Jewish quarter, 1937. Photo by Roman Vishniac (taken from http://servatius.blogspot.com/2012/01/jewish-quarter-warsaw-poland-1937.html)
Political Parties and Groups among the Jews of Poland and Western Ukraine in 1919–1939
From the editor: the political spectrum of the Jewish organizations that emerged in Poland between the two wars became to a large degree the main factor in forming the range of views and opinions of the future of the Jewish life not only in the Diaspora but even in the yishuv. Therefore, we thought the political life of the Polish Jews in the above-mentioned years is of more than just regional significance and would be of interest to our readers.
Right after the First World War, political groups and non-party associations of Jewish people became active in Poland and Western Ukraine. By the end of the 1920-s, their number had doubled on the beginning of the century. The security department of the Lviv province, writing to the head of Lviv on December 19, 1929, lists the following political groups that were active among the Jews of Poland and Western UkrainePolitical Parties and Groups among the Jews of Poland and Western Ukraine in 1919–1939 :
1. Agudas Israel
2. Zionists of various political directions
4. Folk Party (Folkpartai)
5. People’s Democratic Party
7. Association of Assimilators
The “Agudas Israel”, “Mizrakhi”, and Zionists also had youth, women’s, and workers’ organizations.
Along with the listed political parties, there also were school, cultural and enlightening, charitable organizations, and various public funds. They were considered apolitical or non-party, but their leaders cooperated to different degrees with different political parties. The most influential were the “Agudas Israel” conservative party and the party of religious Zionists “Mizrakhi”.
“Agudas Israel” was formed in 1912 in the town of Katowice (Silezia) as an international movement of three groups of the Jews of the Central and Eastern Europe: neo-Orthodox Jews of Germany, Orthodox Jews of Hungary, and religious Jews of Poland and Lithuania. Later, their youth, workers’, and women’s parties were also set up.
In 1916, an “Agudas Glortodaxim” party emerged in Warsaw. Two years later, it got registered under the name of “Party of Peace to Faithful Israelites”, and in 1919, it was renamed to “Agudas Israel” in independent Poland. A little later, its “Iyerey Agudas Israel” youth organization, “Bnois Agudas Israel” women’s section, and “Hapoel Agudas Israel” workers’ organization were created. The Orthodox Jews and non-party Chassidim of “Afas Haredim” actively cooperated with them. The work of “Agudas Israel” mainly focused on the protection of the interests of the petty Jewish bourgeoisie, religious life of the Jews, the training of the young people and their members in the spirit of the Torah and other holy books. The party did not publish its activity programs. We find elements of such programs in the registered statutes of its individual organizations and in the materials of their congresses and regional conferences.
In the course of the 1920-s, “Agudas Israel” was very popular among the religious Jews of the Lublin and Lodz provinces, in the towns and shtetls of Western Ukraine (Eastern Galicia and Volyn). This is seen from the outcome of elections to the Jewish communities (kagals) and local municipalities. Thus, the Lviv, Ternopil, and Stanislaw provinces had 35, 29, and 24 Jewish communities respectively. In their councils and boards, the “Agudas Israel” party had 34, 30, and 32 deputies elected respectively. In most kagals, more than 50% of their council members were elected from “Agudas Israel”. They usually won the support of non-party Orthodox and Chassidic Jews of the righteous tsadikim dynasties. “Agudas Israel” had representatives in the sejm and the senate of Poland, in some provincial and city councils, where they always spoke in support of the ruling classes and the official administration. During the elections to the legislative bodies of Poland in 1922, “Agudas Israel” won six seats out of the 35 Jewish mandates in the seim, and two out of 12 Jewish mandates in the senate of Poland.
“Agudas Israel” took part in the Bloc of National Minorities that was formed in 1922 and that fought for a national cultural autonomy. A party congress took place in 1925. A total of 600 delegates came to attend the congress, most of them representing local organizations of small towns of the Lodz and Lublin provinces and the cities of Western Ukraine. Delegates from Eastern Galicia addressed the congress: they demanded that the party pay special attention to the socioeconomic problems of the petty Jewish bourgeoisie, expand the network of no-interest pawnshops and coop societies, and strengthen its influence upon teaching in kheders, junior schools, and “Beit Yakov” schools for girls.
