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Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 14Focusing on Jews in the Polish Borderlands$

Antony Polonsky

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9781874774693

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781874774693.001.0001

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The Policies of the Sanacja on the Jewish Minority in Silesia, 1926–1939

The Policies of the Sanacja on the Jewish Minority in Silesia, 1926–1939

(p.150) The Policies of the Sanacja on the Jewish Minority in Silesia, 1926–1939
Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 14

Jacek Piotrowski

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers relations between the Sanacja and Silesia's Jewish minority. The Jewish minority possessed particularly strong links with German cultural circles in this region, thus making them quite important to the Sanacja. The Silesian Sanacja described the de facto union between the German and Jewish minorities as an alliance between forces hostile towards the Polish state. Pointing out the lack of Jewish independence in this alliance, the ruling camp's journalists sharply criticized both minorities. The alliance was based, in their view, on a hatred of independent Poland. The participation of the Jews in the National Minorities' Electoral Bloc, formed in autumn 1927 and headed in Silesia by the detested Germans, constituted a huge disappointment for local Sanacja activists.

Keywords:   Sanacja, Jewish minority, German minority, Silesia, Sanacja policies, Jewish independence, Polish state, Sanacja activists

THE coup d’état of May 1926 greatly affected the situation of Jews in the Second Republic. The anxieties which had plagued them when confronted with the nationalistic right gradually began to disappear. By removing the programmatically antisemitic National Democrats from power, Piłsudski gained the support of a significant sector of the Jewish community in Poland.1 The marshal made the policies he adopted towards national minorities in the borderlands of the new Polish state dependent on their attitude to that state. His government attempted to carry out real changes in this area without causing major upheavals. In Silesia, however, with its very distinct character, they were faced with grave difficulties both from the opposition and as a result of treaty obligations which limited Poland’s freedom to formulate policies towards minorities.2 After the nomination of Michal Grażyński as voivode, the autonomous province of Silesia found itself under the overpowering influence of Piłsudski activists and their party, the Union for the Reform of the Republic (Związek Naprawy Rzeczypospolitej). Both their former links with the Polish national movement in Silesia and the specific sociopolitical situation of this region forced the adherents of the Silesian Sanacja into rivalry with the opposition in ‘national vigilance along the borderlands’. The very name adopted by the ruling camp in Silesia—the National Christian Union of Labour—indicated the direction of programmatic changes.3 In their attempt to overcome the dominant influences of the Christian Democratic Party, the Reformers presented themselves as the most active defenders of the Polish character of Upper Silesia. They considered the German minority to be their main political enemy on the western borders.

The question of relations with the Jewish minority—whose links with German cultural circles were particularly strong in this region—was of great importance to (p.151) them. The Silesian Sanacja described the de facto union between these two minorities as an alliance between forces hostile towards the Polish state.4 Pointing out the lack of Jewish independence in this alliance, the ruling camp’s journalists sharply critized both minorities. The alliance was based, in their view, on a hatred of independent Poland. The Piłsudski camp followed the pre-election political consultations of their representatives with great interest.5 The participation of the Jews in the National Minorities’ Electoral Bloc, formed in autumn 1927 and headed in Silesia by the detested Germans, constituted a huge disappointment for local Sanacja activists.

