The Jewish Nation in Central Europe

A Discussion of Józef Chlebowczyk’s, Procesy narodotwórcze we wschodniej Europie Środkowej w dobie kapitalizmu (od schyłku XVIII do początków XX w.), Warsaw, 1975, and the amended second edition: O prawie do bytu małych i młodych narodów. Kwestia narodowa i procesy narodotwórcze we wschodniej Europie środkowej w dobie kapitalizmu (od schyłku XVIII do początków XX w.), Warsaw–Kraków, 1983.


Jerzy Tomaszewski


The first point on the programme for Jewish personal autonomy drawn up by the Zionist Organization Central Committee in Małopolska in January 1919 demanded as a basic principle: ‘Recognition of Jews as a national group’.[i]Although the need for such a demand may appear odd to a contemporary Polish or Israeli reader, one must not forget that at the turn of the twentieth century Jews were generally treated as a religious rather than a national group. In a conversation with Ignacy Paderewski on 27 June 1919, David Lloyd George--who was well disposed toward Jews--opposed the idea of introducing Yiddish (‘corrupt German’) as an auxiliary language in schools for Jewish children in Poland, stating that he was ‘only interested in equal rights and assimilation and not in the creation and acceptance of national minorities’.[ii]Both socialists and communists did not consider Jews to be a separate nation, and many Polish columnists and rightist politicians of the inter-war period would use the phrase our national minority ironically when describing Jews. A dozen or so years ago, in a conversation with friends (a historian and a sociologist) in Prague, I was asked why in Polish writing about this topic, Jews are usually described as a nation. It must be remembered that in the Czech lands (and, to some extent, in Slovakia) extensive assimilation of Jews had taken place, while in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the course of Jewish history had been very different.

In his analysis of the emergence of ‘small’ nations in Central and Eastern Europe, Józef Chlebowczyk[iii]omitted any discussion of the ‘Jewish question’. In response to my query shortly after the publication of his book, he said that the issue of the formation of a modern Jewish nation required further study. As several decades have now passed since our conversation and many publications have since appeared, the time has come to consider to what extent changes in the Jewish community in our part of the European continent may be included in my friend’s model for the emergence of modern nations in East-Central Europe.

Chlebowczyk singles out two basic phases in the formation of a nation: linguistic-cultural and political. He argues that ‘the development of the mother tongue of a minority is the starting point and basic goal of the first phase of the formation of a nation; it leads to the emancipation, integration, and unification of the particular linguistic and ethnic group. As a result of this process, a new type of social community, the national, begins to emerge’.[iv]The second stage of the nation-building process he defines as the ‘political phase’, a phase during which ‘ever more a feeling of a common past history gradually comes to the fore as an integrating factor. This is how historical consciousness becomes crystalized’.[v]A nationality metamorphoses into a nation within the larger supra-national state structure. Looking at this process from a long-term perspective what in the first phase involved the articulation of new spheres of language and culture, now produces in the second phase a political programme aimed at ‘institutionalizing its forms of existence’.[vi]This phase can take the form of a demand for autonomy and, ultimately, may become the rallying cry for the right to self-determination in the form of independence or possibly federation or confederation within a larger state.

Miroslav Hroch employs a more developed and somewhat different classification of the [different] phases in the development of a nation. He points out that ‘national identity in its modern form only took shape after the ideas of the Enlightenment began to spread among the educated part of society and the ruling classes which brought with them a number of important innovations affecting the development of the national movement’.[vii]He divides the nation-building process of Central Europe into three phases:

‘First, during the ‘academic’ phase, members the ‘patriotic intelligentsia’ studying the language, customs, past, and living conditions of ‘their’ group which they considered to be a potential nation, came together. In the second phase, this group endeavoured to convince other members of the group to adopt this new national identity. This phase of the national campaign did not always end in success but in some cases evoked a mass response among members of the ethnic group who took on a national identity as early as the second half of the nineteenth century. This marked the beginning the third phase, that of the mass national movement, which showed that a successful national-building process had begun.’[viii]

I can see no fundamental differences between the approaches of the two scholars. Both authors emphasize that the nation-building process begins with scholarly interest (nowadays we would tend to add often the adjective amateur) in a specific ethnic group, distinct from the dominating political elite; the folk dialect and village folklore often seem to fascinate writers. Initially, representatives of the intellectual elite, at first few in numbers, formed the groups that instigated changes. If successful, this nation-building process then evolved (under the influences of various internal and external factors) until a political programme to transform the existing legal and political order was worked out, including a demand to create a separate state. An especially important role in this process was played by the modernization of societies and the political systems of the Central and East European great powers, especially those reforms which led to the gradual granting of equal rights to all social groups that had previously been organized as feudal estates. Both authors analyse these transformations with regard to specific historical conditions; however, their studies pass over the existence of the Jewish population which was particularly numerous in the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

Both authors also point out the significant role played by the intellectual elite in shaping and promoting national consciousness. This is what Jarosław Kilias has to say in this regard:

The chief contribution intellectuals make to a nation consists of creative and interpretive activity. It is they who create and transform combinations of national symbols and they thus contribute to the creation of a solid tissue of social structures upon which their interpretation frequently bestows a systematic character and is then assigned to a nominal group identified with the nation under the name of national culture (of the given society). It seems important to emphasize the creative nature of such activity, as Central European literature sometimes tended to treat it as if it had been an expression of an already existing culture or national character; at any rate, the terminology it invoked suggested that it concerned reception and expression of some objective and existing from old times psychological or cultural phenomena.[ix]

Any historian sceptical about wide-ranging theoretical generalizations will now become aware of the fact that the ‘creation and transformation of combinations of national symbols’ cannot occur in a social vacuum, nor can it be limited to the adoption or transformation of ideological concepts which originated in other countries by adapting them to local conditions. Neither does the ‘nominal group’ identified with the nation consist only of passive masses acting as a target for the activities of this small group of intellectuals (traditionally defined as awakeners of national consciousness). The creation of national ideologies does not occur on virgin soil but rather on the basis of the creative adoption and interpretation of phenomena, traditions and hitherto existing ideas. The starting point will be different in each society and ethnic group. Historical legends, sometimes found in old chronicles (e.g., the story of the martyrdom of Bishop Stanisław of Szczepanów or even older tales about the Piast kings) and sometimes more recent in origin (e.g., the legend about Abraham Prochownik or the story of the heroic death of Colonel Berek Joselewicz) should also be considered as prerequisites and components of national ideologies that sometimes come into being by association with events confirmed by other historical sources or derived from literature in the form of historical epics.

If one is to analyze this process in relation to the Jews, one  must bear in mind the ways in which they differed from members of other religious and ethnic groups and social estates in this region. There is no doubt that the most important feature distinguishing Jews from the Christian majority was religion. This majority treated Judaism as inferior by definition because, as was widely believed, Jews were thought to bear ‘hereditary guilt’ for Christ’s death, since despite having been ‘witnesses’, they did not believe and as a result lost their claim to be the Chosen People. Documents usually described the Jews as perfidious or unbelieving. It was not until very much later that the neutral epithet Followers of theOld Testament (starozakonni)   replaced these morally disparaging adjectives. A contemporary Christian for whom the Old Testament (Torah) forms part of his holy scriptures, is likely to see in this changed designation some respect for an Older Brother in faith.

From their point of view, Jews, aware of such Christian prejudices against them and convinced of the permanent character of their own chosenness, regarded Christianity as polytheistic, a religion contradicting the commandments received at Sinai and, thus, a kind of paganism. The distance separating Jews from the rest of the population was so much the greater because of differences in education (after all, educating sons was each Jew’s religious duty) that stressed a fuller knowledge of the Torah than the majority of Christians had of the Old Testament, the reading of which the Catholic priests did not recommend to laymen. At the same time Judaism was (and still is) not just a religion but a basis of a historical awareness of the common fate of its followers; knowledge of the Torah involves knowledge about the Jewish past, even when this is, in fact, mythologized knowledge. According to Hroch, the beginnings of historical consciousness were usually linked to the activities of a small group of intellectuals (Chlebowczyk also points out the importance of this factor). Yes such a historico-religious consciousness has existed among Jews ‘from time immemorial’ and has characterized all believers. It is thus not surprising that the external signs of respect a Jew might show toward a person of a higher social position , particularly a member of the nobility or a priest, could be a cloak for contempt toward an idolater and ignoramus. The historic Jewish tradition with regard to the Land of Israel found in the Torah was supplemented in Central Europe by stories about settlement in the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple.

However, in the eyes of Christian society their religion placed Jews on the lowest rung of the social ladder, even though their knowledge was sometimes valued, a fact that became fixed in sayings and catchphrases. At the same time, the alleged secret knowledge of Jews was feared, particularly among the common people, as Jews were suspected of witchcraft and magical practices. In addition, crude understandings of kabbalistic mysticism found their way into peasant huts (and also into bourgeois homes) in the form of card readings that drew on a secret method of obtaining knowledge about the future. Belief in the grim myth of ‘ritual murder’ was also common; in the middle of the twentieth century it was given credence by Feliks Koneczny, a historian admired by some, and near the end of that century, a certain Polish bishop expressed the opinion that this issue had still not been sufficiently clarified. 

The legal position of Jews as well as their role in the country’s economic life placed them considerably higher than peasants. Thanks to their abilities, affluence and knowledge, some Jews achieved high positions in the royal court and took part (at least as advisers) in political life. Some, in the hope of becoming ennobled, had themselves baptized, but this was not inevitable, even though it was the nobility rather than  the burgesses that were a model class for the eminent and ambitious representatives of the Jewish community in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Changing one’s religion and ennoblement (with adoption of a family name) signified full assimilation into Polish nobility and abandonment of Jewish traditions.