Representatives of the “Agudas Israel” party intensified their fight with representatives of other parties in 1924. The fight focused for the most part on the influence upon the policy of municipal councils in cities and Jewish communities (kagals). The latter had to become strictly religious structures of the Jewish population, they believed.
An important area of public activities of “Agudas Israel” was its fight for influence on the nature of training of the young people. Its activists and communal and city municipalities fought for increasing the funds for the building of religious schools for Jewish children in towns and for providing more money to the private and state-run schools. They supervised the learning process in the private Jewish schools, the levels and methods of teaching religion and history of the Jewish people.
The “Agudas Israel” party was quite popular among the Jews of small towns and shtetls of the eastern provinces of Poland and Western Ukraine, but it had no clear inner-party discipline.
In Galicia, the “Agudas Israel” party had great influence on the international “Agudas Israel” organization.
During the period between the two wars, activists of “Agudas Israel” supervised the work of Jewish religious schools and yeshivas, organized courses for the learning of Hebrew and religious instructions of “Shulchan Arukh” and the Holy Scriptures, provided financial aid to yeshiva and religious school students. The “Agudas Israel” party had its own publications. In Warsaw, they published “Der Yid” (“The Jew”) weekly; in Lodz – “Ortodoxishe Bletlekh” (“Orthodox Leaflets”); in Kolomya and Warsaw – the illustrated “Beit Yakov” monthly and a “Yidisher Arbaiter” (“Jewish Worker”) newspaper in Yiddish.
When the economic crisis hit Poland and Western Ukraine, many religious Jews lost their jobs. The influence of “Agudas Israel” plummeted down, but Jewish religious groups continued to support them, especially during the time of elections.
The Zionist movement began to develop in Western Ukraine in the 1870–80-s. Zionist organizations emerged in the Kingdom of Poland at the same time. At the end of 1918, the Federation of Zionist Organizations («Gistadrut haHazioni») was formed and immediately recognized by the German authorities that were ruling Poland at that time. The Federation incorporated the “Democratic Organization of Zionists” whose objective was to protect the Jews of Poland and fight for their equality of rights, to spread ideas of Zionism, and to encourage Jewish people to emigrate to Palestine.
The Democratic Organization of Zionists stood against cooperation with anti-Semites as well as with Jewish Orthodox and Chassidim.
Democratic Zionists were soon joined by the youth “He Halutz” (“Pioneer”) group that organized labor emigration of young people to Palestine. They wanted to create an independent ethnic place for the Jewish people there. First, the group stood for socialists ideas and the idea of creating in Palestine a Jewish state whose economy will be based upon public property for the main means of production.
In October 1917, a conference of all Zionist organizations of Poland got together in Warsaw. Among other things, it focused on the discussion of an official language in the future Jewish state. Most of the delegates to the conference spoke out for the revival of the ancient Jewish language, Hebrew, as the official language of communication, while preserving Yiddish as the language of communication among the Jewish people in the Galuth. This question remained a stumbling block for a long time, and a subject of debates among leaders of Jewish organizations.
At that time, a revolution took place in Russia, Germany and her allies were soon to be defeated in the First World War. All of this helped towards a rapid growth of influence of the Zionist ideas among the Jews of Europe. In many Polish cities, as well as in Galicia and Volyn, many Jewish communities (kagals) found themselves under the influence of the Zionists. At the end of 1918, recognized leader of the Polisth Zionists, Itskhak Grinbaum, returned to Warsaw from Petersburg. He was immediately elected chairman of the Zionist Federation in Warsaw and all Poland.
The situation of the Jewish people in Eastern Galicia was more complicated. In the beginning of November 1918, the West-Ukrainian People’s Republic (WUPR) was formed. The program declaration of WUPR and the Ukrainian National Rada emphasized that “In the Ukrainian state, all citizens will be truly equal before the Law no matter what their language, faith, origin, or sex is”. This strengthened the desire of the Jewish people to support the efforts of the Ukrainians to have their own independent state. This support grew because anti-Jewish excesses took place in a number of towns in the Carpathians, in which city mob and soldiers of the Polish Army took active part. But in order to prevent any ill feeling on the part of the Poles against the Jews, the Jewish National Councils in Lviv, Stanislaw, and other towns of Galicia declared that the Jewish population will keep strictly neutral concerning the Ukrainians and Poles fighting for the power in Eastern Galicia. The Ukrainian side showed understanding to this tactics of the Jews.
