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ANTISEMITISM IN INTERWAR POLAND 1919-1939

Few countries suffered more at the hands of Nazism than Poland.  However, legacy of the war has helped many forget that Poland shared one very ugly similarity to Nazi Germany, official antisemitism.  It must be made very clear that such policies in no way can be compared to the terrible crimes committed against the Jews by Hitler.  Yet, it cannot be forgotten that interwar Poland had a very sorry record in terms of its treatment of its own Jewish minority.

What follows below is a brief introduction to the subject of officially sanctioned antisemitism in Poland.

Poland between the world wars was a state that the victorious Allied Powers had created in 1919 from parts of the defunct German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires.  The new Polish Republic included within its borders a number of ethnic minority groups, among which were Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, and roughly three million Jews.  Polish authorities agreed to protect the civil rights of these non-Polish minorities by signing the so-called "Little Treaty of Versailles" (also known as the Minorities Treaty) on June 28, 1919.  The historical record shows, however, that the "protection" offered by Polish authorities was very uneven, particularly after the death of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the first Polish president, in 1935.

After 1935, Polish antisemitic political parties put increasing pressure on the government to pass legislation that would place restrictions on the social mobility of Polish Jews.  These parties had been inspired by the example that the Nazis set in Germany with the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws.

THE KOSHER SLAUGHTERING BILL

The first example of this legislation was a bill enacted into law on January 1, 1937.  This bill placed limits on the practice of the kosher slaughtering of cattle by Orthodox Jews.  This bill, historian Emanuel Melzer points out, allowed the Polish government "to regulate the supply of cattle to kosher slaughterers, and jurisdictions in which Jews numbered less than three percent of the total population were to be permitted to outlaw kosher slaughtering altogether."[1]  This blatantly discriminatory bill struck directly at the heart of the religious practice of Poland's large number of Orthodox Jews.  It also had a devastating effect on the economic well being of tens of thousands of Jewish butchers, their families, and their suppliers.

LIMITING THE NUMBER OF JEWS IN PROFESSIONS

From 1935 to 1939, antisemitic feeling in Poland gained in intensity.  The impact of this development was to influence the adoption of measures by Polish professional organizations that excluded Jews.  Here are only a few examples[2]:

  • In August 1936, the Polish government ordered that all shops include the name of the owner on their business sign.  This order was tantamount to specifically marking Jewish-owned businesses.  Attacks on Jewish businesses surged after the marking order went into effect.
  • In May 1937, the membership of the Polish Medical Association adopted a paragraph into their professional charter excluding Jews from the medical profession.
  • Also in May 1937, the Polish Bar Association adopted a similar measure.  This was followed by official state action in May 1938 restricting the ability of Jewish lawyers to attain licenses to practice law.
  • In January 1938, the General Assembly of Journalists in the city of Wilno added a provision to its by-laws stating that anyone Jewish could not belong to their organization.
  • In April 1938, the Bank Polski, the Polish state's largest financial institution, adopted a provision excluding Jews.
  • Most importantly, in March 1938 the Polish government announced a new "Citizenship Law."  This law stated that as of October 30, 1938, the passports of Polish citizens who had lived abroad for more than five years would be revoked if those citizens had not "maintained contact with the [home] country".[3]  Although this law did not target Jews specifically, its effect had a dramatic impact on Jews who had lived outside of Poland.  One such community of Jewish expatriates were the tens of thousands of Polish Jews residing in neighboring Germany.  The Polish action would have effectively rendered these people "stateless" on German soil, making them a German problem.  Nazi officials, particularly Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, and his subordinate, Reinhard Heydrich, had planned since earlier in the year to force Jews - particularly Polish Jews - to leave Germany.  On October 28-29, the SS and Gestapo detained 15,000 Polish Jews and sent them over the German frontier into Poland.  These refugees were turned back by Polish border guards and then interned in a refugee camp "between"  Germany and Poland at Zbaszyn.  There they languished under terrible conditions until Poland finally relented and allowed them to enter the country in 1939.[4]

FORCING JEWISH EMIGRATION: THE "MADAGASCAR PLAN"

The legislative actions of the Polish government described above were part of a broad program intended to reduce the number of Jews in Poland.  Indirect action, however, such as the banning of slaughtering practices and other anti Jewish legal provisions, represented the "benevolent" side of a far more nefarious policy of actively forcing Jewish emigration.  This policy of forced Jewish emigration was also linked to larger Polish "imperial" dreams.

