Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Żydzi i Polacy 1918-1955. Współistnienie – Zagłada – Komunizm.[Jews and Poles 1918-1955. Coexistence, Holocaust, Communism].

Fronda: Warsaw 2011, 731 pages, 2nd edition.


While this second edition of a book, first published in 2000, by a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, appointed by the American President in 2005, is certainly worthy of attention, it is a shame that the author did not, prior to its republication, turn to any of his colleagues at that museum to review the previous edition, identify omitted sources and indicate errors, which he would then have had the opportunity to correct. It is undoubtedly a merit of the book that it opposes certain mutual stereotypes, strives towards an understanding of the causes of Polish-Jewish conflicts and seeks to alleviate these by way of agreement. It is, however, regrettable that these noble intentions are mitigated by what seems to the author’s unfamiliarity with important scholarly works (granted he could not, for obvious reasons, know those published after 2000), as well as some sources. Let us begin, then, with a survey of some of these misunderstandings; identifying and clarifying all of them would take up too much space.

Thus, we read that ‘The Jews were, generally speaking, indifferent in relation to Poland. They preferred organizing their own national or religious autonomy’ (p.16). Generalizations of this kind cannot but be mistaken. First, the idea of national and cultural autonomy (which what the author seems to have in mind) was formulated by some, and only some, Jewish circles, but certainly not all Jews (more details can be found in the available literature). Secondly, this solution was proposed not only by Polish Jews; there were attempts – however unsuccessful – to realize it elsewhere. Thirdly, ‘religious autonomy’ appears to indicate the principle of separation of state and church, or other religious institutions – today quite widely accepted around the world and not a Jewish invention. It may also be noted that most religious communities in post-1918 Poland enjoyed autonomy in this way, obviously within the limits of civil and criminal law. Further, we read: ‘The majority of that community led a life separated from the general population. Thus Jews enjoyed de facto autonomy in Poland.’ But if autonomy is to be understood as maintaining the independence of religion, efforts to use one’s mother tongue in education, the establishment of cultural associations, sports clubs and similar organizations then all national and religious minorities, not only in Poland, but also in many other countries, had autonomy (for example, the members of the Mariavite church in Poland, or, to some extent, even Poles in Germany).

Let us continue: ‘Traditional and religious Jews, especially in small towns, together formed religious communities (gminy wyznaniowe). Those were usually headed by a rabbi, or a tsadik. All religious, educational, and legal matters in each community were coordinated by such a community.’ Since in the Russian partition, marriages, funerals, and other acts concerning civil status were of religious character, the life of a person without affiliation to a religious community was very difficult. Nearly all inhabitants of those areas were ‘co-ordinated’ in kahals [gminy], parishes, etc. if only to make sure their families would not encounter any problems with their funeral. The kahals’ or parishes’ scope of competencies was defined by the law, while specific administrative forms were the product of both tradition and the appropriate norms of state law. Different faiths had different ways of managing community affairs. Judaism opted for the selection of community board members from among eligible members (details were determined by state law). One of the board’s tasks was organizing the selection of the rabbi, who did not ‘head’ the kahal, but was an expert in the Law as well as religious rituals and settled matters in dispute. The rabbinical court, however, mattered only to those who recognized the authority of the rabbi. Sometimes current matters led to fierce conflicts between the rabbi and the kahal members. Tsadikim did not hold the post of kahal head; I refer those wanting to understand the character of this ‘office’ to any decent encyclopedia. It will also likely explain the difference between a heder and an elementary school and between a yeshiva and a high-school or college. So much for basic matters.

For reasons we can understand, the author is interested in the assimilators (also called ‘assimilants’ [asymilanci]), i.e. Jews who had been influenced by Polish culture (which, however, did not always lead to religious conversion). He mentions their significant contributions to the economic development of Poland (a pertinent example being the prominent banker Leopold Kronenberg) as well as its culture and political life. Here, however, he stumbles upon a problem: for how many generations is it appropriate to use the term ‘assimilator’ to describe the descendants of a Jew who not only converted to Christianity, but also to Polish culture and traditions, and who did not even know Jewish languages? The question is important; assimilation often took place in the first half of the nineteenth century, while the subject of the book is the twentieth century. Why, then, say ‘asymilant’ to denote Baron Leopold Kronenberg, a nobleman of Wielkopolska, arrested by the Gestapo not on account of his ‘non-Aryan’ origins but because he was an prominent leader of the Polish nobility? Incidentally, he survived imprisonment only to be arrested again and for the same reason in 1945 – this time by the NKVD. Why is Stanisław Stroński also included as an ‘assimilant’? His connection to the Jewry was only by virtue of his mother being the daughter of a Jewish doctor, but he himself had become a prominent figure of the National Democrats (Endecja). It would seem the author is following the rules of halacha, Jewish religious law.

