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Volume 17, No.1 / Spring 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust
Historical Background: Jews in Poland

About Testimonies

Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

Using Testimony in the Classroom

Recorded Testimonies of Survivors (1946)
Nechama Tec


Historical Background: Jews in Poland

Writings of Nechama Tec
  • Intro
  • Dry Tears (6th Grade - College)
      • Overview
      • Questions & Activities
Historical Context for Nechama Tec's Books: Dry Tears, When Light Pierced the Darkness, In the Lion's Den, Defiance

Nechama Tec's memoir, Dry Tears, and her subsequent studies of rescue and resistance - When Light Pierced the Darkness, In the Lion's Den, and Defiance-all deal with the history of Jews in Eastern Europe, Poland in particular. She has decided to focus on Poland since this was central location for the destruction of European Jewry. Jews had long lived in Poland and their relations with Christian Poles were complicated by economic, social and political conditions. It is important to have some of this background to understand Eastern European antisemitism during World War II and the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the Poles who helped Jews during this era were going against generally accepted practices and took enormous risks on behalf of Jews.

Brief Background on the Jews of Poland

Jews had begun settling in Poland around 1000 C.E. The influx of Jews greatly increased in the 12th century when western European countries such as Italy and Spain expelled Jews, who sought refuge in Poland where Polish princes and nobles protected them against the Catholic Church.

Wherever Jews were settled during the Middle Ages, the local rulers issued charters granting certain protections and privileges to the Jewish minority. The charters guaranteed Jews as a group (not as individuals) the following:

  • Nobody may disturb or attack the Jews or take property they have inherited.
  • Jews have the right to trade with anyone they choose to as long as the trade is legal.
  • Jews have freedom of movement within the borders of a country to carry on their businesses and trade without paying duties.
  • No one may demand hospitality in a Jewish home without the family's consent.
  • Jewish children may not be forcibly baptized. Jews who ask to be baptized must wait three days so that authorities may determine that they are doing so of their own free will. Those converts must give up any family property they have inherited.
  • If a dispute between a Jew and a Christian is taken to court, each party may argue its case according to its own laws.
  • Anyone who attacks or murders a Jew will not only receive the usual punishment for such crimes but also pay a fine to the royal treasury.
      (quoted in Facing History and Ourselves-Jews of Poland, 36)

In 1264 Prince Boleslaw of Kalisz granted the first known charter to Jews in Poland. In addition to the protections that charters in other European countries offered Jews, the Kalisz Charter protected Jews from false accusations by their Christian neighbors and required Christians to pay a fine if they failed to assist a Jew attacked at night. In subsequent centuries as Jews settled in Poland, the princes and nobles and at times Church leaders followed the model set by the Kalisz Charter. Several historians have noted that the Jews of Poland were treated better than Jews in other European countries during the Middle Ages. Moreover, Jews in Poland appreciated their treatment and were willing to defend their local ruler.

The conditions for Jews in Poland attracted many more Jews from the west in the 14th and 15th centuries. As the numbers of Jews increased, they became a visible minority. Most towns and cities in Poland had a special "Jewish street" where key Jewish institutions were located-a synagogue, ritual bath, hospital, and cemetery. The Jews who organized these institutions were known as the kehilla. In 1569, Poland joined with Lithuania as one empire; the Vaad or Council of the Four Lands supervised Jewish affairs and institutions throughout the empire.

Deteriorating Conditions for Jews in Poland

Conditions for the Jews in Poland began changing in the 17th century. The union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569 had created a diverse society and increased economic competition between Jews and Poles and Jews and other minorities of the empire. The economic privileges Jews had enjoyed for centuries in Poland were restricted. Moreover, tensions between Christians and Jews intensified. With fewer opportunities, Jews began resettling in the Ukraine. By the middle of the 17th century more than 50,000 Jews in over a hundred communities lived in the Ukraine. Here, too, Polish landlords acquired large tracts of land. Jews leased the right to manage these estates and essentially became the representatives of landlords in the area.