The second half of the eighteenth century brought with it new phenomena, particularly new ways in which representatives of the Jewish community reacted to political changes in the state. The new situation has been described by Jakub Goldberg: ‘The revival of political and social life in the era of the Four-Year Sejm and the projects connected with the social and cultural Jewish reforms that came into being at that time, also agitated the Jewish population. It was then that the first political Jewish representation consisting of plenipotentiaries elected at Jewish kehilot and regional councils emerged in the Republic.’[x]

It is quite true that during this period, democratic Polish politicians treated Jewish society as a religious community and one of the estates of the society with strictly defined legal status. Jews were also considered to be a part of the ‘Polish people--lud polski’ (at least potentially so), and, having been granted full civil rights, become ‘civilized’ and acquired political consciousness, should become an integral part of the Polish nation. Jews might, in the future, even become part of the Catholic religious community. However, the plenipotentiaries’ demands were quite distinct and I am apt to perceive in them a germ of future concepts of Jewish national consciousness. Nothing more than a germ, but it seems that the political demands of the Jewish community, albeit moderate and concerning only (or even?) reform of their legal status, anticipated the phase of cultural revival. Krzysztof Makowski recalls Artur Eisenbach’s youthful study, in which it was ‘pointed out that [during the Warsaw Duchy], as a result of a Jewish initiative, regional and central representative organs came into being, clearly drawing on the traditions of autonomous institutions during the time of the Republic’.[xi]At that time, peasant protests frequently took the very different form of rebellion or escape from lordly authorities.

One should also consider the revival of religious disputes (and not just religious ones) among followers of Judaism in view of the fact that at that time religion was the most important and most common form of ideology. One must agree with Marcin Wodziński’s view that at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries political divisions concerning reforms affecting the position of Jews were more complicated than has hitherto been depicted in historical writing. ‘Instead of a clear, albeit artificial, division into four camps, two on each side [Polish and Jewish], we are dealing rather with a whole range of attitudes and any attempt to arrange them based on a single uniform principle seems historically innaccurate’.[xii] However, the most important point here is the fact that this complex diversification existed and widely differing views were held among the Jews. These disputes and differences led the Jewish elites to the involvement in the public life.

The next decades saw the development of divergent tendencies in Jewish intellectual and political life within the territories of the now partitioned Polish Republic. I will limit myself to some phenomena characteristic of the areas under Russian rule; however, analogous changes were also taking place in the remaining partitions and to some extent also in neighbouring countries.

First, assimilation involved relatively few people--above all those taking part in various economic enterprises and striving to achieve equal rights and secular education. An example is the Kronenberg family, beginning with Eleazar, a Jew and member of the National Freemasonry. His son Leopold studied first at the Piarist school and later in Germany; then Leopold developed the family firm and established contacts with the Christian bourgeoisie and later with the aristocracy of the Polish Kingdom. As an adult Leopold was baptized but never forgot his Jewish origins. His descendants belonged unambiguously to Polish society, often marrying members of the aristocracy. The milieu undergoing assimilation was relatively not so numerous however included a part (seemingly quite significant) of the Jewish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, particularly those who were abandoning religion. The social classes on which they modelled themselves included either the landed nobility that also participated in the development of the non-agricultural branches of the economy or (particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century) the Polish positivist intelligentsia. Assimilation weakened the nation-building process of Jewish society and caused it to lose some of those who could have been the creators or promoters of national ideology.

The movement described as the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment had much more complex consequences. Among other things, it promoted the reform of certain Jewish religious rituals and secular education for children and adolescents. The Haskalah developed under the influence of the European Enlightenment movement: ‘It provided the 17th and 18th century European thinkers with critical and secular tools used by some to formulate a doctrine of religious tolerance, paving the way for Jews to leave the ghetto. Paradoxically, other thinkers used the teachings of the Enlightenment for rationalistic secular arguments thus justifying slanders directed against Jews and Judaism and depriving them of political and civil rights.’[xiii]

The Enlightenment led to an intellectual revival among Jews, conducive to the use of Hebrew for purposes other than just religious publication. Yiddish, a Jewish language widely used by Central and Eastern European Jews, was considered the ‘corrupt German’ and described as ‘jargon’, and was to be superseded literary German. In the Polish Kingdom, the supporters of the Enlightenment, the maskilim, used Polish alongside Hebrew. Non-Jewish languages (German in Germany and Austria and Russian in Russia) were seen as a tool facilitating access to European cultural achievements (particularly science), participation in public life, and particularly the promotion of ideas of equal rights according to concepts formulated by Jews, which assumed preservation of Jewish identity, not just in the sphere of religion. The use of these languages could facilitate assimilation into society but, on the other hand, the promotion of the secular use of Hebrew was a step in the direction of reinforcing Jewish traditions based on secular culture. The maskilim, like Christian ideologists and politicians, while demanding equal rights for Jews also recognised the need to ‘civilize’ the Jewish commoners so that they would abandon their ‘jargon’, traditional dress, and sidelocks and beards, charactertistics that set them apart from society. The diffferences between Christian and Jewish reformers concerned the question whether ‘civilization’ was a necessary preliminary condition for the granting of equal rights or if, on the contrary, it would only become possible as a result of the granting of equal rights.