As a side note, I was surprised by the mention of a US-based Italian historian, Prof. Gabriele Simoncini, referred to as a woman. An Internet search of her name revealed a photo of a friendly-looking man still in his prime, sporting an elegant beard. Granted, the Internet is not an infallible source, but could it be so wrong?

Another issue is that of pogroms. The author avoids using the term and discusses cases of pogroms under the title ‘Riots, fights, clashes’, failing to see that the scale of some these far transcended what such words suggest. For an instance, could any of these terms be used to describe the wave of pogroms in the Rzeszów area in the spring of 1920, which swept through several powiats  and required the army to be called in to bring the situation under control? (The underlying causes were primarily economical, but the triggers included a rumor of an attempted ‘ritual murder’ and some of the Catholic clergy acted as agitators.) Similarly, the events of Mińsk Mazowiecki in 1936, when several houses burned down, were more than a ‘brawl’ or even a ‘riot’. The same goes for the ‘seizure’ of Myślenice in 1936 by Adam Doboszyński. Perhaps it is not worth while to argue about terminology, but the word ‘clash (pojedynek, literally duel)’ can certainly not be used here – especially since according to the ‘code of honour’ a Jew could take part in a duel. In this chapter, the author focuses primarily on attacks on ‘nationalists’ (‘narodowcy’) by the militant squads of the Youth Legion (Legion Młodych), OM TUR (the Youth Organization of the Workers’ University Society) and PPS (Polish Socialist Party), as well as on clashes between competing ‘nationalists’ and the ‘driving off’ of communists. The inclusion among these events of the planned duel between the Vilnius caricaturist Feliks Dangel with the poet Witold Hulewicz seems like an unintended joke. The author concludes this by saying: ‘It is only in this context that one can understand clashes between Poles and Jews’ (p. 82). ‘Polish-Jewish brawls’ (p. 82) are the subject of a separate section. Here he points out first of all that killed in these ‘brawls’ were mostly ‘nationalists’, while the instigators were often Jews, who organized self-defense squads. In other words, he accuses Jews of taking precautionary measures to protect their property, and sometimes their lives, against the attacks of ‘nationalist youth’. As an example Chodakiewicz gives a brief account of the pogrom in Przytyk in 1936. He relies here on a useful book by Piotr Gontarczyk (more than half of it are original documents). As documents show, what started the pogrom was an attempt by a local ‘nationalist’ to ban Jewish merchants from trading in the market square. Police intervened, but the crowd prevented them from detaining the boycott’s initiator and soon the peasants began to disperse. At that point, three of them attacked the Jewish merchants, hitting them and knocking over their stalls. The Jewish self-defense stepped in and soon clashes began, which tragically led to the death of one of the peasants, which, in turn, provoked an assault of the mob on the shop and apartment of a Jewish shoemaker; two adults were murdered and their children beaten. The documents indicate that responsible for starting the tragic events were the ‘nationalists’, while the self-defense intervened in defense of the attacked, however, overstepping the limits of necessary defense. Chodakiewicz maintains that ‘it was only the shooting of one of the Poles that enraged the crowd’. So, here too the Jews were to blame?

