Jewish Poland

The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was the centre of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. This ended with the Partitions of Poland which began in 1772, in particular, with the discrimination and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. During World War II there was a nearly complete genocidal destruction of the Polish Jewish community by Nazi Germany, during the 1939–1945 German occupation of Poland and the ensuing Holocaust. Since the fall of Communism there has been a Jewish revival in Poland, characterized by the annual Jewish Culture Festival, new study programmes at Polish high schools and universities, the work of synagogues such as the Nozyk, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. Known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise for the Jews”), it became a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world’s largest Jewish community of the time. According to some sources, about three-quarters of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century. With the weakening of the Commonwealth and growing religious strife (due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century onward. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire, as well as Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia (later a part of the German Empire). Still, as Poland regained independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was the center of the European Jewish world with one of world’s largest Jewish communities of over 3 million. Antisemitism, however, from both the political establishment and from the general population, common throughout Europe, was a growing problem.

At the start of World War II, Poland was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The war resulted in the death of one-fifth of the Polish population, with 90% or about 3 million of Polish Jewry killed along with approximately 3 million Polish non-Jews. Examples of Polish gentile attitudes to German atrocities varied widely, from actively risking death in order to save Jewish lives, and passive refusal to inform on them; to indifference, blackmail, and in extreme cases, participation in pogroms such as the Jedwabne pogrom. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

In the postwar period, many of the approximately 200,000 Jewish survivors registered at Central Committee of Polish Jews or CKŻP (of whom 136,000 arrived from the Soviet Union) left the Communist People’s Republic of Poland for the nascent State of Israel and North or South America. Their departure was hastened by the destruction of Jewish institutions, post-war violence and the hostility of the Communist Party to both religion and private enterprise, but also because in 1946–1947 Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to allow free Jewish aliyah to Israel without visas or exit permits. Britain demanded Poland to halt the exodus, but their pressure was largely unsuccessful. Most of the remaining Jews left Poland in late 1968 as the result of the Soviet-sponsored “anti-Zionist” campaign. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews became normalized and those who were Polish citizens before World War II were allowed to renew Polish citizenship. Religious institutions were revived, largely through the activities of Jewish foundations from the United States. The contemporary Polish Jewish community is estimated to have approximately 20,000 members, though the actual number of Jews, including those who are not actively connected to Judaism or Jewish culture, may be several times larger.

Oskar Schindler

“I just couldn’t stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do…”

~ Oskar Schindler, Righteous Among the Nations.

Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories near Krakow. These Jews were registered on what came to be known as “Schindler’s List”.

Thousands of descendants of “Schindler’s Jews” are alive today thanks to his brave actions.

Oskar Schindler died on the 9th of October 1974 in Germany, and is buried in Jerusalem. Before his death, a tree was planted in his and Emilie’s honor in Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous. He is pictured standing next to his tree on Yad Vashem’s campus.

Oskar and Emilie Schindler are among the 27,000+ heroic non-Jews recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: Yad Vashem

Nazi Camp Hierarchy

SS

Theodor Eicke, an SS Lieutenant General, had established a structure for how to run a camp from his experience of running Dachau. The systems and buildings Eicke had developed at Dachau soon became the basic model by which all concentration camps would be established and managed.

The camps were split into five sections:

  1. Commandants office This office oversaw the whole camp.
  2. Political department This department was responsible for registration of prisoners, interrogations, the camp prison and crematoria.
  3. Protective custody camp This section oversaw the prisoners complex. It was ruled by the infamous SS Death’s Head Units.
  4. Administrative department This department was responsible for all administration for the camp, such as the maintenance of the camps own equipment and facilities.
  5. Medical department This department was run by the camp physician, and provided medical care for the SS and prisoners – though the quality of this care varied greatly between the two.

In the protective custody camp, prisoners were also used as staff in the form of Kapos.

Kapos

Kapos were inmates of Nazi camps who were appointed as guards to oversee other prisoners in various tasks.

There were three main types of Kapos: work supervisors, block elders, and camp administrators.

  1. Work supervisors oversaw prisoners at work, and were responsible for ensuring efficiency, making sure that no one escaped, and reporting delays.
  2. Block elders supervised the barracks. Typically, there was one block elder per block, and they ensured all prisoners kept the barracks clean, made their beds, and got to roll call on time. They were also responsible for counting the prisoners (accounting for any that had died or were ill), and handing out food.
  3. Camp administrators undertook various other jobs, such as supervising work in the kitchen, in the storeroom, or working as secretaries/interpreters.