The Haskalah fostered the emergences of secular Jewish intellectual and political elites, but their weakness consisted of a lack of influence among Yiddish speaking commoners who were increasingly succumbing to the influence of Hasidic mysticism that rejected the reforms of Judaism and distanced itself from the Christian environment. As time passed, both the representatives of the assimilationist trend and national Jewish activists came from among maskilim and their descendants.

The poor and uneducated Jewish majority, which was mostly hasidic, was treated with disdain and sometimes with contempt by the maskilim (particularly German ones), who regarded them as the personification of prejudice and backwardness. Such views can also be found in the works of Heinrich Graetz, the outstanding Jewish historian of that era (nowadays eagerly cited by antisemitic authors out of ill-will or ignorance of the time and circumstances in which his words were written). But a historian today is bound to observe that hasidic communities and traditional Orthodox groups created social conditions even under Russian domination, that made it possible for the traditions of collective action, mutual help, and messianic hope of liberation from persecutions to survive. Significant changes favouring the spreading of contemporary national consciousness were going on in these communities throughout the nineteenth century.[xiv]

A key phenomenon for the nation-building process among Jews also occurred at this time: the social advance of mameloshn--Yiddish, the language of ordinary people. In 1864, Sholem Yaakov Abramovitsh, a graduate of Lithuanian yeshivot who for a time had been a professional beggar and then a supporter of the Haskalah and a Hebrew writer, published his first novel in Yiddish under the pseudonym Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Mendel the Bookseller). The appearance of his work marked the first breakthrough affecting the social position of Yiddish. It is quite true that his was not the first work written in the disdained ‘jargon’; the maskilim had been using it, albeit in secret. In connection with the unexpected discovery of manuscripts by the well-known maskilJosef Perl of Tarnopol (1772–1839) Chone Shmeruk has written:

Perl was not the only maskilin Eastern Europe to write in Yiddish, initially for the sake of Enlightenment and frequently for anti-Hasidic reasons, but did not publish these works for two reasons--fear of persecution by the Hasidim and embarrassment in front of his maskilim colleagues for writing in Yiddish.[xv]

Between 1862 and 1873 in Odessa, a weekly supplement in Yiddish was even published by the Hebrew newspaper Hamelits. Most likely the rise of Yiddish had something to do with the hopes raised by reform projects that were discussed and partially introduced after the Crimean War and at the beginning of the 1860s in the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland; among other things, these projects made it possible for followers of Judaism to take part in the municipal government (the legal criterion was religious, as Jewish nationality was not yet being discussed). It should be pointed out that academic interest in the everyday language of the Jews in the Polish territories only appeared while their elites were already formulating national political programmes.

Despite the efforts of the followers of the Haskalah, and against the wishes of the authorities, equal rights for Jews were granted, although not always in a consistent manner (especially in Russia), before the ‘civilizing’ or ‘citizenship-training’ process of the Jewish plebeian classes, as understood by maskilim and state authorities, had occurred.

These changes had important consequences for the emergence of national Jewish ideologies. Jewish communities (except in the areas annexed by Germany) were drawn into the orbit of political rivalries in times when the everyday language of most Jews was Yiddish. Furthermore, under the Russian rule, the most popular educational institution for Jews was the kheyder and the easiest way to continue one’s education was in the yeshiva. Secular knowledge was generally self-acquired, achieved only by the most persistent individuals. The numbers of Jews attending secular higher educational institutions rose in time, a fact that prompted Russian authorities to introduce quotas.

Initially, Jews joined public service on a local level (mostly in a municipal government), though they also began to take part in national politics. Each partition had a specific character, with Russia imposing the most extreme and longest-lasting limitations of political rights for Jews. With the slow development of the political life (including illegal aspects particularly in Russia), obtaining information, political propaganda, and dissemination of knowledge became possible for the majority of Jews only with the help of the press, brochures, and oral propaganda in the vernacular. This was true as well for small-town Jewish communities in the Austrian partition.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century introduced a new and significant element to this system of linguistic and political relations. The emergence of illegal groups striving to recruit followers among Jewish plebeian classes, the exacerbation of anti-Jewish policies in Russia, a wave of pogroms, accusations of ritual murder (not just in Russia), and finally the birth of the Zionist movement influenced the growth of political activism. It is quite true that initially modern political movements under Russian rule were established and developed in school and university environments attended mainly by assimilated individuals who did not speak Jewish languages. A typical case was the setting up of the illegal socialist Bund: its earliest documents and publications were printed in Russian. The Polish Socialist Party and other socialist parties also attempted to reach the Jewish proletariat. A resulting wave of antisemitism and pogroms caused some intellectuals of Jewish origin, who previously had accepted Russian or Polish culture and language, to become deeply disenchanted and to throw in their lot with the Zionist movement. Socialists of various shades returned to Yiddish and Jewish traditions and became national activists. This did not alter the essential Zionist stand; in the future Jewish national home, Hebrew would be the national language.