Chodakiewicz devotes much space to Catholicism’s relation to Jews and states at one point that: ‘Of course, it is impossible to maintain that there were no Anti-Judaic traditions in the Catholic Church. It must decidedly be stated, however, that they were not racist. The Catholic universalism debarred adapting such pagan novelties into the Magisterium of the Church’ (p. 32). Elaborating on this admittedly rational view, the author glosses over some related issues widely discussed in literature and far from defamatory in character. He spends much time on another topic that I choose to leave out here, namely, that of anti-Jewish phraseology that can be found in publications of the socialist movement (starting with Karl Marx), particularly condemning any religious beliefs as ‘opium for the masses’. After all, the subject of the book under review is not the attitude of socialists and communists towards religion, but Polish-Jewish relations, which were incomparably more deeply shaped by the traditions of Catholicism, and Christianity more broadly. I do not suspect the author to be unfamiliar with that literature, although he discreetly glosses over it. Among the dreary superstitions, known also in Poland, one must first of all mention the myth of ‘ritual murder’— the belief that ‘Jews’ (or some mysterious ‘Jewish sect’ nobody could identify) need for their purposes (which varied in different versions) Christian blood, especially that of a child. A description of such alleged crime can be found in Rycerz Niepokalanej, a Catholic monthly founded and published by St. Maksymilian Kolbe (whose memory, as an article in Tygodnik Powszechny once put it, deserves respect, but for other reasons). Not only illiterates believed in that myth. The probability that a murderous ‘Jewish sect’ practicing such rituals did indeed exist was accepted by the—supposedly—distinguished Catholic philosopher, Feliks Koneczny, in his work about the Jewish civilization. Chodakiewicz mentions the book, but discreetly glosses over the absurd fragment justifying the belief in ‘ritual murders’. In the middle of the twentieth century, some Polish bishops still shared this belief (I refrain from mentioning names); exceptions included Bishop Teodor Kubina, who, following the 1946 Kielce pogrom, condemned the belief in this myth.

Another thing Chodakiewicz glosses over is the large-scale publication of antisemitic Catholic literature in the interwar years (granted, without racist argumentation, but that is scarcely a consolation…) authored by well-known Polish clergymen (among them Fr. Stanisław Trzeciak, regarded as an authority in the Third Reich and Fr. Józef Kruszyński, the first Rector of the Catholic University of Lublin). Even today, certain ‘patriotic’ publishers reissue some their works. Neither does he say anything about the articles published in many a Catholic periodical, not necessarily even targeting intellectual elites, such as Przegląd Powszechny (where we can read, for example that Jesus Christ was not a Jew…). It should be mentioned that there were also some estimable exceptions among them.

A noteworthy document is the often quoted pastoral letter of Cardinal Primate August Hlond from 1936. Chodakiewicz cites extensive fragments from it and rightly notes a passage in which the cardinal emphasized that ‘Very many Jews are pious, honest, just, merciful, and benevolent people’ (he fails to notice that Hlond condemned beating Jews, attacking them and robbing them), but he leaves out the important circumstance of when the letter was published, as well as its extensive introduction. In 1936 an exceptionally high number of disturbances initiated by so-called ‘true patriots’ were recorded. While I recognize the Primate’s good intentions, I would like to point out that the document starts with a whole litany of accusations: ‘It is a fact that Jews fight the Catholic Church, persist in freethinking, form the avant-garde of godlessness, the Bolshevik movement, and subversive action. It is a fact that their influence on proprieties and public decency is pernicious, and their publishing companies propagate pornography. It is true that Jews engage in fraud, usury, and human trafficking. It is true that the influence of Jewish youth on Catholic youth concerning religion and ethics is usually negative’. And in the final part of the letter we find an expression of support for the boycott of Jewish shops and companies. In sum, what the Catholic faithful learned from the letter was that most Jews deserve condemnation, decent people are only a minority among them, and a good Pole ought to boycott them. I would like to believe that the Primate was not fully aware of the way his letter would be understood at a time of great tension between the followers of both religions. Similarly, the Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski could—perhaps--be unaware of the provocative impact of his slogan: ‘Economic boycott – yes, but without any violence’.

Another important question the author considers is the relation of Poland’s state authorities to the Jewish community. In between his discussions of the various issues we read: ‘In 1937, that is before Adolf Hitler showed the world his real face, as he had not yet commenced communist-scale killing,  and had only relatively painlessly crushed the communists, socialists and liberals in Germany, in other words, at a time when the leader of the Third Reich could still seem in some way similar to other nationalists…’ (p. 46). I am under the impression that the author has not read a great deal about those early years of the Third Reich and is not fully aware that the ‘painlessness’ he talks about was very relative indeed.

It is impossible to address everything in a review essay, not even every important problem discussed in the book, so let me conclude with a critical consideration of the Polish-Jewish ‘idyll’ portrayed on pages 56-58. Chodakiewicz is right in pointing out the support given by the Polish government to the New Zionist Organization, the radical strand of Zionism. He seems not to know, however, that it resulted from an ill-conceived hope that in this way it would be possible to induce a mass emigration of Jews to Palestine and, at the same time, weaken other political trends inconvenient to the government. The documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that it was feared Jews would support the democratic currents in the Polish political life while Europe was seeing triumphs of authoritarianism.

