Jews in Poland: Background information when reading The Fighter

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The Fighter

by Jean-Jacques Greif

The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif X
The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif
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    Sep 2006, 288 pages


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Jews in Poland

This article relates to The Fighter

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Jews became a significant part of the Polish population in the 14th century when they were offered a safe haven by King Casimir the Great after being expelled en masse from much of Western Europe (including England, Spain, France and Germany).  By the 18th century about 750,000 Jews lived in Poland, representing about 7% of the Polish population and about two-thirds of the world's Jewish population (then estimated at 1.2 million). 

However, the presence of Jews had always been a source of tension amongst the Catholic majority, and from the late 18th century anti-Semitism steadily increased.  Of course, there were also groups that opposed anti-Semitism, but by the 1930s the anti-Semitic forces had by far the upper hand - Jews were excluded from government jobs, quotas prevented many from taking university places, and anti-Jewish riots were common.

When Germany annexed the Western portions of Poland (leaving the Eastern parts to be annexed by the Soviet Union as a result of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact) some Poles rushed to turn in their Jewish neighbors, many others remained indifferent.  However, some did what they could to protect Jews, even though all household members were punished by death if a Jew was found in their house.  At the Holocaust memorial in Israel over 20,000 individuals have been recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations", of these 5,941 are Polish.

Before WWII, Poland was home to the second largest community of Jews in the world - about 3 million people representing 10% of the total population. Less than one in every ten were alive at the end of the war.  Many of those that survived chose to emigrate to Israel, the USA or South America, their departure hastened by post-war pogroms and the destruction of most Jewish institutions by the Soviet Union (ironic, in that it seems that many Polish Jews before the war had seen their future in communism).  Almost all of the estimated 40,000 that remained were forced to leave in the late 1960s during the Soviet Union's anti-Semitic campaign, leaving a population of about 5,000.  Today, it is estimated that there are 10,000 Jews in Poland (possibly double or triple if those who are not actively connected with the Jewish culture are counted).

Polish non-Jews did not fare well during World War II either.  Some sources say that the Nazi's policy towards the Poles was that of total annihilation and that 3 million non-Jewish Poles died. Other sources say that the German's policy was to to keep the general population suppressed under a reign of terror and to murder the educated, in order to prevent resistance and the possibility of a governing class ever regrouping - thus freeing Germany to exploit Poland's leaderless, less educated majority as laborers in the German Reich; and to resettle Poland with Germans.  Whatever the policy, and whoever does the counting, at least 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles were killed, bringing the total Polish deaths to around 5 million.

At the end of WWII, Poland was absorbed into the Soviet Union.  In 1980 labor turmoil led to the formation of an the independent trade union, "Solidarity", led by electrician, Lech Walesa.  Despite the Soviet Union's best efforts to squash this independent streak, Solidarity became a political force to be reckoned with, taking 99% of the vote in the 1989 elections - providing one of the trigger events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today Poland is a member of both NATO (1999) and the European Union (2004).  It is bordered by Belarus, Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and the Baltic Sea.

What happened to the prison guards after the war?
Some were arrested, some were shot (it seems that the Soviet troops executed many when they liberated the camps), and many got away.  Of all the former staff of Auschwitz, just 41 were tried in 1947. About half were sentenced to death, one was acquitted, the remainder were sent to prison (with sentences ranging from 3 years to life). 

Of those who got away, some are still being brought to justice. Just two months ago a San Francisco woman was deported to Germany after investigators learned she had been a guard at Ravensbrück. Apparently, none of her relatives, including her German-Jewish husband, who died two years ago, knew of her past.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This article relates to The Fighter. It first ran in the December 6, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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