Destruction of the Jewish existence in Poland
5.1. Poland [Military regimes and anti-Semitic
parties since 1926]
After the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s
there was a tendency for the attention of well-meaning
Jews and non-Jews to concentrate on the plight of the half
million German Jews. Poland and East European countries
generally seemed, by comparison, to be havens of safety
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Politically, the Jews of Poland were caught between the
Polish government and the opposition, and they became a
totally helpless minority.
[1926: Military coup and
Pilsudski regime - no adequate Jewish representation in
In 1926 a military coup brought down parliamentary
government, and a military dictatorship was set up under
Marshal Józef Pilsudski. Originally, the left wing -
composed of the United Peasant party and the socialists
(the Polish initials were PPS) - maintained a benevolent
neutrality toward the new regime. Soon, however, they
turned against it.
The right-wing National Democrats (or Endeks, as they were
called), representative of the Polish middle classes, had
been the party in power before 1926; now they were in
In the rigged parliamentary election in 1930,
government-sponsored deputies had gained a majority.
With the destruction of democratic parliamentarism, the
minorities - and the Jews among them - could no longer
hope for adequate and free representation in the Sejm
(Polish parliament). (p.180)
The government tried to gain popularity with the
opposition by leaning to the right.
[The National Democrats
(Endek party) - split of right extreme ONR]
In the Endek party itself, a younger, semi-Fascist, and
virulently anti-Semitic clique gained ascendancy. Even
that was not enough, however, and an extreme pro-Fascist
and anti-Semitic group split off from the Endeks to found
a party called ONR.
[April 1935: Dictator law
- adoption of right extreme proposals - anti-Semitic
The government did not wish to relinquish power, and it
institutionalized its dictatorship by a new constitution,
which the Sejm passed in April 1935, a few weeks before
Pilsudski's death. In order to maintain power, however,
the government adopted many of the policies advocated by
its right-wing critics, including the anti-Semitic
[Since May 1935: Marshal
After May 1935 the leadership of the government was in the
hands of a clique of army officers and aristocratic
politicians concentrated around the weak and vain Marshal
Edward Smigly-Rydz. Pilsudski himself had been opposed to
active anti-Semitism, and the feeling among the Jews was
that he had protected them against the right-wing
tendencies of the regime. After his death these tendencies
had a much freer reign.
[Early 1937: Foundation
of semi-Fascist OZN]
In early 1937 government supporters themselves founded a
new party, known as OZN, which represented the views of
semi-Fascist elements in the army, the bureaucracy, and
the middle classes. OZN was intended to catch the votes of
the government's right-wing opponents, and it engaged in
The Jews could not support the rightist opposition; and
the government, originally considered a protector, had
become an enemy.
[Since early 1937: The
left opposition with peasants and PPS]
There remained the left-wing opposition. The peasants,
under their radical leader, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, tended
to the left after early 1937. Together with PPS, they
probably represented well over half the population. The
peasants, despite anti-Semitic tendencies, saw through the
government policies and refused to let Jew-baiting
sidetrack them from their basic demand for the division of
Nor was PPS free from anti-Semitism; its Jewish ally, the
Bund, was never able to conclude an open political
alliance with PPS. Nevertheless, on a local plane and on a
number of issues there was cooperation between these two
socialist parties. (p.181)
[Nov 1938: Terror
elections bring OZN group an absolute majority]
The actual strength of the political parties in Poland can
be gleaned from the events of late 1938. In November of
that year the government's OZN group received an absolute
majority in general elections held under conditions of
[Dec 1938: Communal
elections with big left parts]
Yet in the communal elections of December 1938 PPS and the
Bund, working in unison, received 43 % of the votes in
Warsaw, 35 % in Cracow, and 55 % in Lodz. Undoubtedly,
this victory of the Left eased the Jewish position
somewhat in the late 1930s.
[Jewish policy in
The international political structure of the Jewish
community was characterized by the large number of
political organizations. Their relative strengths have
never been satisfactorily established, for all elections
in the 1930s were rigged and could not mirror the true
state of affairs. In 1930 there were ten Jewish
representatives in the parliament, of whom three were
elected as a result of government pressure. Of the rest,
six were Zionist; the Bund had not participated in the
elections. In 1935 Jewish representation dwindled to four,
of whom three were Zionists and one a government
supporter, an Agudist.
In 1938 there were three Zionists and two Agudists.
In late 1938 and early 1939, on the other hand, it was
obvious that a large majority of Jewish voters in the
cities had voted for the Bund in the municipal elections.
This meant that the Jewish population had become more
radical and preferred the Bund, but it did not mean that
Jews had weakened in their interest in Zionism and
(End note 1: A Tartakower: Yiddishe Politik und Yiddshe
Kultur in Polen; In: Allgemeine Encyclopedie, article:
Yiden; See also: Jewish Chronicle 9/28/36 [28 September
1936], p.24, where figures for the 1936 communal elections
show that the Bund obtained 15 out of 46 seats, various
Zionist parties got 18, and the Agudah, 10).
One could vote for the Bund in municipal elections and
support Zionism at the same time. The vote for the Bund
was really the expression of despair. The overall picture,
then, was one of political decline, of a government
pandering to anti-Semitic prejudices, and of progressive
radicalization among the Jewish population.
economic crisis in Poland and high unemployment]
Back of this situation lay, of course, the economic
crisis, which persisted in Poland until late 1938.
Official unemployment statistics in Poland were
traditionally suspect, but even these showed that while in
1927 there were 165,300 unemployed, by 1935 this number
had increased to 402,000. One historian put the real
number of unemployed in Poland in the second half of the
at 1.5 million.
(End note 2: R14, Kahn material, November 1936; and Hans
Roos: Geschichte der Polnischen Nation 1916-1960 [English:
History of the Polish Nation]; Stuttgart 1961, p. 144.
Poland's economic policy had not changed since the late
1920s; it was still wedded to the idea of a state
capitalism, and it continued to utilize government
monopolies to evict Jews from their occupations).
Government bureaucracy was omnipresent, large and costly.