Kapos had more authority than regular prisoners and were typically given preferential treatment, such as extra rations, not having to complete hard physical labour or more hygienic and larger sleeping spaces.

Whilst there were incentives to becoming a Kapo, there were also disadvantages. Kapos were under the direct authority of the SS, and had to report to them daily. Any failures meant they could quickly be removed from their post. In addition to this, their authority, especially in regards to punishing or informing on other fellow prisoners meant that they were often unpopular and disliked.

Auschwitz Sonderkommando Revolt

7 October 1944 | Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the Sonderkommando at the German Nazi Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp organized a revolt – the biggest and most spectacular mutiny and escape attempt in the history of Auschwitz.

Prisoners set crematorium IV on fire, causing serious damage, and attacked the SS men in the vicinity. A group of prisoners from crematorium II (approximately 80) cut through the barbed wire fences enclosing of the crematorium as well as the adjacent women’s camp and fled in a southerly direction. SS units gave chase and caught up with them some 1.5 km from the crematorium.

Around 250 Jewish prisoners were killed during the revolt, including resistance leaders and organizers of the revolt, including Załmen Gradowski and Józef Deresiński. The SS lost three men killed and more than ten wounded.

Later, as the result of repressions, another 200 Sonderkommando prisoners were killed. The female prisoners who were employed in the Union factory and who had supplied the explosives, were publicly hanged in early January 1945.

Warsaw Ghetto

On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. By September 8th they had reached the suburbs of Warsaw and began a siege. That siege continued until September 28th, 1939 when the Warsaw surrendered. The Nazis entered Warsaw on October 1st

After approximately a year of German occupation, during which time the Jews of Warsaw suffered through a reign of terror, arrests, Nazi-sanctioned beatings at the hands of Polish street gangs, kidnappings forced labor, theft and confiscation of property, and a long list of anti-Jewish decrees and laws, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off in November 1940.

In April 1940, the Judenrat was ordered to construct walls to prevent the movement of Jews into “Aryan” neighborhoods. After a few SS attempts to establish a Ghetto in the city, a decision was reached in the fall of that year, to confine the Jews in a Ghetto. On Yom Kippur, October 12th, 1940, the decision to establish a Ghetto was announced. According to German data, 113,000 Poles were removed from the area marked for the Ghetto, and 138,000 Jews, from all over the city, were transferred to the site.

On November 16th, the Ghetto in the Jewish neighborhood in the northern part of the city was sealed off. Thirty percent of the population of the city was squeezed into an area the size of 2.4% of the total city land mass. German statistics report six to seven people per room. In an area comprising 73 city streets, 450,000 people lived during the period of greatest population concentration in the Ghetto. Some of the residents had been transported from other parts of Poland, and later, people arrived from the Reich territories. With the move to the Ghetto, many lost their livelihoods. Survival depended on finding some way to make a living inside the Ghetto. About 9,000 Jews who worked in the “platzovki” [placowki – crews accompanied by guards] went out to the “Aryan” side to work.

In 1941, living conditions in the Ghetto became even more unbearable. Official German food allocations were set at 184 calories a day per person and the Judenrat, (the Jewish Council), under Adam Czerniakow, failed to meet both the needs of the Jews and the demands of the Germans. An intricate system of smuggling arose in the Ghetto. Organized Jewish underworld criminal gangs, working hand in hand with Poles, smuggled food and raw materials for underground industries into the Ghetto and also smuggled finished goods out to the “Aryan” side. At the same time, independent smugglers, mainly women and children, managed to bring in food for their starving families. The Germans used all the means at their disposal to combat the smuggling activity especially because smuggling entailed leaving the Ghetto and necessitated contact between Jews and Poles, who, despite their “racial inferiority” (in the opinion of the Germans), still belonged to the “Aryan” race. Starting in November 1941, Jews caught outside of the Ghetto were executed. As part of the campaign against smuggling, the Germans decreed that buildings found to be used by smugglers would no longer be part of the Ghetto. Fences, later replaced by walls, were erected even in the middle of streets.

