On October 22, 1995 TYGODNIK POWSZECHNY, a leading Catholic weekly in Cracow, published an article by its deputy editor-in-chief entitled "Clear Choices and Dark Reasons." The article's last chapter - subtitled "The Jews" - provoked a controversy.
It is worth noting that this magazine had initiated an important discussion about Polish anti-semitism, publishing in 1986 a famous article, "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto."
What follows is 1) a summary of the October 1995 article and 2) writer Henryk Grynberg's response which was published the following month.
"Clear Choices and Dark Reasons"
(Tygodnik Powszechny, #43, Oct.22, 1995)
(Translated and summarized by Anna Baranczak) This article consists of fragments of "spoken memoirs" of the late Mieczyslaw Pszon, pertaining to the years he spent studying at the Jagellonian University in Cracow, which he entered in 1934. The prevailing ideology at the university could be defined as right-wing nationalism. It was a time of a drastic political polarization, and the view shared by virtually everybody both from the extreme right and left was that there was no viable middle-of-the-road political option in between the Communist left and the Nationalistic or even Fascist right. "I...was and I still am a Conservative...at that time, [however], the divisions were so pronounced that you had to join one extreme or the other...if you had a political temperament and wished to be active..., your choice was either the left or the right, a very peculiar sort of right to boot."
Pszon goes on to describe the complex and, at times, extreme nature of the Polish right wing, its often contradictory ideas and fascinations (including those with German, Italian, and Portuguese varieties of fascism), as well as its numerous informal and then formalized organizational structures. As opposed to the Communists, the Polish right at the time was far from homogenous. For Pszon, it was also a circle where he met many interesting people. "And this was how I got entangled in all that," he confesses. While still a student, he started contributing to a right-wing newspaper and became one of the leaders of the regional unit of Stronnictwo Narodowe (the largest right-wing party in Poland between the wars).
The final chapter of the article describes the context for Pszon's relations with Jews. According to him, the question of the Jews' place in Polish society varied from region to region, with Cracow having perhaps the highest percentage of assimilated Jews and the Eastern territories abounding in the "totally foreign element." He analyzes the Jews' position on the issue of Poland's independence (Poland regained its independence in 1918, after 123 years of political subjugation to its neighbors): "We have to remember that during the [First] World War, the Jewish circles --and this is a fact, not a propaganda invention-- did not support the Polish striving for Independence."
"Looking at that from today's perspective, we can assume that a kind of solution might have been achieved [in Poland between the wars] by offering Jews an authentic autonomy --not a territorial, but a cultural and way-of-life one, having to do with education, self-governing, etc." Another solution, according to him, might have conceivably been found on the international plane, through Zionism (whose activities the Polish government did in fact encourage).
For Pszon, the Jews were foreign, alien. He describes their alleged dominance in the areas of trade, law, and medicine. These facts, as Pszon puts it, combined with the popular "conspiracy theory of history," supplied politicians with a set of very handy propaganda tools. In Pszon's view, the Polish-Jewish conflicts were of political, social, and economic nature. Along with the simultaneous conflicts between the Polish majority and the Ukrainian or German minorities, they almost made the state ungovernable. This was the main reason behind the attraction of the nation-state concept as opposed to that of the multinational state. On the other hand, he concludes, for many people the Jew was "an opponent who, under the circumstances of deplorable dearth in political thought at that time, was easy to use and manipulate for propaganda purposes...since the Jewish problem evidently was a problem, the nationalists were, by and large, successful in persuading society that once this problem is solved, any other sort of trouble will also disappear (the same was being said then by Hitler). One must add, though, that fortunately slogans of this sort never turned into phenomena similar to those know in Germany."
DESTRUCTIVE ELEMENTS IN POLAND
(Tygodnik Powszechny, December 17, 1995)
(Translated and summarized by Anna Baranczak)
I regret that "Tygodnik" published the memoirs of the late Mieczyslaw Pszon only recently and that the deceased will not be able to respond to my criticisms. But I cannot pass over in silence his remarks about Jews, who after all are not among the living either. Mieczyslaw Pszon's views on what he has called, in his reminiscence "Clear Choices and Dark Reasons" ("Tygodnik Powszechny," 43), "the particularly difficult Jewish question" in pre-war Poland, are not merely unclear but they are also wrong.
