Middle East Eye / April 28, 2023
Poland’s antisemitic history of targeting its own Jewish citizens and its role in targeting the Palestinian people must be exposed as parts of the very same crime.
Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda declared: “We must never forget the courage of the Jews of Poland from the Warsaw Ghetto and of the Poles who fought on the other side of it.” He added: “Those who fought in the uprising are our joint heroes … who fought on behalf of a free Poland.”
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog challenged official Polish accounts of the World War Two years. Alluding to the complicity of antisemitic Polish Catholics in the murder of Polish Jews, and what Israeli critics call the “glorification” of “Poles who were involved up to their necks in the murder of Jews”, Herzog stated that “the differences of opinion between Israel and Poland with regard to commemorating the Holocaust” continue: “It was total evil – the Nazis and their accomplices; and total good – in the form of the victims and rebels from all of the peoples.”
This ongoing disagreement, however, leaves out the prominent role Poland played in dispossessing the Palestinian people and creating Israel. No reference is made either to the long-standing cooperation between the post-1935 antisemitic Polish regime and the various sections of the Zionist movement, a relationship, which also led Poland to vote for the 1947 UN Partition Plan of Palestine.
When it gained independence in 1918, Poland’s population was about one-third ethnic and religious minorities. According to linguistic criteria, the 1931 census counted 68.9 percent of the population as Polish (including Polish-speaking Jews), 13.9 percent Ukrainians (about five million people), 8.7 percent Yiddish-speaking Jews (about three million people), 3.1 percent Byelorussians, and 2.3 percent Germans. Some of these groups were majorities in their regions.
Concerned about Polish Catholic nationalism, the Western powers imposed clauses on the Polish constitution to protect Jews and other minorities. They also forced Poland to sign a Minority Treaty in 1919, supervised by the League of Nations. Not everyone supported Polish independence. Economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, called independent Poland “an economic impossibility whose only industry is Jew-baiting”.
For the next few years, Poland was ruled by right-wing parties. It was virulently nationalist and hostile to minorities, including Polish Jews. Amid a dire economic situation, the nationalist Marshal Jozef Pilsudski overthrew the regime in 1926. Pilsudski, however, allied himself with the very same right-wing leaders he replaced. One thing differentiated him: his aversion to antisemitism.
The large anti-Zionist Polish socialist Jewish party, “the Bund“, insisted that Jews were citizens of Poland and that they “were Europeans and not a Middle Eastern people, that their ties were with the countries in which they lived and not with the land where some of their ancestors had once lived.” As Palestinian native resistance to Zionist colonialism intensified in the late 1920s, the Bund blamed the Zionists “who had intruded on a land for the sake of taking it away from their inhabitants”.
In January 1934, Pilsudski signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, infuriating the USSR. Exasperated by the many complaints submitted to the League of Nations about Poland’s treatment of its minorities, and emboldened by the détente with Nazi Germany, Pilsudski’s antisemitic foreign minister Jozef Beck announced at a League meeting in September 1934 that Poland had unilaterally abrogated the Minority Treaty. Pilsudski died in May 1935.
The new right-wing regime began an assault on all socialist forces in the country, including the Bund. It abandoned Pilsudski’s revulsion at antisemitism, encouraging antisemitic movements (coinciding with the Nazis’ enacting the Nuremberg Laws).
As Nazi policies until 1938 centred on spurring or coercing German Jews to emigrate, the Poles soon adopted a similar policy. At the time, the country’s Jewish population was upwards of 3.5 million people, with less than half a million assimilated Jews – about 11 percent of Poland’s population. They were between 30-40 percent of the population of Warsaw and were substantial minorities in most other cities.
The economic crisis affected the cities more than the countryside, and impoverished a larger proportion of Jews, who, with the intensification of institutionalized discrimination, bore a higher burden of taxation. Physical attacks on Jews by antisemitic gangs increased in 1936.
In alliance with the Zionists, the Polish government called for the emigration of Jews from Poland to Palestine as a solution to the “Jewish problem”, as did the extremist Polish antisemitic groups, Nara, and the National Democrats (Endeks).
