The history of Jews in Poland

The Jews originally settled in their 'promised land', between the Mediterranean Sea and the river Jordan, in about 2000 BC, overcoming the Philistines to do so. They built Jerusalem and its temple about a thousand years later. Jerusalem lies in the region known to the Romans as Judaea, a province of the Roman empire from 63 BC. When the Jews rebelled against Roman rule, their temple was destroyed, and the Jews began to leave Palestine in search of safer homes elsewhere. They now had no homeland, but were united by their religion, customs, culture and ethnicity, which they cherished with care.

The Roman empire spread across Europe as far as the British Isles. In the 4th century AD, the emperor made Christianity the state religion. Jews were regarded by the Christian Church as responsible for Jesus Christ's death, and were persecuted accordingly. They were not allowed to own land or have a trade; this forced them into finding work as moneylenders or entrepreneurs, work which was then despised. The crusades enhanced already strong anti-Jewish feeling. By the 16th century, many Jews were forced by law to live in separate crowded 'ghettos'. Anti-Jewish prejudice (anti-Semitism) spread and put down roots, though many Jewish individuals were respected, not least for their love of learning, which continues to this day.

Mediaeval Poland, indeed, had welcomed its early Jewish population: it was in need of skilled merchants to develop the world's great new adventure: international trade. By the 20th century, 3.5 million of Poland's 30 million inhabitants were Jewish. But although their cultural and political activities flourished, many Jews continued to be treated with hostility, suspicion and disrespect. Poland was strongly Roman Catholic, and churchmen continued to preach that Jews were enemies who had murdered Jesus (though he himself was a Jew) and who practised dark arts and rituals. This prejudice extended across Europe, flaring up from time to time in 'pogroms': attempts to drive out Jews by violence and murder. Anti-Semitism was also fired by the growth of nationalism in many countries. Between the two World Wars, anti-Semitism in Poland experienced a surge: laws discriminating against Jews were passed, as they also were in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Greece, and, in particular, Nazi Germany. [link to Holocaust (Genocides section)]

In 1939 eastern Poland came under the control of Soviet Russia. Under communist rule the region's inhabitants had a rough time: local Poles lost their jobs, were beaten and arrested; some were deported to the Soviet Union, and some of these deportees never returned. But the communists were not anti-Jewish; there were Jews therefore who were ready to support them.

In 1941 Germany broke the non-aggression pact it had made with the Soviet Union. Hitler's plan was to invade the Soviet Union and annex its lands as part of a new German empire. These lands included eastern Poland (Germany had occupied western Poland since 1939). It was well-known that German policy was anti-Jewish. As Germany claimed eastern Poland on the way to invade the USSR, its troops and militias left a trail of slaughter. Elsewhere in Poland, too, the Polish people suffered under the hostile Nazi policies of suppression and extermination: during the Nazi occupation over 6 million people were killed. Half of them were Jews. Poland is the site of many mass graves of Jews and other persecuted minorities: the death camp at Oswiecim (Auschwitz) is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. There are also Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Maidanek, Belzec. These camps were set up in remote areas, often close to the border, with one facility in common: they could be easily reached by railway.

It is estimated that by 1945 only 50,000 Polish Jews had survived. In 1967-8, 35,000 left Poland to settle in Israel. Hostility towards Jews remained strong. One historian, sadly reviewing the history of Jews in Poland, put it this way: it was as if 'we let the Jews into our home, but told them to live in the cellar. When they wanted to come up to the main rooms, we said we would allow that if they stopped being orthodox Jews and became "civilised". There were Jews who were prepared to do this. But then we started talking about a "Jewish invasion'', about the danger we would be in once the Jews permeated Polish society.' Nevertheless thousands of individual Poles risked their lives to save Jews from death; these included a married couple at Jedwabne, who hid seven Jedwabne Jews on July 10 and looked after them until the end of the war.

After the Second World War there was a new communist government for the whole of Poland, established under Soviet influence. The trade union movement, Solidarity, rose in opposition during the 1980s. With the collapse of communism, the Polish republic began to rebuild democracy and review its troubled history.



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