Already in the first sentence of the passage about Jews - "We maintained relations with Jews and socialists until the very end" - Jews are treated as a sort of monolithic political party or social organization. In reality, some Jews were socialists, and some were anti-socialists. And the author himself emphasizes, several sentences later, that Jews in Cracow were different from the ones on Kongresowka or Lithuania, and therefore didn't have perfect unity even as an ethnic group. Among other things, the differences had to do with their degree of assimilation into Polish society. According to the author, the Jews in Lithuania and other eastern territories were "a completely foreign element, a separate nation, something completely different." Such a view would probably not be confirmed by historical eyewitnesses like Mickiewicz, Orzeszkowa or Milosz. In the East, Jews traditionally aligned themselves to Poles, which provoked even more anti-Jewish sentiments from Ukrainians and Lithuanians. And if the author was referring only to relations with Cracow Jews, who - as he himself admits - were the most Polanized, then even those Jews were divided among themselves into strata and subgroups, just like Polish society. So how exactly did they keep up their "relations with Jews"? I'm afraid that in the mind of a supporter of the nationalistic right wing, Jews are simply a "race", and thus it's enough to meet with one of them - for instance, Marcin Boruchowicz, whose name is mentioned by the author (I think he may be referring to Michal Boruchowicz) - in order to maintain "relations with Jews".
Pszon has correctly stated that in pre-war Poland (and I know that this is still true in post-war Poland) the dominant ideology saw state as nation-state entity, instead of a multi-national one, but I am baffled by the proclamation that "there was no way, since the multi-national state - in effect, a federation - would have fallen apart, partly because of the most destructive elements - not counting territorial minorities - were Jews".
He elaborates: "Let us imagine a country in which 10 percent of the population is completely foreign, not only in language, but also in customs, religion and dress..." According to Pszon, the "destructiveness" of Jews was also demonstrated by the fact that "they weren't interested in the existence of the [Polish] state" and that "this 10 percent played a disproportionate role in certain sectors of the economy", that they "mainly controlled commerce and trading" and that "only a tiny percentage of the Jews was involved in the production of goods". It is worth asking if the right wing nationalists would have been happier had the Jews chosen to dominate the manufacturing sector instead? And what is so bad about economic activity? How is trade destructive? King Casimir the Great certainly did not share this view, and the power of Greece, Venice, England or Holland came not from production, but from trading - as did the wealth of Hong Kong. And why is it that people who speak, dress, pray and cook differently must be considered "foreign", instead of just different? Looking at modern-day ethnic warfare, it's easy to see that coexistence with the "foreign" Jews was much easier by comparison.Political, economic, social and cultural rationalizations of anti-Semitism were always a symptom of delusions - even if they were dictated by psychological self-defense. Anti-Semites were bothered by Jewish language, customs and clothing, but what really infuriated them were the Jews who spoke, dressed and acted like Poles, especially those who "concealed their true identity" by adopting Polish names and Polish religion.
Jews were isolated, just like other ethnic minorities, but this wasn't necessarily by choice. "They weren't interested in the existence of the state"? After the war many accused them of exactly the opposite.... And the Polish state did fall apart (in rather disgraceful fashion) despite - or even because of - the aforementioned predominant nationalistic ideology which didn't take into account the state's actual ethnic composition.