The Polish side however took the Jewish neutral position as an attack against Poland. By that time, the elected composition of WUPR’s sejm, which consisted of 226 deputies, included 27 Jewish people who represented all districts of Eastern Galicia (11.9% of all deputies). Jewish liking to WUPR grew more and more.
Meanwhile, Zionist influence grew in the centers of Poland and Western Galicia. This is seen from the success of the Zionist organizations. The success of the Zionist Federation in Warsaw was seen in the growing number of its members. In 1919, it numbered 26 thousand members who were united in 180 local organizations. The Federation turned to the Paris Peace Conference with a memorandum, demanding recognition of the Jewish people to creation of an independent Jewish state in the land of their forefathers. 288 thousand citizens of Poland had signed the memorandum.
In January 1919, the first elections to the legislating bodies of the Polish Republic took place. Zionists took active part in the elections and had significant success. In Warsaw and other Polish cities, the Zionists won a lot of votes for mandates in the sejm and the senate. In Eastern Galicia, 91% voted for the Zionist deputies. In Western Galicia, the Zionists won 46% of votes, and in Volyn – a mere 7% of votes. The left-wing Zionist organizations, such as Paolei Tsion, won a lot of votes in these districts. A club of ambassadors from the Temporary Jewish Council was set up in the Polish Sejm.
On their initiative, the Jewish Councils of Warsaw and Krakow sent a special delegation to Paris, where together with the Jewish delegates from other countries they formed a United Committee of Jewish Delegation under the Peace Conference in Paris. In May 1919, the Committee declared its demand to the Peace Conference: introduce clauses (provisions that guarantee equal rights to ethnic minorities, including the Jews, in the country of their dwelling) into agreements with the newly forming states of Central and Eastern Europe.
Leaders of the Zionist organizations hoped that immediately after peace is made, Jewish people will start emigrating from Eastern Europe to Palestine in great numbers. The Zionist Federation in Warsaw founded a special “Palestinian Bureau” to organize the moving of the Jews who wished to emigrate to Palestine. Similar Bureaus were also created in Lviv and other cities of Western Ukraine. These Bureaus established necessary contacts with the local government structures and with some officials of Great Britain. But the British mandate authorities soon showed lack of willingness to cooperate with these Bureaus while Zionist organizations were unable to finance massive emigration of Jews to Palestine. This led to a drop in the popularity of the Zionist policy. Free emigration to Eretz Israel was replaced with distribution of certificates by the Zionist organizations. On the basis of these certificates, the mandate authorities in Palestine issued visas, that is, permission to enter Palestine. The popularity of Zionist organizations was on decline. At the same time, the Zionist Federation (Histadrut haTzioni) of Poland got divided into three autonomous centers.
There were a lot of misunderstanding and differences among the Zionist organizations of different centers due to the different conditions of development of Zionism in Poland. The greatest differences were formed in the policy of the Zionist organization of Eastern Galicia and the Warsaw center. The Zionist organizations of Galicia, known as “El Livnot” (“Time to Build”) often contradicted the policy of the Zionists of the Warsaw center headed by I. Grinbaum and known as “Al haMishmar” (“On Guard”). These contradictions were born of the different conditions of the development of the organization as well as of the personal ambitions of leaders of the Zionist organizations of different centers: Warsaw, Eastern Galicia and Western Galicia and Silesia.
In 1931 and later, many attempts were made at uniting all the Zionist organizations under the leadership of one center. But all of these attempts failed. Contradictions and uncoordinated policies continued until the end of the 1930s. All these factors weakened the unity of the Jewish people and when aggression against Poland began, the Jewry of Poland and its parties were too split and weakened, which became one of the reasons behind the total extermination of the Jews of Poland and Galicia.