Many historians, particularly in Israel, believe that the rise of antisemitism in many European countries in the second half of the nineteenth century was the main factor behind the birth and development of the national ideology which, according to them was only (or in the first place) Zionism and consider this the uniqueness of Jewish history. One effective argument in favour of such a view is seen in the life story of Theodor Herzl, the highly regarded Viennese press correspondent, author of popular plays, and frequenter of Viennese salons who, under the influence of the Dreyfus Affair, became an ideologue and an indefatigable national political activist, calling for the return of Jews to Eretz Israel.

But the influence of discrimination or ethnic persecution on the reinforcement and development of a national ideology within an oppressed community is not an exceptional phenomenon. One only has to look at the history of the different nations under Russian rule in the nineteenth century or at the fate of minorities within the sphere of the European superpowers. As a rule, discrimination and persecution lead not only to loss of national identity for some individuals or communities but also strengthen or trigger resistance in others, thus giving birth to national ideologies that include, as often as not, radical versions. Attempts at mass extermination, as in the case of the Armenian tragedy in Turkey, also become an important element of national memory and national identity.

The second half of the 1800s also brought with it the development of modern Jewish historiography initiated by the maskilim,[xvi] which for nationalist secular groups became what the Torah and Talmud had been for the believers: a common memory, reinforcing the sense of a common fate. It is true that Heinrich Graetz’s great historical work (as well as that of many other historians) was written in German (and the author was consistently critical of Hasidism and the folk traditions of the Ostjuden), but let us not forget that František Palacký also started writing his pioneering history of the Czech nation in that language. Authors of early Jewish historiography in the Russian annexed regions include Aleksander Kraushar, a Polish scholar of Jewish origin, and other active supporters of assimilation; however, soon scholars who considered themselves as Jews in the national sense took up this research. Majer Bałaban wrote:

My road to Jewish history led through a romantic enthusiasm and youthful love which still frequently fires the sixty-year old historian. The magic of childhood reminiscences and legends heard in the Jewish school, the synagogue, and our patriarchal family aroused my historical fantasy, and this was followed by the mature inspiration and conscious duty to recreate our past.[xvii]

The essence of Bałaban’s reminiscences can be found in the following generalization by Chlebowczyk:

The study of history ceased  to be an escapade into the past, an expression of museum-like interests or a trip down memory lane that could, at most, be of some value for further development of European civilization and culture…While drawing its life energy from human secularizing ideas of the preceding Enlightenment era, it was perfectly suited to contemporary life and the direction of its development toward its final form became an element of developmental continuity of individual nationalities. For example, here one could mention František Palacky’s (1798–1876) History of the Czech Nation in the Czech Territories and in Moravia. This work, which was first written in German as Geschichte vom Böhmen [sic!], became the Bible of the Czech national community coming into being . . .[xviii]

It may well be that an even greater role in the shaping and consolidating of Jewish national consciousness was played by Yiddish literature and theatre; such works not only popularized the language but also raised its prestige in Jewish culture. Ethnographic and linguistic studies, which were initiated at the turn of the two centuries, also contributed to this trend.

By the end of the nineteenth century, East-Central European Jewish communities had already come into existence and were creating both high national culture (including scholarly studies dealing with the Jewish national past and present in a wider sense) and diverse national ideologies and political programmes. Two basic trends can be singled out: a programme for the national restructuring of the state (in Russia, through the introduction of national and cultural autonomy or a revolutionary restructuring of the whole society) and a programme to create a separate Jewish state in Palestine (this movement became dominant) or in some other region (settlement in Africa was considered).

Thus the nation-building process among Jewish communities in Central Europe included analogous elements to the transformation processes of other ‘small nations’ in East-Central Europe. In comparison with the schemes proposed by Chlebowczyk and Hroch related to ‘small nations’, a slightly different order of the stages of this nation-building process can be discerned. The beginning of the processes leading to the transformation of the community of the followers of Judaism (at the same time a separate social estate in the Republic of Both Nations) into a modern Jewish nation was linked initially with the Jewish variant of the Enlightenment. Political aspirations also appeared early on, and I am inclined to connect them with the start of analogous changes in Polish society at the end of the eighteenth century. This point of departure was represented by the actions by Jewish elites; even though they did not demand the creation of their own state, they included a reform of the political system of the state in close connection with the reforming aims of the Four-Year Sejm. The creation of a regiment under Berek Joselewicz’s command was also a significant event and, at the same time, a symbol of growing modernizing tendencies. Granted that one hundred years on he became part of the assimilation movement legend, but this does not alter the fact of the significance of his initiative at that time.[xix]

I perceive the reasons for this in the basically dissimilar structure of Jewish society in comparison to that of the ‘small’ nations described by Chlebowczyk and Hroch; the sources of this specificity are mainly found in the existence of Jewish intellectual and political elites and in the historical memory common to Jews. At that time, the other ‘small’ nations were peasant societies; their former elites (the nobility) were mainly assimilated into the majority nations. The Jewish nation originated in a non-agricultural community, highly differentiated from the surrounding society and people around them by their higher levels of education and intense intellectual life. Jews practised a religion that was not just different from the surrounding sea of Christianity but was also disdained and often condemned by Christian society; Jews were frequently accused of sinister practices.