In the winter of 1941, the situation became even more desperate as typhus epidemics caused many deaths. Until the summer of 1942, there was no systematic German policy regarding the murder of Jews. In essence, the German program was an assault on human dignity, aimed at humiliating and debasing the Jews. In light of this, the help people gave each other, and the struggle to maintain humane relationships in the Ghetto was remarkable. Public figures and Jewish businessmen representing the entire range of political affiliations joined together to form the Jewish Mutual Aid Society and in addition to welfare projects, they founded soup kitchens, developed a network of Building Committees, organized cultural affairs, and strove desperately to alleviate the hunger of thousands of starving children in the Ghetto. These activities and the determination of many to lead Jewish lives reflect the struggle to preserve basic human values, while fighting for survival.

On July 22, 1942, the Great Deportation began in the Ghetto. [Aktzia Action; the term used for the deportation to the death camps]. In the four escalating stages of the deportation approximately 265,000 Jews were sent to the death camp at Treblinka. About 50,000 received “life numbers” – official permission to live and work in order to support the German military effort. Another 10,000 “wild” Jews (without this German permit) managed to survive the Great Deportation. These survivors were concentrated in an area known as the Main Ghetto, around the German factories in which they worked.

On January 18,1943, the Germans initiated the second stage of the deportation, designed to dilute the Jewish population in the remaining Ghetto area. This provoked the first Jewish armed insurgence against the Nazis, carried out by members of the Jewish Fighting Organization. On April 19th 1943, Passover Seder night, the final deportation began and served as the spark that ignited the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the Ghetto’s last months, 20,000 Jews found shelter on the Polish side of the city. Many were assisted by members of the Polish Underground movement, who formed the Council to Aid the Jews, known under its code name Zegota, The few thousand Jews who did not perish in the flames that devoured the Ghetto, or were not murdered during the German attempts to crush the Uprising, were sent to the Majdanek concentration camp, or to various other work camps.

As a symbol of the suppression of the Uprising and the German victory over the insurgent Jews, the SS General Jurgen Stroop ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka St. on May 16th 1943, and in his report he wrote, “the Warsaw Ghetto is no more”.

Bet (ב)

The numerical value of bet is two, representing duality. Since it is the beginning of the word berachah (“blessing”) through which every food and drink is reconnected to its heavenly root, bet is also a link between the material world and the spiritual world of unity, reinforcing the truth that God is One.

Blessings open up our awareness of the bounty we receive and thereby open us up for receiving even more. As we stated earlier, the word ברכה – berachah (“blessing”) also means ברכה – bereichah (“large receptacle”). The more we bless God for the good we have received, the larger is the space we make that only He can fill.

Although we experience duality in this world—light and darkness, Yin and Yang, feminine and masculine, etc.—our spiritual work is to reach beyond the duality and reveal the source of Oneness hiding behind all duality. For example, our ultimate capacity for balancing Yin and Yang requires us to tap into pure essence, the deepest place in our souls that is beyond all time, space, and categories. As we shift our identity to pure essence, we may heal from all imbalances and fragmentation.

While Abraham is associated with the energy of alef, which unifies plurality, Isaac, in contrast, evokes the theme of bet, the perception of the deceptive plurality of creation and the need to overcome this deception. Although God’s creation is made of infinite variety and diversity, everything is endowed with His Spirit. Every event and situation is a manifestation of His will, even those which are most enigmatic.

Sources: Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet

Alef (א)

The letter alef, besides being the first letter of the alphabet, also represents the number one, echad (אחד) in Hebrew. The numerical value of echad is thirteen, which is the numerical value of ahavah (אהבה), “love.” The letter alef represents both the oneness of God and His love for His creatures (the attribute of chesed, “goodness”).

Alef represents absolute unity within the plurality of Creation and is therefore the major symbol of Divinity. Many of the names of God begin with this letter: א-ל – El, אלוקים – Elokim, and אדנ-י – Ad-nai. In addition, there are many epithets used to describe God, such as אדיר – Adir (“glorious”) and אדון – Adon (“master”). The Zohar relates that before Creation, each letter of the alphabet came before God, requesting to be chosen to begin the process of creation. The letters presented themselves in reverse order: first was ת – tav, the last letter of the alphabet; next was ש – shin, the second-to-last letter of the alphabet; then ר – resh, and so on, up to ב – bet, second letter of the alphabet, which begins the word ברכה – berachah, “blessing”. Bet pleaded, “Let the world be created with me, so that all beings shall use me to bless God”. And God assented.