In the beginning of the Second World War, simultaneously with the occupation of Poland in 1939 and of Western Ukraine by the Soviet armies, all Jewish, including Zionist organizations, were ruined. Many of their leaders fled to the eastern lands of former Poland that were occupied by the Soviet Union. Here, most of them, including rank-and-file members of Zionist organizations were either repressed or killed by the Nazi during their occupation of the West-Ukrainian lands.
In the 1920-30s, the party of religious Jewish Zionists “Mizrakhi” (“Merkaz Ruhami” – “Spiritual Center”) had significant influence on the Jews of small towns of Poland and Galicia. This party emerged in 1902 in Katowice. Soon, it became the world movement of religious Jews, recognized the idea of Zionism, but remained in that movement as an autonomous faction of the World Zionist Organization. Its program was formulated in one phrase: “Land of Israel (Eretz Israel) to the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel”.
In 1917, “Mizrakhi” declared itself an independent party of religious Jews of Poland with its center in Warsaw. Famous Holy Scriptures and Talmud scholar Chaim Farbstein stood at its head.
In 1930s, “Mizrakhi” began to demand that the Zionist leaders issue a larger number of certificates for the Jewish emigration to Palestine. It was related to the growing impoverishment of small businesses, retailers and tradesmen in Poland, which resulted from aggressive economic struggle against Jewish businessmen with the use of the so-called economic anti-Semitism: economic boycott of Jewish shops and stores that was organized by anti-Semites led to a growth of unemployment among the Jewish petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletarians. During the years of the crisis of 1929–1933, the influence of one of the rabbis that tended towards Zionism grew immensely. It was famous Talmudist and scholar, Abraham Itzhak Cook (1865, Daugavpils – 1935, Jerusalem). Rabbi Cook, a highly influential authority among the religious Jews, began to actively cooperate with the Zionist parties. This caused a lot of protests among the Orthodox and Chassidic Jews. Even on the verge of the war, he tried to persuade a certain part of religious Orthodox Jews to Zionism. He went to their conference «Agudat Israel» in Prague and addressed them with a fiery speech in support of the ideals of Zionism. But he was not very successful. Soon, he emigrated to Palestine where for a long time he was the leading rabbi of Jerusalem.
In the 1930s, the number of “Mizrakhi” members grew at the expense of “Agudas Israel” because young people got more and more convinced of lack of any prospects for them if they stay in Poland. More and more of them wanted to emigrate to Palestine.
The party of leftist liberals, or the folks party (folkpartai, folkists) had a mild influence upon the Jews of Poland. It emerged in some Polish cities during the First World War under the name of “Yidishe Folkspartai” (“Jewish National Party”). It was founded by great historian Shimon Dubnov in 1906. Dubnov formulated its program, according to which the Jewish secular communal organization in cities, being managed “on the democratic basis, should become the foundation for the Jewish national existence under the conditions of an autonomy. The community should open Jewish schools, determine the language of tuition depending on the circumstances and the wishes of parents – Hebrew, Yiddish, or the language of the country of dwelling, but the spirit and objectives of education must be Jewish”. Dubnov’s program envisaged creation of a world Jewish congress, which was to deal with the problems pertaining to the world Jewry.
In Poland, the party of folkists was formed in 1920, and in 1926, the party was split. The Vilne branch of the party formed its own faction in 1926.
Since the very beginning, the Jewish national party supported the restoration of Polish statehood and the Polish election program. But its organizations in localities were small. The party of folkists was influential among the petty bourgeoisie. It determined to a large degree the policy of such popular papers as “Moment” in Warsaw.
A small party under the name of the “Socialist Party of Labor” (“Mafleget Avoda Tzianit Hitahdut”) also joined the Zionist movement in Poland and then in Galicia. It emerged in early 1920 from the right-wing young organizations of “Tseirey Tsion” (“Young Zionists”) and “Hapoel Hatsair”. Its program was adopted in 1922 in Lviv. It envisaged the training of the youth in the Zionist spirit, the striving to create a national center of the Jewish people in Palestine, propaganda and helping towards emigration of the Jewish youth to Palestine where on the basis of mass productive labor of many teams a modern-day economy was to be built, which later had to become the foundation of an independent national state of the Jews in Eretz Israel.