Under such circumstances the academic phase (involving fascination with history, ethnography and folk-culture) of the nation-building process only slightly preceded the second stage of the political phase (in some respects it even turned out to be parallel with it or occurred later), including the formulation of demands for autonomy or its own national status (albeit planned outside Central Europe), because those elites had been aware of their cultural identity (based on religion) and also of the meaning of political rights and economic freedom for a long time. All of this was accompanied by rapid development of secular forms of national culture and a general interest in it, principally in the Yiddish language though soon also in Hebrew, and especially in literature, theatre, and later in cinematography.

Admittedly, assimilation was also taking place among the Jewish elites, particularly in the nineteenth century, though much less so than among other ‘small’ nations. What is more, assimilation occurred in a situation where negative religious stereotypes and prejudices nurtured by society turned out to be long-lasting and were equally directed against communities and individuals undergoing assimilation.

Another significant difference associated with this fact concerns the terminology used by Chlebowczyk and Hroch. The Czech scholar often uses the phrase small nations inappropriately; for example, it is difficult to describe Ukrainians as a small nation. On the other hand, Chlebowczyk describes them as ‘small and young nations’, approaching the Marxist term non-historical nations. The contemporary Jewish nation that was forming in the nineteenth century in Central Europe may indeed be described as ‘small’, but the adjective new (implying a community on the threshold of a nation-building process and devoid of its own ‘historical memory’) is far-fetched. I am beginning to think that the nation-building process in the Jewish community was closer to the transformation of Polish society. Clearly, we must take into account the fundamental difference that, in the Polish case, the final element of the last phase demanded restoration of Polish independence, but the crowning of the last phase of the transformation of the Jewish community included alternative programmes such as the creation of its own state outside Central Europe (through the Zionist movement) and achievement of national and cultural autonomy in its native land in Central Europe (as called for by the majority of the remaining parties).

I also perceive certain similarities with Belorussian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian nation-building processes; these deserve wider commentary. According to the views of Polish reforming circles at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century, ‘simple folk’ or peasants, as well as the burghers and Jews speaking in various tongues and dialects could expect to become part of the Polish political nation as they became more educated (in Polish) and thanks to achieving citizen rights in an analogous way to the changes happening in Western Europe. France, in particular, served as an example. Janusz Tazbir wrote:

As long as a nation was thought to consist only of its nobility, the state authorities did not seem to care what language was spoken by the ploughmen tilling the soil or the merchant behind the shop counter. But the concept of nation changed in an essential way during the period of the Enlightenment. If the burgher and peasant ‘who made up most of the population of the nation’ (as we can read in the 3 May Constitution), were to became part of it, polonization of all social groups became an objective. Franciszek Salezy Jezierski described a nation as a group of people ‘having one language, customs and traditions’. This is why all differences, both regional and ethnic, of customs or legal status were recognised as a harmful relic and even a dangerous liability.[xx]

He added:

 Within a dozen or at most several dozen years after the passing of the 3 May Constitution virtually only Poles and Catholics were to reside in this state, enjoying the same class privileges as the nobility did in days of yore. The Enlightenment was indeed an era of great hopes, not to say illusions. And even greater disappointments…[xxi]

Such disappointments emerged in the second half of the 1800s, when descendants of serfs from the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at a time when the political nation consisted of the Polish nobility, began to create their own national ideologies. It was not just the National Democrats who regarded the peasant communities of the former eastern borderland as a kind of ethnographic material destined to be Polonized or Russified. Only ‘foreign intrigue’--Austrian, German or Russian--could explain the rise of separate national ideologies, according to such a worldview. I kept coming across such opinions, sometimes slightly modified according to different international situations, for many years after the Second World War.

From the time of the Great Sejm, Polish democrats had a similar attitude toward Jews. Emancipation was supposed to turn Polish Jews into “civilized citizens” and would consequently help complete their full integration into the Polish nation at the same time that they reformed their rituals. A full assimilation of Jews was expected while, among other things, they inherited the maskilims’ critical and frequently contemptuous attitude toward Hasidim. Such views persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Eliza Orzeszkowa’s opinions were typical. In attempting to eradicate antisemitism, she wrote in 1882:

I have the courage to state that, apart from a small group of genuinely brave writers and citizens, our opinions about Jews are shallow, poorly motivated, and unenlightened and are influenced not just by emotional responses but also by preconceptions, prejudices, and superstitions drawn directly from the treasury of medieval fairy tales.[xxii]

At the same time she criticized Jews, claiming they were marked by

separatism expressed in dress, speech, religious fanaticism, and internal organization resulting in their becoming a foreign and generally harmful body within the social organism. This is not only the most serious accusation of all, but the only one that one can, without being unjust, especially charge the Jews with. Of course, this only fully applies to the uneducated Jewish masses, and the degree to which it applies decreases as one shifts one’s gaze from the most illiterate classes toward the most educated. No educated Jew differs in his garb and speech from his fellow citizens. No enlightened person of whatever tribe can be a religious fanatic, and if he remains one, this proves that his education is superficial. Among Jews, this phenomenon has many complicated reasons and is quite rare because religious fanaticism readily melts away under the rays of education. This is why the disappearance of Jewish diversity must proceed parallel with the dissemination of mental and social development.[xxiii]