In these circumstances attempts to strengthen the Polish orientation amongst the Jews of Silesia by the publishers of a Polish-language Jewish weekly brought no significant results. After only a few issues Przegląd śląski collapsed in the face of strong competition from the German press. Those Jews who were loyal to the state did not have the support of the voivode, Grażyński, with whom they were not at that time on easy terms. Disillusioned, they reproached his group for endeckość— toeing the National Democratic line—with regard to the Jews.6 This first attempt to foster a pro-Polish stance among the Jews of Upper Silesia did not pass without repercussions. Clear divisions gradually began to emerge within Jewish society in Silesia. As economic integration of Silesia into the republic progressed, a stream of Jews flowed into the province from the former Congress Kingdom and from Małopolska. They were, for the most part, supporters of Zionism, which the local Jews decidedly opposed. The latter even appointed a special Committee for the Battle against Zionism. However, a delegation sent by this committee to the voivode, Grażyński, had no official support from the local administration,7 and the voivode remained neutral, despite a vociferous demonstration by the Zionists against anti-Jewish violence in Palestine held outside the British consulate in Katowice. The commotion they caused, and the resulting broken windows at the consulate, certainly did not help to make the local authorities well disposed towards them.8 Taking advantage of the current mood, towards the end of 1928 the German-language press, which also represented the interests of those Jews already resident in Silesia, demanded a halt to the influx of Jews from other parts of the country. The argument put forward most frequently at the time was that local trade was weakened by ‘dishonest competition’ introduced by these newcomers. The local Polish opposition, and also the Silesian Jews, who remained under the overwhelming influence (p.152) of German culture, were strengthened in their conviction that this was the result of deliberate policies on the part of the Silesian Sanacja. Stung by these criticisms, Polska zachodnia, the semi-official organ of the Silesian provincial office, explicitly rejected the accusation: ‘The claim that elements in the local administration support the migration of Jews to Silesia at all costs to further the union of Silesia with the motherland is a falsehood The Jews will not support changes to the former face of Silesia. They do shady deals with the Germans and are happy to use the German language.’9

Distancing themselves from any accusations of supporting the migration of Jews to Silesia, the Sanacja presented to the electorate their ‘national’ views with regard to the republic’s borderlands. This did not prevent them from expressing their satisfaction when the Jews again declined to participate in the National Minorities’ Electoral Bloc in the elections of 1930.

A change in the Silesian Sanacja’s attitude towards the Jews came only with the increase in antisemitic attitudes caused by the infiltration of national socialist ideology from Hitler’s Germany. In Silesia there was a decided repudiation of support for the antisemitic excesses, which ‘undermined law and order’. The position of the local authorities, however, was characterized by a general indifference towards concrete demonstrations of intolerance. On the other hand, the Sanacja press made much of information on the fate of Jews in Germany. The persecution in the Third Reich of hitherto loyal citizens presented one more propaganda argument against the orientation towards German culture manifested by the Jews of Silesia. The public was reminded that it was only thanks to the Geneva Convention ratified by Poland in 1922 that racist legislation was not binding in the German part of Upper Silesia. In practice, of course, the German government’s sabotage of international treaties limited the real advantages gained by Jews from these regulations.10 It did, however, provide a serious argument against those among the Jewish minority who until then had supported the German minority in Poland. The Jewish boycott of German goods, launched in 1933 and received with satisfaction by the local authorities, was seen as distinctly belated. The widespread abandonment of a pro-German orientation among the Jews of Silesia met with a cool reception in the Sanacja camp, which doubted the sincerity of these moves: ‘Without wishing to question the good will of those German Jews converting to Polishness, we consider, however, that effective support of the Polish way is best given by those Jews whose Polishness has not been newly acquired.’11

Piłsudski’s followers maintained an attitude of reserve towards the popular anti-semitic (p.153) slogans inspired by the fascist movement in Europe. Even in the official declarations of Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego (the Camp of National Unity, OZON), the pro-government political organization created in 1937 which was closer than earlier Piłsudski-ite groupings to the position of the National Democratic right, the use of force was categorically ruled out. The elimination of Jews from Polish life was to take place en route to awakening national sentiment among the Poles, but the use of violence was discounted. It was hoped in this way to counter the growing popularity of organizations openly voicing antisemitism.

Great sympathy and support in Silesia was gained by Zionists propagating the need for the mass emigration of Jews from Poland. The well-known activists Itshak Grünbaum and Vladimir Jabotinsky were particularly respected in Silesia. The Silesian Sanacja did not interfere in the internal political disagreements of the Jewish minority as long as Polish affairs were not directly concerned. The conflict between general Zionists and Zionist revisionists against the background of the argument over the policy of emigration to Palestine brought no response from them, and it was only after Tygodnik żydowski had published several articles criticizing the situation of Jews in Poland that the paper was seized. The sympathetic attitude of the local authorities encouraged the Zionist revisionists to organize a series of public lectures throughout the province. One such meeting in Bielsko, attended by about 300 people, was addressed by one of the group’s young activists from Warsaw, Menachem Begin.12 While supporting the propaganda activities of the Zionist organizations, the local authorities remained cool towards the Jewish minority in Silesia.