The Zionist organizations in Poland and Galicia had no program of their own. All the Zionist organizations and their members followed the single program of the World Zionist Organization which envisaged creation of a national Jewish state in Palestine that would be guaranteed by a Constitution. All the Zionist organizations pursued this objective. Their goals was organization and the strengthening of the national self-identification and emigration to Palestine to set up a national state for all the Jewish people there.
Jewish socialist parties emerged in Poland and Galicia in the last quarter of the 19th century. First, they acted as clubs. In 1897, the General Union of Jewish Workers “Bund” (“Algemainer Yiddisher Arbaiter Ferband Bund”) was set up. Its activities covered the whole territory of the Russian Empire, including the Polish Kingdom. An independent Jewish socialist party emerged in Galicia in 1905.
Under the influence of the Zionist and Socialist ideas, Jewish socialist organizations of workers emerged in the beginning of the 20th century in the Polish Kingdom: Zionist Workers (“Yiddishe Social-Democratishe Arbater Partai”), “Poalei Tzion”. Later, organizations of “Poalei Tzion” also appeared in the cities of Galicia and Volyn.
Late in 1918, the “Jewish Socialist Working Party United” was established. After the revolution of 1917, “Bund” became an independent working party of Jewish workers in Russia and Ukraine. Two years later, in 1920, “Poalei Tzion” split into two separate parties: “Poalei Tzion” (left-wing) and “Poalei Tzion” (right-wing). The latter joined a small group of Polish “Independent Socialists” as a faction.
“Poalei Tzion” (left-wing) drew closer and closer to the Communist parties of Poland and Western Ukraine, while the right-wing “Poalei Tzion” organized independent youth organization “Dror” (“Freedom”) in 1925.
Between the two wars, the socialist parties remained in the state of constant debates on ideological issues. Bund, for instance, spoke out against emigration of Jewish people to Palestine, fighting for the solution of the Jewish question through establishing a cultural-national autonomy in democratic Poland. Bund members hoped for a full resolution of the Jewish question only after the establishment of a socialist regime based upon public property of the main means of production. Bund believed that Jewish emigration to Palestine is an unrealistic task and tried to find a solution to the Jewish question through creation of a cultural-national autonomy. Moreover, Bund members saw the potential solution of the Jewish question only after the victory of a socialist revolution.
“Poalei Tzion” strove to solve the Jewish problem through creation of an independent national state in Palestine on the basis of socialist principles for public labor and public property of the main means of production.
They saw temporary solution to the Jewish problem in creation in Poland and other countries of cultural-national autonomy with the assistance of parties of other nationalities. They hoped that conditions for a cultural-national autonomy of the Jewish population would emerge only in socialist Poland. They viewed communism as a utopia leading to a totalitarian system.
Apart from the “Poalei Tzion” (right-wing), all the Jewish socialist parties were considered left-wing and cooperated with the international socialist movement, although they none of them belonged to the Second International. Meanwhile, “Poalei Tzion” (right-wing) took part in the work of the Second International.
We should also note that in the beginning of the Polish statehood in 1918–1919, Jewish socialist parties took active part in the work of the Councils, while in the future, some Jewish left-wing organizations tended to cooperate with the communist parties. Bund was in active cooperation with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Inside the Jewish public circles, all the Jewish social democratic parties consistently fought against the Orthodox Jews, while Bund always criticized Zionistic ideas.
Left-wing Jewish political parties were very popular among the proletarian and semi-proletarian Jewish population. In Poland and Galicia, they fought with each other for the influence over the working Jewish youth. Bund and its youth organizations “Tsukunft” (“Future”) were very popular among the Jewish working youth. The greatest rivalry existed between the “Poalei Tzion”, Bund, and left-wing members of PPS.
Jewish socialist parties had a wide network of periodicals. In connection with frequent repressions from the governmental censorship, they often changed their titles. The most stable periodicals were Bund’s papers in Warsaw “Unzer Folkstsaitung” (“Our People’s Newspaper), “Unzer Gedank” (“Our Understanding”) in Vilnius, and the “Working Paper” in Chenstohov. “Poalei Tzion” (left-wing) published the “Arbaiter-Welt” (“Working World”) weekly in Warsaw.