 Orzeszkowa was equally critical of the peasant community, similarly deprived of access to education. According to her, it was essential to develop schools and ‘to graft strongly [all Jews] on the country’s civilization’. At the same time, she emphasized that ‘Warsaw cannot deny the existence of this group or the part it plays in science, literature, art and other branches of the country’s intellectual life.’[xxiv] Ideally, Jews should unite ‘with the whole nation in their speech, thought, and feelings’[xxv] that is followers of Judaism should become a part of the Polish nation in the same way as the Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims, the burghers and peasants.

It was not until the end of her life that Orzeszkowa became aware of the Jewish national ideology. In her unfinished essay (published posthumously in 1911) she expressed her concerns about the new phenomenon: ‘In my opinion, our main problem, so difficult to untangle, is the Jewish question and the recent nationalist trend among the Jews. Previously, the Jews were a largely diverse group in Polish society but there were no signs that this diversity was, or was to remain, permanent.’[xxvi] It did, however, imply that ‘when any group of people feels that it is or is recognised as a nationality different from others, this feeling and recognition should be respected by all other national groups’, but this was associated with anxiety that the phenomenon ‘represents a serious and dangerous threat to Polish society’.[xxvii]

She presented further arguments, denying that Jews were or could have become a separate nation, but did not exclude such a possibility. She concluded:

I understand very well that this truth cannot be immediately or simply revealed by penning a few words and that, yes, for those seeking it, time will tell. Only in time can a sufficient number of documents be collected to establish if the recently created nationalist ferment among the Jews represents a natural surge of hopes and dreams of the whole Jewish population or if it represents a synthetic product created by a certain group of individuals who inoculates the population with this volatile product, influenced by various motives, from which either bad or high-minded ones cannot be excluded.[xxviii]

Orzeszkowa was taken aback by the appearance of Zionism (she did not mention any other trends in Jewish national ideology) and expressed anxiety about the consequences of this new political phenomenon. But she continued to reject antisemitism and, furthermore, maintained that only the future would tell if the idea of a Jewish nation separate from other nations could succeed.[xxix] All the same, some of the former followers of positivism joined the antisemitic campaign of the national democracy (with passions stirred by the course of the 1912 elections to the Warsaw Duma) and others did not manage to resolve the dilemmas to which Orzeszkowa had alluded. The appearance of the Ukrainian nation in Galicia and Lodomeria could be ascribed to ‘Austrian intrigues’, and Belorussian aspirations, still modest at that time, to ‘Russian inspiration’, but the manifestation of independent Jewish national goals refused to be explained so easily. This fact encouraged the revival of the already familiar antisemitic mythology, particularly the legend of the ‘Jewish plot’, but also fostered the creation of new myths, including one about a Jewish programme for the creation of “Judeo-Polonia” in the Congress Kingdom. The most unwavering and penetrating critic of antisemitism (as well as other nationalisms) in the Congress Poland was at that time Jan Baudoin de Courtenay.[xxx]

The violence and force of the discussion on the ‘Jewish question’ during the period before the First World War presents an indirect argument in favour of the thesis that during that time one is already justified to speak about the existence of a Jewish nation and thus about a Jewish national minority in the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The fact that only some Jews supported groups promoting national ideologies while the rest (probably the vast majority) remained outside the range of their influence does not contradict this, as to a lesser or greater extent the phenomenon was true for other nations (ethnic groups gradually entering the acceptance phase of national consciousness) living in the same territories. These changes were proceeding at various speeds among different social classes, slowest of all in peasant communities under Russian rule and most rapidly in urban communities (particularly in large towns) under Habsburg rule and in Germany.

Polish intellectual groups, particularly politicians, found it difficult to accept that, as a result, a process of diversification of the national consciousness was taking place in the former territory of the Republic among plebeian classes who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, received essentially equal political rights and access to education and thus found themselves included in the sphere of influence of various national and social ideologies. A result was the creation of new stereotypes and increasing conflicts.

This article has presented just an outline of the issues and attempts to point out a direction for further study of the nation-building process of Jewish communities in Central Europe. This analysis also justifies the opinion that Chlebowczyk’s concepts and Hroch’s suggestions may amount to a rational point of departure for such research. However, I have passed over many details related to regional distinctiveness, largely based on political diversification of the countries that Ashkenazi Jews inhabited, the numbers and locations of their settlements, economic structures, and other factors. An analysis of the consequences of anti-Jewish disturbances (particularly significant in Russia), organized propaganda and boycotting actions, and the influence of international factors including diplomatic pressure brought to bear by world powers that, for various reasons, intervened in the name of protection of victims of discrimination and persecutions could also be informative.




[i]Materjały w sprawie żydowskiej w Polsce. Ed. I[cchak] Grünbaum. Notebook. I, Warszawa 1919, Biuro Prasowe Organizacji Syjonistycznej w Polsce, 91.

