When my father was a boy in Poland, streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, "Jews, go back to Palestine." When my father revisited Europe 50 years later, the walls had new graffiti, "Jews, get out of Palestine."
- Amos Oz
LET'S TALK ABOUT HOW ABSURD THIS IS
Among the ugliest discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the absurd claim that Jews are settler colonizers who should go back to Poland (or another Eastern European country of choice, though usually it is Poland).
Israel today is home to some seven million Jews, comprising about half of the world’s Jewish population. Out of those seven million Jews, only about 1.25 million Israeli Jews actually hail from families who ever lived in Poland. The majority of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi and Sephardic descent, meaning that for most, their ancestors lived in the Middle East or North Africa during their time in the Diaspora.
It’s not only absurd to tell Jews whose families never set foot in Poland to “go back to Poland,” but it’s also extremely offensive to tell Jews whose families did actually live in Poland to “go back to Poland.” Why?
Well, it’s like telling Jews to go back to the country that abused us for 1000 years.
It’s astounding to me that the same “progressive” people that purport to care about refugees demand that Jewish refugees return to the country where they experienced hundreds of years of massacres, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and more. If you wouldn’t demand that of other refugees, why in the world is it okay to say about Jews?
POLAND: FROM WELCOMING HAVEN TO RELENTLESS PERSECUTION
The first established Jewish communities in Poland were formed by Jews fleeing the genocidal massacres of the Crusades, though the number of Jews in Eastern Europe was still small.
By the 1500s, only 10,000-30,000 Jews resided in Eastern Europe. However, the community in Poland grew substantially following another genocidal wave of massacres in Central Europe and the Spanish Inquisition, when a small percentage of Sephardic Jews found haven in Poland. In the sixteenth century, during the reign of Sigismund I the Old, Poland became a safe haven for Jews. This changed quickly.
In the mid-seventeenth century, 20 percent of Polish Jews were murdered in massacres at the hands of the Cossacks. After Poland came under Russian rule in the 1700s, the situation further deteriorated. Jews were confined to a region known as the “Pale of Settlement,” an area encompassing Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, much of Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Latvia. In the 1800s, the Russian Empire passed laws condemning a large percentage of Jews to forced military service.
In the late nineteenth century, a horrific wave of anti-Jewish massacres swept the Russian Empire, eventually reaching Poland. The most brutal of the pogroms in Polish territory occurred between 1903 and 1906, most notably the Białystok pogrom, carried out by the tsarist forces and other mobs that joined in on the violence.
In the interwar period, when Poles sought sovereignty, antisemitism in Polish society skyrocket, as Poles perceived Jews as a threat to Polish hegemony and Jews were largely indifferent to Polish national aspirations. Additionally, scientific racist ideology in Poland had its heyday during this period, which translates into displays of racial antisemitism.
POLISH TREATMENT OF JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST
90 percent of Polish Jews — about 3 million people — were murdered in the relatively short span of the German occupation of Poland (1939-1945). The Germans deployed about 80,000 SS members to Poland during the war. In other words, Polish Jews drastically outnumbered the SS forces. The only reason 3 million Polish Jews could be murdered during the Holocaust was due to widespread Polish collaboration and, more significantly, indifference and complicity.
It’s estimated that 5 percent of the Polish population ACTIVELY collaborated with the Germans, while 25 percent ACTIVELY resisted the occupation. However, almost every single non-Jewish Pole was indifferent to the German persecution of Jews. Even those that actively resisted the occupation were not much interested in saving or helping Jews at best and at worst were complicit (see next slide). It’s estimated that around 4000 Poles actively acted as blackmailers and informants for the Germans. As many as several hundred thousand worked for the Germans as government officials, police officers, and more.
Polish citizens also perpetrated anti-Jewish massacres during the war. For instance, in 1941, non-Jewish Polish civilians engaged in a premeditated mass murder in the town of Jedwabne. Jews were dragged out of their homes, forced to pull weeds between cobblestones, beaten, forced to dance, and mocked in various ways. A group of 40-50 Jewish men were made to tear down a Lenin statue and bury it into a pit. Then they were murdered and thrown into that same pit. About 300 Jews, including women and children, were locked inside a barn and burned alive.
Other Polish massacres of Jews during the Holocaust include the Szczuczyn massacre of 1941, a massacre so brutal that the Nazi forces stopped the Polish mobs after they’d killed some 300 Jews with axes, and the Radziłów massacre, when, egged on by the German soldiers, Poles locked Jewish men, women, children, and the elderly and burnt them alive, resulting in 600-1600 deaths.