In response, a Bund leader declared that David Ben Gurion, the Polish Jewish leader of the World Labor Zionist Movement, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Ukrainian Jewish leader of the Revisionist Zionists, and Isaac Grunbaum, the Polish Jewish leader of the liberal General Zionists “agreed with the enemies of the Jews”.
Jabotinsky began contacts with the post-Pilsudski regime, eager to deport Jews and to pressure Britain to fully open Palestine to European Jewish colonization. The Revisionists tried in 1936 to have the League of Nations convoke a conference on Jewish colonization of Palestine, to be sponsored by Poland.
In January 1938, the Poles proposed the conference and the goal of “assisting Jews to emigrate from those countries where, because of their large numbers, they were a heavy burden on the national economy, and helping the Jews create a Jewish state either in Palestine or on some other territory.”
The Revisionist Zionists applauded the Polish proposal while the Zionist Organization (ZO), later the World Zionist Organization, was concerned that framing the problem as one of overpopulation could lead the conference to recommend the resettlement of Jews in any sparsely populated region of the world, not just in Palestine.
This coincided with the Palestinian anti-colonial revolt of 1936-1939, which resulted in a major decline in Jewish immigration. That several Jewish organizations at the time were exploring European Jewish colonial settlement in Peru, Madagascar, Angola, and Australia’s Kimberley Region, alarmed the ZO greatly.
Chaim Weizmann, the London-based leader of the ZO, met with Poland’s Beck in September 1937 and Beck assured him of Polish support for Zionism. Prior to this meeting, Beck stated in June 1937 that Palestine was not necessarily the main destination for Jews due to its inability to absorb all of them.
However, at a September 1937 League of Nations meeting, he insisted that Palestine must have “a maximum capacity of absorption” of Jewish colonists (Poland was concerned that the 1937 British Peel Commission, which recommended partition and the creation of a Jewish state, did not allocate a large enough territory in Palestine for all of Poland’s Jews).
By May 1938, the Revisionists reported that they had convinced the Poles that Palestine should be the only destination for emigrating Jews. The antisemitic Polish Camp of National Unity Government, which instigated attacks on Jews, quickly agreed and declared that because Polish “Jews were a hindrance to Polish national aspirations,” they supported a Jewish state in Palestine and that the latter “should be recognized as the main direction of Jewish emigration”.
A ‘Polish colony’
Jabotinsky dispatched the Irish Jewish Zionist Robert Briscoe to make a proposal to Beck: “You ask Britain to turn over the Mandate of Palestine to you and make it in effect a Polish colony. You could then move all your unwanted Polish Jews to Palestine. This would bring great relief to your country, and you would have a rich and growing colony to aid your economy.”
Beck responded that Polish Jews would not leave the country willingly and that if they did so suddenly, the Polish economy would be ruined. Briscoe would not be deterred. Meanwhile, the Polish military agreed to train the anti-British Zionist Revisionists for the latter’s 1937 plan for the invasion of Palestine, set to take place in 1940. The Polish Zionists’ alliance with Polish antisemites, however, completely discredited them among Polish Jews.
Nonetheless, in 1937, Poland began urging the League of Nations to partition Palestine and grant the maximum amount of territory to the Jewish colonists. Indeed, the Polish Foreign Ministry “was busy calculating the number of Jews that could be shoehorned into the Jewish area” of a partitioned Palestine. Poland even “advertised its willingness to take over the Palestine Mandate,” following Jabotinsky’s propositions. By early 1938, the Polish representative asked that Jewish settlement be expanded to include Transjordan.
In the wake of Kristallnacht, Poland’s League representative Titus Komarnicki stated that his government was set to follow Germany and would be “forced to take legal measures” to bring about Jewish emigration. The Polish government approached two prominent Zionist Polish Jews to establish the “Committee for Jewish Colonization Affairs” to pressure Britain to allow Polish Jews to settle in Palestine.