Pszon has correctly noted that "the Jewish question has always provided ample and effective material for political propaganda". But once again, I was amazed by his comments: "(this was) partly because attempts to assimilate Polish Jews ended in failure". The cultural assimilation of Polish Jews after WWII was so complete that only specialists could determine if someone was a Jew (some still do), and to this day, Polish politicians energetically exploit the "Jewish question". And why does Pszon simultaneously complain that in Cracow, "out of 800 lawyers, only 60 were Polish" and that "the situation among doctors was similar"? Those Jewish lawyers and doctors were about as assimilated as one could get. To the possible question of why anyone should object to the number of Jewish doctors and lawyers, Pszon responds rhetorically: "Before the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, why should the Blacks have objected to the fact that all the attorneys were White? Well, they did object, and rightly so..." So the author's main concern is not with the assimilation of Jews, but with their race. In addition, Polish racism seems even more irrational than South African racism, when one considers how much smaller the differences were between Jews and Poles. It is such irrationality that allows the author to equate the Jews in pre-war Poland with the ruling class, and the Poles with the oppressed Blacks. This is not a one-time rhetorical lapse. A similar line of reasoning can be seen in the statement that a "poor country boy, having laboriously made his way through law school, (...) was faced here with a solid brick wall" (of Jewish attorneys - HG). Pszon neglected to mention the absence of Jews from the ranks of prosecutors and judges. Since for those positions one had to be nominated, Jews had to become attorneys. And since there were so many attorneys, they had to face a "brick wall" of competition. This may be hard for a nationalist to understand, but Jews compete among themselves, as well. Jews were barred from military officer schools, from the police, and from government administrations, because it was they who were Blacks, and not the "poor country boys". Pszon related how in a court of law, a "Jewish lawyer" would demand a two-zloty retainer from his poor clients. And small town bureaucrats didn't ask for money? The main difference was that the attorney had a right to be compensated for his services, while the bureaucrat didn't. Pszon saw a "chain of middlemen and traders which blocked most people's attempts to escape rural poverty but didn't seem to notice that the law and medicine were just about the only avenues open to the Jews, who were educated and assimilated".
Pszon referred dismissively to historical "conspiracy theories", but at the same time stated that "the Jewish lobby, obviously hostile to Poland (...) forced framers of the Versailles Treaty to include a provision for minorities (...) which violated Poland's sovereignty." The Versailles treaty did, in fact, "force" minority rights onto many newly created countries with ethnically mixed territories - like Poland's Eastern Territories, home to probably half the country's Jewish population. The representatives of the international Jewish organizations lobbied for the protection of Jewish minorities in the face of pogroms perpetrated by the Polish Army: Nov. 22, 1918, in Lvov, the winter of 1919 in the towns of Rzeszow Region, April 22, 1919, in Warsaw, April 5, 1919 in Pinsk, May 27, 1919 in Czestochowa (see: Jerzy Tomaszewski, "Polish Society Through Jewish Eyes" in "The Jews in Poland", Uniwersytet Jagiellonski, Krakow 1992). The Jews gained (not "forced") perfectly reasonable guarantees, which no law-abiding citizen should have found objectionable. The Helsinki Accord contained similar provisions for the protection of human rights. This accord did, in fact, have to be forced down the throats of Moscow and its satellites, who considered it "interference in their internal affairs" and a "violation of national sovereignty".
Jews in pre-war Poland numbered less than Ukrainians and Byelorussians and not more then Germans and Lithuanians. Those last four ethnic groups were often in conflict with the Polish state, as evidenced by some of their actions in the years 1939-44, and later the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but Polish nationalists only seemed to notice Jews. Everywhere they saw "the obvious Jewish problem", "the particular difficult Jewish question", and "the urgency of the Jewish question". This blinkered world view caused much social strife, while distracting people from real problems like the need for agricultural reform, unemployment in the "production of goods", systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities and state-sponsored alienation of ethnic minorities (which made up a third of the population), as well as external threats. This nationalistic blindness, more than anything else, contributed to the defeat of 1939.
Pszon has distanced himself from anti-Semitism, and in conclusion, emphasized that "fortunately (...) these slogans never give rise to the sort of phenomena seen in Germany", but still, he was trying to justify himself. Which cannot be done, even with the best of intentions. It was not the Jews who were "one of the most destructive elements" in Poland, but anti-Semites. This is clearly apparent today, now that the Jews are long-gone, but the anti-Semites remain.
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