At the head of the general Jewish working union “Bund” stood quite popular political figures. Most famous of them were Victor Alter and Henrich Erlich (historian Dubnov’s son-in-law). Both died in the Soviet prison in 1941– 1942.
Assimilators. The movement of assimilators emerged in the second half of the 19th century in Warsaw, Krakow and Lviv. It mostly consisted of representatives of the Jewish intellectuals who embraced the Polish culture and traditions, communication, and the Polish national lifestyle. First, these were few office workers in the district administration of the occupied Poland and Galicia, participants in the Polish national liberating movement. Soon, they were joined by a part of the Jewish intellectuals: lawyers, doctors, and petty officers of the local administration. Many of them identified themselves as “Poles of the Jewish religion”.
Between the two wars, the assimilators were united in several independent organizations. In the beginning of the 1920s, one of the groups of assimilators in Eastern Galicia was headed by doctor Bruno Blumenfeld and Marceli Shapiro. Their organization number around 300 members, mostly young people who had received education in Polish schools, in the Krakow and Lviv State Universities, and other institutions of higher learning of Austria and Poland.
In the beginning of the 1920s, the “Jewish Club of Bourgeois” was created in Lviv. Its leaders were elected vice chairman of the Lviv city council Victor Khayes and Oswald Zasser. The Club united mostly Jews of free professions, lawyers, doctors, and petty officials of the local administration. In the 1920s, the Club numbered 260 members. They considered themselves as assimilated into the Polish culture and traditions, spoke only Polish to each other, dreamed of becoming full-fledged citizens of the Polish state and be named “Jewish Poles”.
A large group of students of Polish and foreign institutions of higher learning was similar to them. This group united Jewish students led by B. Goldman. In 1925, this group of assimilators numbered around 200 people, mainly students and officers of the local city administration.
The largest was the “Unity” society that emerged in Lviv and Krakow in 1919. It was headed by Doctor Emil Shpet. The program of this organization, just like other groups of assimilators, envisaged plans to become Poles through full merging with the Polish society, by the drawing closer and embracing of traditions and the Polish lifestyle, the study of the history and culture of the Poles, and gradual merging with the Polish society. In the beginning of 1930, groups of assimilators tried to get united into a single organization called “Poles of Jewish Religion” in order to take independent part in elections to the legislating structures of the Polish state, sejm and senate, and to the local bodies of power.
The Warsaw “Folkstsaitung” paper (February 23, 1981) published an article of Al. Gliksman headlined “Programs of Jewish Political Parties on the Eve of the War”. It said, “The main political forces among the Jews of Poland and Galicia were: “Agudas Israel”, Zionist parties, and the General Working Union “Bund”. On the eve of the elections to the Jewish kagals (communities), “Agudas Israel” tried to draw the votes of electors by accusing all non-religious Jews and parties of betraying their Jewishness. In all of their meetings, they shouted that all the Zionist and working parties of Bund are drawing away from religion, that is, - from Jewishness. The only force for the Jews of Poland is “Agudas Israel”. Only this group stands on the position of Judaism, faith in the Torah, defending the interests of the Jewish population. The rest of the parties draw Jews away from religion, so they are anti-Jewish. But this unconvincing propaganda and urges to embark on the path of the laws of the Torah and Judaism did not help. Young people did not want to listen to unrealistic calls and moved more and more towards other political forces. On the eve of the war, more and more Jews in Poland got convinced that there was no future for the Jewish youth in Poland, and tried to move to other countries. Communists and leftists dreamed of communism in the Soviet Union where they believed Jewish people had a free and happy life. Reality proved that it was a large-scale deception. Total bankruptcy of communistic ideas for the Jews of the Soviet Union disillusioned them. Bund members lost their illusions and dreams of justice and good relations in the socialist Poland. All ideals of political parties turned out to be unfounded illusions and deception. The Jewish national can develop normally in a country with the people able to build real democratic government for all its citizens without nationalism or chauvinism. It will take a long time to happen in the east of Europe”.