In 1648 Bogdan Chemielnicki in the Ukraine led a major rebellion against the Polish landlords and their Jewish agents. Because most of the Polish nobles were absentee landlords, the popular hatreds were focused on the Jews who had day to day interactions with the local population.

Some Jews responded to the chaos and turmoil of the era by turning inward. Others sought solace in following prophets who often turned out to be false messiahs.

Amid the uncertainty emerged the Hasidic movement started by Israel Ben Eliezer known as Baal Shem Tov. Hasidism had a simple and hopeful message: every Jew existed in God's memory and every Jew played a part in his people's destiny.

While Hasidism enjoyed tremendous popularity, a smaller group of Polish Jews were attracted to the western ideas of the Enlightenment that stressed the importance of a society based on reason and scientific principles. Polish Jews who subscribed to the Enlightenment, known as the Maskilim, dreamed of a Poland where a Jew could be both a Jew and a Pole.

Such dreams could not be realized in the 19th century. Poland as a nation had been eliminated from the map of Europe in three partitions of 1772, 1792 and 1795. Austria, Prussia and Russia occupied the former Poland; Jews were confined to a portion of Russian occupied Poland known as the Pale of Settlement. Thus, at the very time western European Jews were gaining their emancipation and benefiting from their involvement in modern capitalism, Jews in Poland lived in hundreds of small townlets and villages known as shtetl. Impoverished conditions characterized these communities. Nevertheless, the shtetl nourished traditional Jewish culture.

Jews in Poland after World War I

Poland was united as a nation again after World War I. As part of the Versailles Peace Treaty the newly constituted Poland was required to sign the Minorities Treaty guaranteeing Jews and other minorities equal rights with Polish citizens and rights to follow their religion

Despite the Minorities Treaty, Jews were subjected to discrimination and violence during the interwar years. Overt antisemitism was somewhat mitigated during the rule of Joseph Pilsudski, 1926-1935. After Pilsudski's death, however, rightwing groups dominated the government and did little to protect Jews. Pogroms against Jews occurred in 1936 and 1937; and during 1938 a number of riots took place in Warsaw. In addition to the discrimination and violence against Jews, Jews experienced a declining economic situation. As the historian Yehuda Bauer describes:
    In 1931, 1,123,025 Jews were gainfully employed. Of these 277,555 were laborers, about 200,000 were artisans, 428,965 were traders (with their families), 1,140,532). By 1935, 400,000 traders and their families were living in poverty. Of the laborers and employees, 60 percent were unemployed or working only part time. Of the 120,000 intellectuals and their families, 60,000 had no steady income. According to the JDC estimates, 1 million Jews, or about one-third of the total, were unemployed or working part-time. On January 8, 1937, the London Jewish Chronicle described the Jews of Poland as "a helpless minority sunk in squalid poverty and misery such as can surely be paralleled nowhere on the face of the earth." In October 1936 the New York-based Jewish writer Sholem Asch said the Polish Jews seemed to be "buried alive. Every second person was undernourished, skeletons of skin and bones, crippled candidates for the grave."
      (Yehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust, 143)
The bleak economic situation and antisemitic atmosphere did not extinguish Jewish intellectual and cultural activities. Hebrew and Yiddish schools flourished; many newspapers and books were published; and theaters were well attended. Political life was also vital. Jews divided into three different political streams. The Agudat Israel which advocated a fundamental religious life for Jews; the secular anti-Zionist Bund that sought a free socialist Poland that allowed Jews a certain amount of autonomy; and the Zionists who pressed for Jewish political and economic rights before Jews would be able to emigrate to Palestine.

Thus, on the eve of World War II, Jews of Poland were an impoverished minority divided among themselves as to their political aspirations. Even the middle class Jews felt the impact of the worldwide Depression. There were few opportunities for Jews to emigrate because of limited resources. Moreover, the British had blocked entry into Palestine, and American quotas limited the number of refugees from Eastern Europe.

World War II Begins

Map of Poland's Largest Jewish Communities on the Eve of War (requires Acrobat Reader, 24 kb)

The Germans attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and within weeks the Polish army succumbed to the superior German force. Germany in compliance with its Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact (signed August 23, 1939) allowed the Soviet Union to occupy Poland up to the Curzon Line. Germany annexed western parts of Poland as part of the Reich and central Poland was headed by the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank with the capital established in Cracow.