Beginning in 1935, the Polish government initiated a policy to elevate Poland to an international position on par with the world's other great powers.  This policy, which was directed by Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck, had two dimensions to it.  The first was for Poland to establish a colonial presence in Africa.  The second was to use some of the African territory Poland hoped to acquire as a place to forcibly relocate its over three million Jews.  The territory Beck and others had in mind was the island of Madagascar.

The notion of creating a "Jewish colony" in Madagascar had its roots in the writings of the racist and antisemitic thinker Paul de Lagarde.  Lagarde had written in 1885 that Europe's Jews should be resettled on Madagascar.[5]  He chose Madagascar because it was an island.  As an antisemite, Lagarde believed that the only way to curb Jewish influence in the world was to isolate Jews geographically.

Five decades would pass before a European government seriously considered implementing Lagarde's proposed solution to the "Jewish problem".  In that time, Lagarde's proposal had become widely known in Europe, thanks largely to organizations like the Antisemitic Congress, which met in Vienna in 1921.  Polish antisemites were thus familiar with Lagarde's ideas and by the mid-1930s they had long desired to investigate the feasibility of a Jewish colony on Madagascar.  There was a problem, however.  Poland held no colonies in Africa and Madagascar was under French control.  The Polish government therefore campaigned in Britain and France and in the League of Nations for its right to ten-percent of former German colonial holdings in Africa.  The Poles claimed that as a successor state that had once belonged to the German Empire, they had a right to these territories.[6] Not surprisingly, Polish claims found little sympathy in either Britain or France, or among the member states of the League.

Their colonial ambitions thwarted, Polish officials turned to another strategy.  They decided to use the idea of creating a Jewish colony on Madagascar as a way of "opening the door" to further colonial acquisitions.[7]  The basis of Poland's hopes lay in comments that French Colonial Minister Marius Moutet had made in January 1937 concerning the possibility of sending France's Jews to many different locations  around the world, all of which were French colonial holdings, including the island of Madagascar.[8]

Within weeks of hearing Moutet's comments, the Polish government initiated negotiations with the French to explore the possibility of sending Polish Jews to Madagascar.  The French responded positively to the Poles and on 5 May 1937 a joint Polish-French Commission under the direction of Mieczyslaw B. Lepecki left Marseilles for Madagascar.  During the weeks that the Lepecki Commission was in Madagascar, it studied several regions on the island to determine how many people could viably live there.  The commission then returned to Europe and in October 1937 Lepecki published a 250 page report detailing his findings.[9]  Lepecki's report concluded that the Madagascar solution was not feasible.  Not only would the cost of transporting Jewish families be exorbitant (some 30,000 francs per family!), Lepecki concluded that the island could only support between 40,000 and 60,000 Polish-Jewish refugees.  Polish Jewry alone comprised over three million people.  Sending 60,000 Jews to Madagascar, therefore, would not solve the "Jewish problem" in Poland and it would bankrupt the state treasury.

The Polish "Madagascar Plan" was thus scrapped.  Following Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, the SS revived the idea of sending Jews to Madagascar.  However, the impracticality of these plans due to the war brought them to a rapid end.  The Nazis instead implemented their own "final solution" to the Jewish problem and liquidated most of European Jewry in death camps they located in occupied Poland.


[1] Emanuel Melzer, No Way Out: The Politics of Polish Jewry, 1935-1939 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1965), p. 90

[2] These examples taken from Melzer, No Way Out, pp. 90ff; Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939 (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1983), Chapters 19 and 30; Harry M. Rabinowicz, The Legacy of Polish Jewry: A History of Polish Jews in the Inter-War Years, 1919-1939 (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1965), pp. 179-194; Jerzy Tomaszewski, "The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939," in Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 8 (London: Littmann, 1994), pp. 115-127; Anthony Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht: The Nazi Night of Terror (New York: Times Books, 1989), p. 43.

[3] Melzer, No Way Out, p. 91

[4] See Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) and/or Michael Wildt (Hg.), Die Judenpolitik des SD 1935 bis 1938: Eine Dokumentation (München: Oldenbourg, 1995) for more detailed information on this subject.

[5] Paul de Lagarde, "Über die nächsten Pflichten deutscher Politik," reprinted in Schriften für Deutschland (Stuttgart: Kroener, 1933).

[6] Archives Diplomatiques/Ministères des Affaires Etrangeres, K-Afrique 91, 45-48.

[7] Magnus Brechtken, "Madagaskar für die Juden": antisemitische Idee und politische Praxis, 1885-1945 (München: Oldenbourg, 1997), p. 288.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "Raport Dyr. Mieczyslaw Lepeckiego z Podrozy na Madagaskar" (Warszawa, 1937).  A version of this report from 1938 is available at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Call number D285.8.B4 L4