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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 5. Prelude of the Holocaust
[A. Destruction of the Jewish existence in Poland 1929-1939]

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 and prosperity.

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 the parliament]

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 bitter opposition.

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 measures]
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 measures.

[Since May 1935: Marshal Smigly-Rydz]
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 anti-Semitic propaganda.

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 land.

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 virtual terror.

[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 anti-Semitic Poland]

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 Palestine.

(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.

[1927-1938: Perpetual 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 decade (p.182)

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.