Then God asked the א – alef, the first letter of the alphabet, who had not yet uttered a word, why it was silent. The alef replied that in a world of plurality there was no place for her, since the numerical value of alef is one. God reassured alef, saying that even if the world would be created with Bet, alef would still be the queen of the alphabet. He said, “Have no fear, alef, you are one, and I am One. I want to create the world to have my spirit of oneness dwell there through the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot (the commandments). The first of the Ten Commandments will begin with alef, the first letter in the word אנכי – Anochi (“I”)—“I am the Lord your God.”

The perception of God’s oneness that alef represents is further suggested by the Hebrew word פלא (“wonder”), a permutation of the word alef: Discovering God as He is disguised in each detail of creation generates feelings of wonder and awe.

Sources: The Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet

Jewish Warsaw Before World War II

The Jewish community in Warsaw has a rich history. It is undoubtedly the story of one of the largest, most interesting and varied communities in the history of the Jewish people.

There has been a Jewish presence in Warsaw since the time it became the capitol of the small province in the Mazovia Principality. There was a Jewish settlement on the northwest outskirts of the Old Town, between Dunai and Piekarska Streets. There was a synagogue there and a cemetery further away, near the site of the Bristol Hotel today. The Jews were exiled from Warsaw towards the end of the 14th century by one of the Mazovian princes and the edict prohibiting Jews from residing in Warsaw remained in effect until the 19th century. In spite of that, as Warsaw became an important political-cultural center, more Jews were allowed to settle on its periphery, since the nobility recognized that the Jews represented a significant commercial force. The nobles exploited their right to rule over autonomous territories, and brought Jews to live under their protection. Legally, this system was called Juridica. Thus, the Potocki family, in the 18th century, created the neighborhood Nowy Potok, today the area of the Hotel Sobieski. The Sulkowski family established New Jerusalem – the street leading to the area is still called Aleje Jerozolimskie [Jerusalem Blvd].

In the beginning of the 19th century, the Leczczynski family founded a neighborhood, and hence the name of Leszno Street. A Venetian architect designed the Muranow neighborhood, and named it after the city of his birth, Merrano. Jews in increasingly large numbers also settled in the Praga district. One of the neighborhoods still carries the name Szmulowizna, in honor of the Jewish merchant Shmuel Zbytkower, who also received permission to build Jewish cemeteries, first in the Praga district, and later, on the western bank of the Vistula.
With the Prussian regime came the partition of Poland. During the period of the Napoleonic principality of Warsaw, and later Congress Poland, (named for the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which transferred control of Warsaw and the surrounding area from Prussia to Russia, and hence the name of all the territory annexed by Czarist Russia), more and more Jews settled in Warsaw. After the removal of all special tax restrictions on the rights of Jews in the city in 1862, Jews settled in all sections of Warsaw. Most of them, for economic, cultural and religious reasons, continued to reside in those areas where Jews were the majority.

The Jewish population of Warsaw grew significantly – from about 10,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to approximately 350,000 by the end of World War 1. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe at that time. Like all of European Jewry in the 19th century, the Jews of Warsaw vacillated between assimilation and attempts to preserve a distinctive Jewish character in their lives. The relationship between the Poles and the Jews changed frequently: there were periods of cooperation, active inclusion of Jews in Polish struggles for independence, and the protection and advancement of Jewish culture, followed by periods of crises, often with the “help” of the Russian powers, who practiced a policy of “divide and conquer”.

During the 19th century, two distinct approaches to the relationship with the Jews developed among the Poles. One approach – the romantic, liberal, democratic and later socialistic one – called for the inclusion of the Jews and other minorities in Polish civic life. Others took a different approach – the nationalistic, religious one. This group viewed the Jews and the German minority as eternal enemies and developed a politically motivated anti-Semitism, especially towards the end of the century. This modern antisemitism served to compound ancient antisemitism already prevalent in Polish society, especially in religious circles and among those who controlled financial competition. The PPS, The Polish Socialist Party, headed by Jozef Pilsudski, was founded in the 1890’s. In opposition to the Socialists, the ND, the National Democratic Party, called the Endeks, headed by Roman Dmowski, was established. A third political force was the Farmers’ Party, led by Wincenty Witos, which served as a balance.

