Dr. Kamil Kijek of the University of Wrocław, in Poland. (photo from University of British Columbia)
For Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, the question of where to begin life anew after the cataclysm was not as clear as it might seem in hindsight.
Looking back at the successive tragedies of postwar life for Jews in Poland, it might seem obvious that the blood-soaked homeland held little hope for the future. The choices for survivors limited their options, though, and the faith that, surely, the worst had passed played a role in the decision by tens of thousands to try rebuilding their families on the soil of their ancestors.
The disastrous history of Jews in postwar Poland was the subject of a special presentation at the University of British Columbia by Dr. Kamil Kijek, an assistant professor in the Jewish studies department at the University of Wrocław, in Poland. Speaking virtually from Poland to students in-class and to a wider audience online, Kijek addressed the decision faced by Polish Jewish communities to stay in or leave post-Holocaust Poland. He was speaking to a class led by Dr. Ania Switzer, a sessional lecturer at UBC, who was born in communist Poland and who is a translator and historian specializing in Jewish studies and Holocaust education.
“Most of Poland did not become the desert of Jewish life right away,” said Kijek. “It happened over time.”
About 50,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Polish territory. In early 1946, about 136,000 Polish Jews returned from the Soviet Union, where they had survived the war, and a few thousand others found their way back from other parts of Europe. By July 1946, there were about 200,000 Jews in Poland, compared with about 3.3 million in 1938.
The vast majority of Jews who remained in or returned to Poland after the war did not take up life in the places they had been born. The borders of the country had shifted enormously, with the Soviets taking large swaths of what had been eastern Poland and Poland being compensated with formerly German lands in the west. Jews, along with other displaced Poles, were encouraged to take up residency in these newly acquired places in the west of the country, replacing Germans who were expelled.
“It is almost impossible to understand the tragedy of the people the moment when they are freed,” said Kijek. “We need to understand that the end of the war and so-called freedom actually was a time of psychological collapse for most of these people.… These people, when they come back to the places [of their origin], they see their whole communities destroyed and it’s the first time they are sure that most of their friends and family were killed.”
Significant American and other Western funds flowed into the Jewish communities of the country, intended to rebuild Jewish society there. Hebrew schools, synagogues and other institutions were constructed and supported by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other international Jewish welfare and aid agencies.
The postwar period saw continuous upheaval in Poland, with civil war between pro- and anti-communist forces. It was not immediately clear that Poland would fall to communism, nor was it apparent at the time that, even if that did transpire, an Iron Curtain would fall across the continent. Polish Jews in the immediate aftermath of the war maintained close and supportive personal and institutional connections with family and Jewish organizations abroad. A degree of political pluralism revived before the country fell into the Soviet orbit.
Government oppression was not the only concern, though. On July 4, 1946, a pogrom in the southern Polish city of Kielce saw 42 Jews murdered and more than 40 injured. This was just the most deadly and well-known of a series of attacks against Jewish survivors after the war. The immediacy of antisemitic violence by their Polish neighbours disabused many Jews of the hope that they could rebuild a life in the country of their birth.
An exodus followed, but Kijek noted that, while contemporary observers might have seen abandoning Poland as an obvious choice, for people then, there were many considerations. They may not have had any money to facilitate relocation. At middle age or later, it might be natural to resist relocating to a place where one’s language is not spoken and one’s work experience is not transferable. And the prewar barriers that left European Jews to their fate remained largely in place: Western countries still did not open their borders to refugees.
Events unfolded quickly as the communists gained the upper hand in the country, the Cold War arose and the state of Israel was founded, providing at least a place where fleeing Polish Jews could find a welcome.
About 100,000 Jews were still in Poland in 1948, when an estimated 30,000 made aliyah. There was a tremendous amount of judgment, even suggestions of sedition, toward Jews who remained in Poland when Israel existed as an alternative, said Kijek.
“For Zionist leaders, any decision to stay in Poland was an act of a kind of national treason or an act of not understanding the lessons of the Holocaust,” he said, adding that those who remained were not all driven by ideological commitment to communism. The remaining Polish Jews represented a cross-section of Jewish society, including Orthodox, socialist and Zionist individuals. Eventually, even Zionist organizations accepted that not all Jews would make aliyah.
About one-third of Polish Jews who survived the war remained in Poland by 1950, but the emergence of the Cold War isolated them from Jews worldwide.
“All these ties are suddenly cut off in the end of 1948 and 1949,” said Kijek. The burgeoning of Hebrew schools and Jewish cultural organizations was stanched by a communist crackdown on “Zionist” institutions. The state nationalized much of the Jewish community’s remaining assets.
A liberalization occurred after the Stalin era and a number of Jews were able to flee Poland in the late 1950s. Those Jews who remained in Poland into the 1960s were, to a large extent, living a non-Jewish life and may have believed that their identity was no longer a barrier to whatever success they could attain in the country. However, following the 1967 Six Day War, in which Soviet-backed Arab countries were defeated by Israel, and 1968 student demonstrations that posed a genuine threat to the continued dominance of the communist regime, the scapegoat of “Zionism” emerged again, with Jews being accused of disloyalty to Poland, some being forced from their jobs, and the final mass exodus of Polish Jews occurred.
When the communist regime fell, in 1989, there were an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Jews in Poland, the last remaining of a millennia-old civilization.