The Armia Krajowa, also known as the Home Army, was the main Polish resistance movement during World War II. In the discussion of Polish collaboration, indifference, and complicity during the Holocaust, the role of the Home Army is undoubtedly the most contentious. The hero status of the Home Army in Poland makes a nuanced conversation about their role in the persecution of Jews all but impossible.
First, it’s important to note that it was courier Jan Karaski of the Home Army that delivered the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the Western powers. While the Home Army sometimes collaborated with the Jewish partisans (an example being during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), the attitude of the Home Army was that Jews were “not a part of our nation.” The Home Army was mostly preoccupied with seeking independence from German rule, not with the Holocaust or the plight of Jews.
In 1943, after the Germans captured the previous Home Army commander, the new commander, a sympathizer with the antisemitic rightwing National Party, ensured that the Home Army no longer provide aid or arms to Jews. With its new leadership, the Home Army became openly antisemitic, culminating in acts of mass murder. In July 1943, this same commander ordered that “Jewish communist bands” were “liquidated at once with total ruthlessness.” In December 1943, a Home Army report stated, “There is certain sympathy for the Jews. It is better, however, that they are no longer here and no one desires to see them return after the war.”
It’s estimated that around 2000 Jewish Holocaust survivors were murdered at the hands of Polish citizens between the end of the war and 1946.
At the end of the war, the newly established communist regime in Poland prevented Jews from recovering property confiscated during the Holocaust as a “preventative measure” to keep wealth from “unproductive and parasite factors.” Even so, some Jews attempted to recover their old property and homes in Poland. When they returned to their old homes, these Jews were often robbed, assaulted, or even murdered by locals. Anti-Jewish massacres in Poland in the aftermath of the Holocaust were also common. The first post-Holocaust pogrom was the Krakow pogrom, which took place in August of 1945. After that, pogroms spread to 11 other Polish cities.
The most significant post-Holocaust pogrom in Poland was the Kielce pogrom in July of 1946. Around 200 Jewish Holocaust survivors returned to Kielce, Poland at the end of the war, many of whom were originally from Kielce and others who were passing through as refugees. They lived together in a makeshift refugee center. Starting in the summer of 1946, false claims that Jews were kidnapping Polish children spread around Kielce. In response, police approached the refugee center. This drew the attention of the local residents. A Jewish man was arrested and beaten, though he was let go when the police realized the claims were obviously false. However, the police then claimed that Jews were causing a political provocation, so they dispatched soldiers and police to the building. Soon, a civilian mob broke into the building. The soldiers were egged on by the crowd and dragged Jews out of the house, passing them on to the mob. Jews were shot, beaten, and even thrown out windows. All of this culminated in the murder of 42 Jews.
“I would like to mention that as a former prisoner of concentration camps I have not gone through an experience like this. I have seen very little sadism and bestiality of this scale.” — Kielce pogrom survivor
1968: JEWS ETHNICALLY CLEANSED FROM POLAND, AGAIN
In 1968, a series of student-led protests broke out against the Communist government of Poland. The Polish government responded to the instability by scapegoating their now tiny post-Holocaust Jewish community. They enacted a massive “anti-Zionist” propaganda campaign, spreading conspiracies that Zionist were plotting to take over Poland.
Poles were forced to denounce Zionism and Jews were purged from their positions in the government and other sectors, accused of holding dual loyalties to Israel. Many were arrested, beaten, and tortured. The government created lists of Jews, eerily echoing Nazi Germany. The 1968 Polish political crisis is sometimes called a “symbolic pogrom” because the severe disenfranchisement Jews experienced resulted in a series of suicides.
15,000 out of 25,000 Jews in Poland were stripped of their Polish citizenship in 1968…over two decades after the end of the Holocaust.
Poland is not exactly a safe haven for Jews in 2023, either. The country continues to persecute historians and journalists that expose Poland’s role in the Holocaust. In 2021, a Polish court ruled that a Holocaust scholar had to apologize for claiming her deceased uncle had helped kill Jews during World War II.
A Polish law passed in 1998 which made it illegal to accuse Poland of responsibility or complicity with the Germans during the Holocaust. Civil charges can also be brought to anyone who defames or tarnishes the reputation of the country or its citizens. “Lucky Jew dolls,” which are supposed to bring financial fortune (yep…), are still a popular souvenir in Poland; in fact, Poland has more Jew dolls than actual Jews. Memorials commemorating the Jewish Holocaust victims in Poland have been defaced time and time again.
"GO BACK TO…"
The phrase “go back to where you came from” is a racist and xenophobic expression first popularized by the Ku Klux Klan, though its origins date at least all the way back to the late 1700s. It became increasingly common in the aftermath of World War I and was hurled as an insult targeting Black folks, Asian folks, Latine and Hispanic folks, and Jews, among other minority groups.
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