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A history of Jewish community life before and after the Holocaust

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An old Jewish street of Warsaw depicted in the Polin Museum. (Photo: Justyna Michniuk)

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Polish Jewish community before 1945

The first, small, Jewish communities existed in Poland in the 13th century, later they grew to accommodate expelled Jews from all over Europe.

Jews came to Poland because of the relatively best (compared to the constant pogroms in Western Europe) conditions for safe life and the development of their own culture, and the autonomy of religious communities guaranteed by royal privileges. Independent Poland was inhabited by a large Jewish community – in 1921 it was 2,845,400 people professing Judaism, which constituted 10.5% of the country’s population.

In 1931, according to the census data, the population of the Second Polish Republic was 3,113,900 Jews (statistics were based on a declaration of religion), which constituted 9.8% of the total. Almost 1/4 of Jews lived in five cities: Warsaw (352.6 thousand; more Jews lived only in New York), Łódź (202 thousand), Vilnius, Krakow, and Lviv. 

Yiddish – the everyday language of the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe

Yiddish is a nearly thousand year old language that was spoken and written by Ashkenazi Jews in large parts of Europe and is spoken and written by some of their descendants to this day. Structure of Yiddish is the result of a linguistic fusion, in other words, a combination of several sources. This is in no way exceptional, as many languages integrate components of others.

The Yiddish language spread in the Middle Ages, first in the course of the eastern settlement, and later also as a result of the persecution-induced migration of Jews from the German-speaking area in Europe, especially to Eastern Europe, where East Yiddish finally emerged.

Yiddish, as early as in the 17th century, developed a unique set of dialects which are quite different from those of German and can be roughly classified as follows: Western Yiddish (bounded in the east approximately by the German-Polish frontier of 1939), Central Yiddish, also called Polish Yiddish (extending from the German-Polish frontier of 1939 approximately to the Vistula and San Rivers), Eastern Yiddish (eastward from the Vistula), consisting of the northeastern dialect, also called Lithuanian Yiddish, and the southeastern dialect, also called Ukrainian Yiddish. 

While West Yiddish began to die out as early as the 18th century, East Yiddish remained the everyday language of the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe until the Jewish centers of continental Europe were destroyed in the Holocaust. Some linguists and language enthusiasts fear that Yiddish could in fact be a dying language, with only around half a million native speakers estimated. Before World War II, there were an estimated 13 million, and 85% of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust spoke Yiddish as a native tongue.

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The Jewish life in Poland after 1945

By July 1946, over 130,000 Jews returned to Poland. Many Jews repatriated, and their total number in 1949 was, according to some estimates, 230,000 people.

In 1949, the Soviet authorities closed the borders to repatriates (they re-opened them only in 1955). The choice of the place to which the Jews were to be directed was determined by the housing conditions, employment opportunities, the existence of Jewish institutions and the state of security. The authorities chose Lower Silesia, where 75,000 people settled in 1946. An attempt to rebuild Jewish life in post-war Poland Jews who survived the Holocaust returned to where they lived before the war.

However, their houses were demolished, occupied by Poles or state institutions. Their workshops, shops and businesses were either destroyed during the war, or were seized by Poles, or were liquidated and taken over by the treasury of the new state. In Polish cities and towns, there were people who looked at their returning Jewish neighbors with reluctance, most often with surprise that they were alive, and at the same time with the fear that they would want their property returned. There were also acts of hostility towards the returnees.

The Jews, who came back, were intrigued by the following questions: believe in the new system and stay, or leave the place where the Holocaust took place forever? As a result of successive waves of emigration, the Jewish community decreased until it seemed that there was no chance of its revival.

A marker describes the synagogue on Dabrowskiego Street in Gubin. (Photo: Justyna Michniuk)

One of the most important problems of the Jewish community in post-war Poland was its security

The attitude of hostility towards Jews was strengthened, among other things, by the general military demoralization of society, the feeling of impunity and the lack of acceptance of the new government, as well as the tense atmosphere of the “civil war”, i.e. the struggles of the independence underground with the new communist power.

The anti-Jewish atmosphere favored the outbreak of the anti-Jewish pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946. The inhabitants of the city, supported by the army and the Militia, murdered 42 Jews who were in the building of the Kielce Jewish Committee at Planty Street 7. The nearby army and Militia officers remained completely indifferent, and a group of about 600 workers from the Ludwików steelworks in Kielce joined the murderers.

The pogrom and the plundering of the victims’ houses lasted until 5.00 p.m. The city was pacified by troops brought from Warsaw; an investigative commission with the Minister of Security Radkiewicz arrived at the scene. Several dozen people were arrested, including the head of the Provincial Office of Public Security. On July 9, trials began before the Supreme Military Court, which sentenced nine defendants to death; the sentence was carried out on July 12.

Similar incidents, albeit on a smaller scale, took place in other cities, incl. Kraków, Rzeszów, Parczew, Radom, Miechów, Chrzanów and Rabka.

The caused panic among the Jews; very many decided to leave the country at that time. Jewish institutions organizing emigration only in July and August 1946 recorded a record number of people who decided to leave Poland – over 42,000. people. Out of over 200,000 after the war, only about a third remained after the war in the Polish state after a year and a half, mainly in Lower Silesia, Szczecin and the largest cities in the interior of the country: Łódź, Kraków, and later in Warsaw.

A few decades later, after 1989 the Jewish life in Poland could reborn and be settled through Jewish cultural and political institutions. But the sad history of persecution and violence against Jews in post-war Poland cannot be forgotten.

(The current state of the Jewish community in Poland will be discussed in Part 2 next week in TheJ.ca.)

1 Wirtualny Sztetl, Dylewski A., “Najbardziej żydowskie” miejsca w Polsce (English: “The most Jewish” places in Poland), https://sztetl.org.pl/pl/najbardziej-zydowskie-miejsca-w-polsce

2 YIVO INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH RESEARCH, Basic Facts about Yiddish, https://www.yivo.org/cimages/basic_facts_about_yiddish_2014.pdf?c

3 Deutsche Welle online, Yiddish: Celebration of life, language of remembrance,  

https://www.dw.com/en/yiddish-celebration-of-life-language-of-remembrance/a-53487024

Justyna Michniuk is an experienced journalist, originally from Poland. She was previously published in the Polish Jewish magazine MIDRASZ, and is now writing for the German/Israeli Website hagalil.com and for anyone asking for ‘Jewish topics’.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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