrimination against the Jews.
 
In 1934 Poland signed an anti-aggression pact with Germany, and in the same year the Polish government renounced its obligations under the Minorities' Treaty.
 
In the second half of the 1930s, economic boycotts escalated and physical attacks against Jews became more frequent, with pogroms occurring in various towns from 1935 until the first half of 1938, when the government began to clamp down on the violence.
 
Despite the anti-Jewish violence and the desperate situation of many Jews in the last years before World War II, the interwar years defy attempts to characterize Jewish life in Poland with broad strokes. These years were neither all "good for the Jews" nor all "bad for the Jews," as one historian, Ezra Mendelsohn, framed the debate, referring to the tendency to view the period as either a golden age or as a community whose destruction was already visible in the distance. This was, rather, a period when rapid changes within and without the Jewish world resulted in both dynamism and conflict.

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Karen Auerbach is a graduate student focusing on modern Polish Jewish history at Brandeis University.