In Nazi controlled Poland a quick succession of laws compelled Jews to wear the Star of David either sewn into their clothing or as part of a special armband. Jews were restricted in their travel and often were prohibited from moving within their communities.

The Germans ordered the self-governing bodies of Jewish communities to form councils known as Judenrat. These councils were expected to follow German orders. As Nechama Tec explains, these councils were left with little opportunity to help Jews:

"Faced with the unprecedentedly legitimized anti-Semitism, unable to draw upon past experience, with no power to which to appeal, members of these councils reacted in a variety of ways. In the end, no matter how they behaved, all were destined to die"(Light, 15)..

Polish Jews Confined to Ghettos-1940-1941

The Nazis soon decided that Jews must be separated from the Polish community. Before creating ghettos, Jews were forcibly removed from one locality to another so that as many Jews as possible could be concentrated in the smallest possible area. The first ghetto was formed in Piotrkow in October 1939-this was soon abandoned with no explanation. Then, in 1940 the Lodz Ghetto was created with over 160,000 inmates; in that same year the Warsaw Ghetto was created for over half a million Jews. More ghettos followed in smaller cities and towns throughout Nazi-occupied Poland. By 1941, practically all Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland had been removed to the enclosed ghetto communities.

A decree issued by Governor Frank on October 15, 1941, specified the death sentence for Jews who moved outside the ghettos without authorization and the same was to be applied to any Christian Poles who sought to help Jews hide or move outside the ghettos. Nechama Tec has translated this important document (See When Light Pierced the Darkness, ):

Pursuant to 5, Paragraph 1, of the Fuhrer's Decree of October 12, 1939 (Reichsgesetzblatt I, 2077), I issue this ordinance:

Article 1

In the Decree on the Restrictions of Residence in the Generalgouvernement September 13, 1940 (VBIGG) [Verordnungsblatt Generalgouvernement] I, 288), as modified by the Second Decree on Limitations of Residence in the Generalgouvernement, of April 29, 1941 (VBIGG, p. 274).

    (1) Jews who, without authorization, leave the residential district to which they have been assigned will be punished by death. The same punishment applies to persons who knowingly provide hiding places for such Jews.
    (2) Abettors and accomplices will be punished in the same way as the perpetrator, and an attempted act in the same way as an accomplished one. In less serious cases the sentence may involve penal servitude or imprisonment.
    (3) Cases will be judged by the Special Courts.

Article 2

This decree takes effect on the day of promulgation. Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Final Solution

June 1941 marks a turning point for Polish Jews who had come under Soviet control in 1939. On June 20th the Germans broke the terms of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. While Polish Jews in these areas such as Belorussia had experienced some antisemitism in the opening years of the war, they had been spared the systematic discrimination and oppression imposed on Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. In fact some of these Jews managed to escape to the Russian interior where they remained for the duration of the war.

After attacking Russia the Nazis imposed the same antisemitic measures in Eastern Poland that they had introduced in the General Government earlier in the war. Jews were forced to relocate and confined to ghettos. Jews who refused to enter ghettos or who escaped ghettos were threatened with a death sentence. In many areas the local peasants were antisemitic and refused to assist Jews. Jews who escaped to the forests often found themselves threatened by non-Jewish partisan bands and local peasant communities. Along the Russian-Polish border Einsatzgruppen units followed the German army, rounding up Jews and taking them to be murdered in trenches outside their communities. Over a million Polish Jews died in these actions.

Map of Main Nazi Concentration Camps and Ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland and Russia, 1942 (requires Acrobat Reader, 21 kb)

By 1942 the Nazis had moved to a more systematic program for making Europe free of Jews. They embarked on the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Jews were to be deported from the ghettos to permanent death camps where they would be gassed and cremated. Six of these death camps were located in strategic locations in Poland. Between 1942 and 1945 the Nazis attempted to carry out their Final Solution.

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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