Jewish figures like Berek Joselewicz [Yoselevich], Rabbi Meisels, Michael Landy and Henryk Wohl – are remembered for taking active roles in the history of the shared homeland. On the other hand, antisemitism, economic struggles and even riots -usually instigated by the Cossacks – were also prevalent. During the 19th century, the growing and developing Warsaw became a magnet for Jews, who streamed into the city for economic reasons, but also in order to obtain an education and participate in the building of a modern city.

Several Jewish families became influential in the financial, cultural and municipal life of the city. Scions of many families (Kronenberg, Nathanson, Berenson, Wawelberg, Bloch, Toeplitz and others) converted under pressure and are buried in cemeteries belonging to the different faiths. These families were major contributors to the development of education and trade in Warsaw. Yet thousands of Jews continued to live in poverty, with no electricity or running water.
Leopold Kronenberg (1812-1878). Banker, Industrialist and major philanthropist. He built the railway lines connecting Warsaw to St. Petersburg, Minsk, and Brest, and other places. He and his family assimilated and converted.

Warsaw became the center of Jewish activity. The Gur Rabbi temporarily established his court there while some progressive rabbis such as Kramsztyk and Jastrow preached a different approach. Zionism was an important force. At the same time a rabbinical school was established – a school which preached involvement in the life of the city, but produced not a single rabbi. Jewish schools were established and contributed to Jewish creativity in the Polish language. A Hebrew and Yiddish cultural center was also established.

While Polish society with its many different political parties became more united, all the conflicting Jewish ideologies flourished. At the same time, new ideas were burgeoning in the Jewish world. In independent Poland, Jews had been equal citizens by law since 1918 yet many began to feel more and more like strangers. In the streets of Warsaw, every fourth person was a Jew. Among them you could find rabbis from Agudat Israel, Zionists, leaders of the Bund and classic Polish intellectuals of Jewish background. Youth movements were active in the city, representing the entire range of political parties, educational trends, and community institutions. And all of these were constantly meeting and debating issues, fighting and arguing in a never-ending stream of Jewish creativity. Ten daily newspapers and several monthlies were published. Jews boxed, rode bikes and participated in many organized sports. Meir Balaban, Moshe Shorr, Yitzhak Shiper and the young Emanuel Ringelblum laid down the foundation of Jewish historiography and Shimon Ashkenazi and Marceli Handelsman joined forces with them. Jewish culture thrived – theatre, cabaret satirical performances, movies and literature. The most outstanding 20th century Polish authors and poets met in Cafe Ziminski – the Jewish writers, Julian Tuwim, Slonimski, Lesmian and Schulz. The Singer brothers, Sholem Asch, I.L. Peretz and others, sat somewhere in Krochmalna Street or in the Yiddish Authors House on Tlomacka Street.

Antisemitism: The Definitions

“An antisemite is one who hates Jews more than absolutely necessary”.

In many cultures antisemitism is a given. This is exemplified by the above statement, believed to have originated in Hungary.

The fact of antisemitism may be a constant. Its form, however, morphs and adapts from age to age and culture to culture.

By most accounts, the term anti-Semitism was first coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879 as a functional equivalent to Judenhass – Jew hatred. While the term is modern, the hatred itself dates back more than 3000 years.

The spelling antisemitism is to be preferred to anti-Semitism for at least two reasons:

1. there is no such thing as Semitism, except in linguistics.

2. to dull the impact of those who engage in the etymological fallacy by insisting that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because they too are Semites

Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group is the definition provided by Merriam-Webster.

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition begins as follows:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The non-binding definition is significantly strengthened by an accompanying set of examples considered to form part of the definition.

Antisemitism has proven to be remarkable in its persistence, pervasion, and versatility. It will reinvent itself as the need arises.

Sources: International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Zyklon B

2 October 1942 | The Auschwitz camp administration issued an order of departure for a 5-tons truck with a trailer to Dessau for “materials for Jewish resettlement”. In Dessau there was a factory that produced Zyklon B, a pesticide used to kill people in gas chambers.

The decision to use Zyklon B to murder people in Auschwitz was first linked with the deportations of Soviet POWs to the camp. This method of killing was later used in the program of extermination of Jews.