Polish Jewry’s Not-So-Golden Age https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/history-ideas/2023/07/polish-jewrys-not-so-golden-age/

July 28, 2023 | David Engel
About the author:

Between the world wars, the Jews of newly independent Poland had renowned yeshivas, a vibrant civil society, numerous newspapers in multiple languages, networks of secular and religious schools of every stripe, a robust and diverse array of political movements and parties, and one of the greatest collections of writers, scholars (rabbinic and academic), artists, and intellectuals the Jewish world had ever seen. It is easy, then, to see this era as a golden age. Yet, Kenneth Moss argues in his book An Unchosen People, most Polish Jewish thinkers of the 1920s and 30s saw their circumstances very differently. David Engel writes in his review:

Polish Jews saw themselves as overwhelmingly poor, fundamentally unsafe, and deeply uncertain about their future. Their lives were shaped by political currents that were “pervasive, profound, and above all indifferent to what Jews wanted or hoped for.” Moss focuses on “a growing multitude of [Jewish] skeptics” who, beginning in the late 1920s, cast doubt on the ability of any Jewish political party, ideological movement, cultural organization, or communal agency to generate effective “practical responses . . . to danger and bad fate.”

Avrom Golomb, a widely read Yiddishist educator from Wilno, not only noticed but affirmed such assessments: Polish Jews, he observed, were confronting “a stable, permanent, and chronic uprooting-politics.” Although Golomb remained a committed diaspora nationalist, he spent most of the 1930s in Palestine. This is an example of what Moss calls “vernacular Zionism”—one that looked to that country not so much as a place for living an ideologically correct Jewish life but simply as a safer alternative to an increasingly grim Polish reality.

Poland defined itself from the start as the nation-state of the ethnic Polish community, to which Jews by definition did not belong. Its proclamation of independence in 1918 was accompanied by murderous anti-Jewish violence. When Poland’s first president was elected in 1922, with Jewish support, he was tagged “president for the Jews” and promptly assassinated. The following month the prime minister declared that all political decisions would be made by the “Aryan Christian majority.” The Polish political arena was split largely between parties prepared to bear the presence of Jews as long as they remained in their proper place (as second-class citizens who owed the Polish nation gratitude for its historic tolerance and whose needs and interests must always be subordinate to those of ethnic Poles) and parties who saw no legitimate place for Jews in Poland at all.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/holocaust/14390/at-the-edge-of-what/