The majority of Polish Jews, however, supported the Bund in elections between 1936 and 1939, making it the largest elected Jewish party in all the major cities including Warsaw. In 1939, the Bund defeated the Zionists and won 70 percent of the vote in Jewish districts. In Warsaw, they won 17 of the 20 seats. The Zionists won one seat.
A few months before the Nazi invasion, however, Menachem Begin had negotiated with Captain Runge, head of the Security Police in Warsaw, the establishment of separate Jewish army units to be commanded by Catholic officers. Begin and his fellow Revisionists hoped that this training and the war experience to come would be valuable when they invaded Palestine later to oust the British. The plan failed due to the Bund’s vehement opposition to segregation.
By July 1941, the Soviets and the Polish government in exile had agreed to allow the one million Polish refugees inside the USSR (400,000 of them being Jewish) to recruit a Polish army subordinated to the Red Army. A recruitment centre was established headed by the Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. Jews made up 40 to 60 percent of all volunteers, alarming antisemitic Polish officers, including General Anders.
In October 1941, Begin’s pre-war proposal for separate Jewish units was revived and a “Jewish Legion” was established and led by Polish Colonel Jan Galadyk. When the Polish Army evacuated the Soviet Union to Iran in August 1942, it included 6000 Polish Jews, soldiers, and civilians. Begin was among them.
The Polish Army, now incorporated with the British Eighth Army, proceeded to Baghdad and then to Jerusalem, before returning to Europe. During their sojourn in British-occupied Palestine in 1943, 3000-4000 Jewish soldiers deserted the Polish army and joined the Zionist colonists.
In June 1943, while the Polish Army was still in Palestine, the Zionist settler press exposed a secret order issued by General Anders in November 1941 to placate his antisemitic officers about the number of Jews in the army. The order declared: “We shall deal with the Jewish problem in accordance with the size and independence of our homeland,” which was understood as a plan to expel Jews from Poland after liberation.
When confronted with the order by a representative of Polish Jewry, Anders claimed it was a forgery. He informed the Zionist settlers that he decided not to court-martial Jewish deserters as a gesture of goodwill.
The ZO understood the deal and collaborated with the Poles to cover up this antisemitic affair. The Zionist leader who agreed to the cover-up was the Polish Grunbaum, who had become meanwhile a member of the Jewish Agency Executive which ran the affairs of the colonists. As for Colonel Galadyk, he embarked on training the Revisionist Irgun terrorists in Palestine in 1943.
After the Soviets liberated the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War, Jewish survivors from the Polish city of Kielce ventured back home. In July 1946, they were attacked by nationalist Polish soldiers, policemen, and civilians who murdered 42 Holocaust survivors and injured 40 more. It was only Red Army intervention that halted the slaughter. Between November 1944 and the end of 1945, 351 Polish Jews were murdered by antisemitic Polish Catholics. After Kielce, most Polish Jews, who had returned home after the war, fled the country.
Rather than assure the surviving Polish Jews that they should return home and that the new Polish government, unlike the right-wing nationalists, would guarantee their safety, the Polish representative of the post-1947 pro-Soviet Polish government, Oskar Lange, spoke of the need to support the Zionist quest for a Jewish state which would keep Jews from returning to Poland.
“We are interested in the fate of the Jewish people, of whom three and a half million lived in our country and were citizens of our republic,” Lange, son of Protestant German settlers in Poland, declared. Noting that “a major part of the Jews throughout the world come from Poland,” Lange added: “We have followed with pride the great constructive work of the Jewish community in Palestine, for we know that a major part of this community consists of Jews who came from Poland and once were citizens of the Polish Republic.”
Poland became one of the first states to recognize Israel. Its role in the colonization of Palestine and in supporting the Zionists has been, like that of Britain and Germany, significant. Just as the Zionists of the 1930s and 1940s did not flinch from allying with antisemitic Polish leaders, Israel and its officials today continue to do so, albeit with some mild, diplomatically worded complaints.
As for the Palestinians, Poland’s antisemitic history of targeting its own Jewish citizens and its colonial role in targeting the Palestinian people must be exposed as parts of the very same crime.
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism