Jews in Poland
A Documentary History

By Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. Foreword by Richard Pipes. New York. Hippocrene Books. 1993. 402 pages. Maps, illustrations, index. Hardcover.

M.K. Dziewanowski

This book has richer content than many an academic tome recast by a professional editor. One could describe it as Baroque in volume, style, content, and intention. The Baroque style differs considerably from the usual academic post-Enlightenment style adopted at American universities. This is not the proper place to discuss these differences in detail, but I wish to signal them to the reader.

This is also a good sourcebook of facts, documents, and tidbits about the Jewish presence in Poland. It describes this presence in conjunction with what was happening to the Catholic majority: an important polyphony.

Part One consists of four chapters presenting a summary of Jewish history in Poland. A special chapter is devoted to the Statute on Jewish Liberties issued by Duke Bolesaw the Pious in 1264, ratified by King Casimir the Great in 1334, and then confirmed by Kings Casimir Jagielloczyk in 1453, and Sigismund the Elder in 1539. The Statute, written in Latin, was here translated into English for the first time. It shows the legal framework for Jewish presence in medieval and Renaissance Poland. The traditions of this Statute carried on, so far as the majority of Poles was concerned, well into the times of partitions. But of course the partitioning powers had their own policies toward Jews, and these came to be identified with Poland.

Part Two consists of reproductions of paintings and other artwork on Jewish topics. Part Three is a collection of maps of the Polish state, as well as of Poland under the partitions, drawn from the standpoint of Jewish presence and interests in Poland.

Pogonowski points out that between 1340 and 1772, the Jewish population of Poland grew 75-fold, from about 10,000 to over three quarters of a million. During the same period, the Christian population grew only five-fold. In the seventeenth century, the Jewish population began to explode. Widespread teenage marriages resulted in unprecedented birthrates, considerably higher than among the rest of the population. Between 1650 and 1770, the number of Jews in Poland increased by over 300 percent. By 1825, Jews comrpised an ethnic and cultural minority of over 1,600,000 in the lands of the Polish Commonwealth annexed by Russia. The Russian census of 1897 indicated a further 300 percent increase, to nearly six million. In the Second Polish Republic, Jews numbered over three million and formed ten percent of the population.

Another section of the book deals with German and Polish documentation of 'the final solution.' While stressing that many Poles, themselves threatened by cruel reprisals, remained indifferent to Jewish martyrdom, the author points out that Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe where an attempt to help Jews was punishable by death. Nevertheless a surprisingly large number of Poles showed superhuman courage by saving some 60,000 Jews. This was especially true of the Polish clergy, convents, and monasteries.

The thesis of the book is that the Polish experience was crucial not only to modern Judaism but also, and primarily, to Zionism and to the self-perception of Jews today. The allegiances of ethnicity and religion whichZionism fostered developed in Poland, the author contends, and it did so parallel to several other such developments in the area, such as identification of Poles with Catholicism, Russians with Eastern Orthodoxy, and so forth. The centuries of partial self-rule which Jews enjoyed in the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica, as well as the early privileges granted to Jews by King Casimir the Great and other rulers, provided a breathing space in which Jews could confirm their identity while also bringing to Poland their superior competence in finance, trade, and the professions. Poland was a shelter for Ashkenazi Jews during the worst of times, when expulsions from Western Europe thinned down the ranks of Jews there. In Poland, in contrast, Jews grew at a rate far surpassing that of the Polish population.

The book endeavors to 'encompass' Jews within the Polish discourse, a rarity in American scholarship and in the discourse about Jews. While Poles have often been encompassed within the Jewish discourse (and also within other discourses), the other way round has never been attempted. This pioneering attempt, as well as the sheer volume of documentation gathered in this volume, make Pogonowski's opus remarkable and unusual.

M. K. Dziewanowski is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His most recent book is War at Any Price (1990).

Return to April 1997 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 07/02/97