At the same time in the mid 1930s attempts were made to ‘rid’ Poland (especially eastern Galicia) of the largest possible number of Ukrainians and Jews. A similar undertaking was the passing of a law that allowed for stripping people who had remained out of the country for at least five years of Polish citizenship. The law was supposed to apply primarily to national minorities, especially to Jews living in Germany. The Third Reich was gradually depriving them of their sources of income, so increasing numbers of them were leaving for Poland, where they had no means of livelihood and were left to charity. The result of this campaign of citizenship deprivation turned out catastrophically, as in the end of October 1938, in just one night, the German police, SS, and the military ‘transferred’ about 17,000 Jews—Polish citizens—to Poland, allowing them to bring only 10 German marks per person. Chodakiewicz discreetly glosses over this Polenaktion, although relevant sources and literature are available both in Washington (in the Holocaust Museum), New York (YIVO Institute), Israel (Yad Vashem), and in the Central Archives of Modern Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych) in Warsaw. It is astonishing  to read that ‘relevant statistics’ concerning the employment of Jews in state institutions ‘have not yet been published’ (p. 56). Basic information is available in published census data as well as in documents in archives. One type of such interesting documents are name lists of Jews (persons of non-Aryan descent – sic!) employed in state institutions, preserved in the records of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were prepared in 1938 in connection with a plan to conduct a ‘purge’ in department offices and other institutions (even wives of ‘non-Aryan’ descent were noted…). Emanuel Melzer mentions it in his book cited by Chodakiewicz. Perhaps he didn’t notice this passage?

Chodakiewicz’s book consists of three parts: 1) Independent Poland (1918-1939), 2) World War II (1939-1945), 3) Soviet occupation (1944-1955). I have discussed, if only fragmentarily, the first part, because it is primarily the interwar period that interests me, but also because an analysis of the whole would require more time and paper than the book is worth. All the more because what we learn from it is, first and foremost, the well-known fact that the Jews are to blame for—pretty much—everything. What is not explained to us, however, is why not the cyclists?[1]

To conclude, I would like to quote the anonymous blurb from the book’s back cover:

Professor Marek Chodakiewicz presents to the reader Polish-Jewish relations over a period of nearly three decades. It is, then, practically a chronicle of events subjected to the author’s scholarly analysis. On the one hand, he opposes identifying, as some Poles do, all Jews with the so-called ‘Żydokomuna’ [Jew-Communists], on the other—he effectively undermines the thesis of some Jewish circles about the Poles’ shared responsibility for their nation’s extermination during the last war. Rather, he sees both nationalities—Poles and Jews—as two collections of concrete individuals who are individually wronged by any attempt to formulate negative generalizations about them. In reality – he writes in the Introduction – we should differentiate between the Jewish community from all communists generally, and specifically communists of Jewish descent. On the other hand, we should stop comparing ‘Polish antisemitism’ to ‘Hitlerism’. Chodakiewicz’s is a pioneering work. Until its first publication there did not exist in the scholarly world a solid analysis of Polish-Jewish relations before, during, and after the war. The footnotes alone indicate the gigantic scale of the intellectual effort the author undertook during his research in more than ten different archives in the United States and Poland, and working with hundreds of publications on the topic. The facts citied in Jews and Poles 1918-1955. Coexistence – Holocaust – Communism are indeed shocking. With scientific honesty, the places before the reader those pages from the shared history of Jews and Poles both nations would sometimes rather forget about. For this reason, Professor Chodakiewicz’s book constitutes an exceptionally valuable contribution to a genuine mutual understanding between our nations, free from reconciliatory hypocrisy.


I am not questioning the author’s good intentions. But I will not congratulate the President of our allied superpower on the acquisition of an outstanding scholar. He might take it for an unbecoming mockery.


Jerzy Tomaszewski

Transalated by Grzegorz Sokół

This review first appeared in Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, June 2012 no. 2 (242); Reproduced by permission.

[1]Reference to an old joke in which two people are talking about all of Poland’s misery being the Jews’ fault, and a bystander cuts in and adds: ‘and the cyclists’’. ‘Why cyclists’?’ they ask. ‘Why the Jews’?’ he replies.