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Why is it necessary to offer a curriculum unit on Polish Jewry in the period between the two World Wars? After all, existing curricula on the Holocaust have a general chapter on European Jewry in the interwar era. What, then, is the historical and educational importance of examining the life of the Polish Jewry in particular?
Historically speaking, Polish Jewry became a major Jewish demographic and cultural center in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and remained so until 1939. It is true that United States Jewry between the two world wars was larger (Jewish population of 4,771,000), but Jews were a negligible minority (3.6%) of the general population of the United States.1 The very size of interwar Polish Jewry evidently answers this question, at least in part.
Polish Jewry, 3,400,000 strong in 1939,2 was the largest Jewish community in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Only American Jewry was larger. More significantly, Polish Jews accounted for almost ten percent of the total population of the country. Only the “Yishuv,” the modern Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine, surpassed this share; its 475,000 Jews in 1939 constituted 32% of the population of the Land of Israel.3 Another exceptional phenomenon was the percentage of Jews in various Polish cities. The tables below show that this proportion ranged from 20% to 60% percent of the cities’ population. Two additional pieces of information should be added:
- The roots of Polish Jewry were seven hundred years old. (Jews reached Poland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.)
- Of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, at least three million were of Polish origin.4 In other words, half of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust were Polish Jews!
Thus, on the eve of the Second World War, Polish Jewry lived under circumstances that were unparalleled in any other country.
From the teaching perspective, I believe a curriculum unit focusing on Polish Jewry in the interwar period may bring today’s political realities in Israel into focus by presenting source material on the diverse political parties that Polish Jewry created. Many political ideologies that abound in contemporary Israel are traceable to Polish Jewry in the interwar period. It is astounding to witness the amazing similarity between today’s political rivals and those who strived for primacy in Poland, chiefly among the Zionist parties but also within Agudath Isreel. The Holocaust annihilated two of the political groupings that were active in prewar Poland: the Bund and the assimilationists. For all the other political blocs, the unit presensed here allows us to study the similarities and differences between past and present. By studying these parties, their disputes, and the solutions that each proposed for the problems of Jewish existence, we discover the dynamism of Jewish life in Poland and observe some of the origins of today’s ideological controversies. This unit also helps us understand the responses of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust period. Finally, it may shed light on processes and phenomena that Polish Jews experienced in the ghettos, the youth movements, and the revolts that took place in the Holocaust period.
However, this unit focuses only on ideological controversies among the Jewish parties in Poland and disregards other aspects of life thereÄculture, journalism, social welfare, and youth movements. It is extremely important to study these, too, in order to form a more complete and accurate picture of the lives of Polish Jews between the two world wars. We hope this unit will open the door to further and more extensive study of this important topic.