[ii] Polish Matters at the Paris Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. Materials and Documents. VIII, Warszawa 1968, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 324–325.

[iii]Józef Chlebowczyk, Procesy narodotwórcze we wschodniej Europie Środkowej w dobie kapitalizmu (od schyłku XVIII do początków XX w., Warszawa 1975, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe and amended second edition: O prawie do bytu małych i młodych narodów. Kwestia narodowa i procesy narodotwórcze we wschodniej Europie środkowej w dobie kapitalizmu (od schyłku XVIII do początków XX w.), Warszawa–Kraków 1983, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe. It should be noted that the title of the second edition contains a polemic with Karl Marx’s pessimistic view, formulated in the middle of the nineteenth century, of the future of ‘small and young nations’.

[iv]Chlebowczyk, O prawie do bytu,  39.

[v]Ibid., 43.

[vi]Ibid., 54.

[vii]Miroslav Hroch, Małe narody Europy, Wrocław 2003, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Editors,  119. For more on this author’s ideas, see Jarosław Kiljas, Miroslava Hrocha dociekania i dyskusje dotyczące genezy nowoczesnych narodów. „Przegląd Historyczny” 2001 nr 1, 109–121.

[viii]Hroch, Małe narody,  9.

[ix]Jarosław Kilias, Wspólnota abstrakcyjna. Zarys socjologii narodu, Warszawa 2004, IFiS PAN, 142.

[x]Jakub Goldberg, Pierwszy ruch polityczny wśród Żydów polskich. Plenipotenci żydowscy w dobie Sejmu Czteroletniego [in:] Lud żydowski w narodzie polskim. Materiały sesji naukowej w Warszawie 15–16 wrzesień 1992. Ed. Jerzego Michalskiego. Warszawa 1994, Instytut Historii Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 45.

[xi]Krzysztof A. Makowski, Siła mitu. Żydzi w Poznańskiem w dobie zaborów w piśmiennictwie historycznym, Poznań 2004, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 175.

[xii]Marcin Wodziński, „Cywilni chrześcijanie: Spory o reformę Żydów w Polsce, 1789-1830 [in:] Kwestia żydowska w XIX wieku. Spory o tożsamość Polaków, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Cyklady, 2004, 11.

[xiii]Shmuel Feiner, Haskala and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Consciousness (Oxford and Portland, Ore., 2004), The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, p. V.

[xiv]Comp. Heiko Haumann, Auf dem Weg zu neuen Selbstverständnissen: Ostjuden im 19. Jahrhundert [in:] Luftmenschen und rebellische Töchter. Zum Wandel ostjüdischer Lebenswerten im 19. Jahrhundert, Weimar Wien, 2003, Böhlau Verlag, 309–337.

[xv]Chone Shmeruk, Historia literatury jidysz. Zarys. Wrocław i inne 1992, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo, 62, 64.

[xvi] ‘...18th-century Enlightenment thinkers and historians became involved in a battle with “Christian history”, proposing new grounds for researching the past or writing about it’, Feiner, Haskalah and History, 17.

[xvii]Księga jubileuszowa dla uczczenia sześćdziesięciolecia profesora Majera Bałabana, Warszawa 1938, according to: Natalia Aleksiun, Żydowska szkoła krakowska? Historycy żydowscy wobec dylematu tożsamości,[in:] Kwestia żydowska w XIX wieku, 169.

[xviii]Chlebowczyk, O prawie do bytu, 43.

[xix] As analogy, one should remember that during the following centuries Tadeusz Kościuszko became a symbol of very different political trends. Followers of radical nationalism used to invoke him, but during the Second World War he also became patron of a division set up in the USSR and after 1989, some ‘patriotic’ Polish town councillors, ignorant of their own history, thought it right to suggest renaming a street bearing his name.

[xx]Janusz Tazbir, Silva rerum historicarum. Iskry, Warszawa 2002, 141.

[xxi]Ibid., 145.

[xxii]Eliza Orzeszkowa, O Żydach i kwestyi żydowskiej, [w:] Pisma. Wydanie zbiorowe zupełne ze wstępem Aurelego Dobroszewskiego. Tom IX, Warszawa etc 1913, Gebethner’s and Wolff’s edition, 6. I have modified the orthography of the original.

[xxiii]Ibid., 19-20.

[xxiv]Ibid., 28.

[xxv]Ibid., 35.

[xxvi]Eliza Orzeszkowa, O nacyonalizmie żydowskim [in:] Pisma. Wydanie zbiorowe V. IX, 217–218.

[xxvii]Ibid., 222, 223.

[xxviii] Ibid., 232.

[xxix] An analogy with the contemporary argument about a Silesian nation comes to mind, and it would be useful for those most ardently opposed to acceptance of this trend as a social fact to reach for the journalistic writing of this excellent author.

[xxx]See also Jerzy Jedlicki, Intelektualiści oporni wobec fali antysemityzmu (Królestwo Polskie w latach 1912-1914), ‘Czasy Nowożytne’, XV/2003, 177–193.