Antony Polonsky

David's Bookclub: The Jews in Poland and Russia

Antony Polonsky's The Jews in Poland and Russia is a stupendous - almost crushing - work of scholarship. It occupies three fat volumes, and as of the day before Yom Kippur I have not quite finished Volume 1, which takes the story from the 14th century to 1881. (I expect to complete my reading in the quiet hours of Yom Kippur afternoon.) Who knows when I'll undertake Volumes 2 & 3?

Polonsky's work is so minutely detailed that it doesn't lend themselves to easy description. Instead, I'll summarize three more general ideas I took from dips into and out of the first volume over the past two months.

1) North American Jews of Eastern European origin will often refer to their immigrant ancestors' nationality. These national identities arrived late, and often very accidentally. The Jewish communities north of the Carpathian mountains had been founded within the old Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The people in them only became "German" or "Lithuanian" or "Russian" or "Hungarian" after the commonwealth was carved up in the late 18th century between Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg empire. As those societies urbanized, Jews on one side or the other of these partition lines would migrate to cities for economic and educational opportunities. There, they would acquire the language and join the culture of their new nationality, subject to the tolerance of their new rulers and their own instincts for traditionalism.

Some of these new nationalities proved more attractive and more welcoming than others. Ironically, the language and culture to which the Jews of the former Polish commonwealth were attracted least was that of Poland itself. Deprived of the last vestiges of its autonomy after the uprisings of 1830 and 1863, Poland had little to offer Jews who wanted to integrate to the local cultural mainstream. (Polonsky prefers the term "integrate" to the more familiar "assimilate.)

And so, while a Jewish community soon flourished in Warsaw and other cities of Russian Poland, it flourished in Yiddish and Russian, not Polish - an important cause of the antisemitism that would spread through the Polish middle class in the 19th century.

2) Jews migrated to the Polish commonwealth in the years from 1350 through 1550 because Poland was in many ways the America of its time: a huge under-populated country that offered tolerance and opportunity. Jews first arrived in Poland as refugees. The bubonic plague of the 1340s was often blamed on Jews by the Ahmadinejads of the era. Because of its very low population densities, Poland was untouched the plague - and by the ensuing pogroms.

Over the next 200 years, Poland emerged as a major wheat exporter to the rest of Europe, creating a new international trade and opening economic opportunities soon filled by a literate, multilingual Jewish population. American Jews carry a folk memory of the deep poverty of rural Eastern Europe. But their distant ancestors moved east from the Rhineland and northern Italy into 16th century Poland for a reason - not just the push of persecution, but the pull of opportunity. Economic decline came later: after the catastrophic uprisings and wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, after the destruction of the region's economic unity, after Western Europe's great economic leap forward in the industrial era.

3) Jewish communities in the Polish commonwealth enjoyed high degrees of autonomy. So long as they paid their taxes to the Polish authorities, these communities - kehilot as they were called - were largely left alone to govern themselves. At first, the kehilot enjoyed very favorable terms and conditions. Later, as the Polish state failed and traditions of tolerance faltered, conditions turned harsher. Under Russian rule, the once-autonomous kehilot were put to sinister new use as devices of control and oppression.

The sad end of the kehilot should not obscure their impressive earlier history. Polonsky makes the important point that when Jews from eastern Europe began to migrate to Palestine after 1881, they carried with them ancient traditions of self-government. The story of Israel democracy may have been shaped by the Enlightenment ideals of western Europe, but it was founded upon indigenous Jewish traditions of self-rule. The Zionists borrowed from others, but they borrowed to enrich a deep inheritance of their own.