At the same time the Sanacja side did not cease to condemn the deeply rooted links between the German and Jewish minorities established over years of close co-operation. In the second half of the 1930s Sanacja journalists presented these as an ‘inexplicable link’ between executioner and victim. The increase in antisemitic excesses which were also taking place in the Silesian area forced the Silesian Sanacja to make a clear and unambiguous declaration on the subject. In an article in Polska zachodnia it was stated categorically: ‘We truly aim to respect both the catechism and the constitution.’13 This was an unequivocal stance taken in an atmosphere of increasing legal discrimination against Jews in Europe. It was no doubt partly determined by the possible propaganda value of the policy against the background of persecution in the Third Reich. In reply to the frequent provocation by journalists from the German minority, the Sanacja press was able—despite agreements concerning the press which were binding in both countries—to publish the following report from the Reich: ‘The national court in sentenced a 45-year-old Jewish merchant, Juliusz Hanna, for the “continual commission of racist crimes” to five years and loss of rights.’14

(p.154) The Piłsudski camp remained critical of the barbaric persecutions in the Third Reich, and stressed the need for Polish support for Jewish aspirations towards independence in Palestine. Sanacja journalists emphasized that the creation of a Jewish state in the historical Jewish homeland could help significantly to bring about a real solution to the Jewish problem in Poland. They also canvassed other territorial solutions, suggesting Madagascar as a future seat of the Jewish nation, for example. This proposition was treated very seriously in Poland at the time. Its main architect was the well-known writer and traveller, Piłsudski’s former personal aide-de-camp, Captain Mieczysław Lepecki. His trips to Africa and researches undertaken with this aim in mind were publicized throughout the country.

The question of ritual slaughter provoked strong emotions and intense activity within the Zionist organization in Upper Silesia. Legal regulations unfavourable to the Jewish minority on the issue provoked numerous public demonstrations by Jews in the spring of 1936.15 Silesia’s regional press published ever more reports of antisemitic demonstrations in Europe. The huge scale of this phenomenon meant that the Sanacja press, which had hitherto maintained restraint in this respect, now sometimes published similar information. Antisemitic incidents in Bielsko in the autumn of 1937 provoked violent polemic from the Jewish minority, who laid the blame exclusively at the feet of the Poles, while with increasing frequency the ruling camp in Silesia put the excesses down to the ‘provocative’ stance of the Jews themselves. This view was undoubtedly connected with the general ideological evolution of the Piłsudski camp in the direction of right-wing groups, as was clearly indicated in the programmatic declaration of OZON in February 1937. OZON’s subsequent announcement of a plan to regulate Jewish affairs in Poland— ruling out excesses—envisaged the imposition of administrative measures to facilitate the displacement of Jews from cultural, economic, and political life. As ever, the ideal solution for the Sanacja camp remained the mass emigration of Jews.

Local decision-makers were also troubled, mainly by the significant growth in the Jewish population within the autonomous province of Silesia. In the years between 1922 and 1939 the number of Jews increased from 12,262 to 23,571. To be sure, on the scale of the entire region the Jews made up barely 1.1–1.7 per cent of the population, but in the area of Cieszyn the figure was 4.6–5.1 per cent. The overwhelming majority—about 85 per cent—lived in the towns, especially Bielsko, Cieszyn, Katowice, and Królewska Huta. This growth in population was accompanied by the establishment and development of many Jewish associations,16 with the Cieszyn area seeing a particular flowering of such associations. These favourable circumstances were brought to a close only by President Mościcki’s decree suppressing freemasonry. As a consequence, the Jewish humanitarian association (p.155) Concordia B’nai B’rith, which mainly brought together representatives of the liberal professions, was liquidated in Katowice amid great publicity.17

The socio-professional structure of the Jewish population was typically urban in character. Its dynamic growth was perceived by the Silesians as a setback to their possible social advancement. This led to frequent conflicts, exacerbated by economic considerations, between those Jews assimilated into German culture and newcomers from other regions of Poland. Initially, a decisive role was played in Jewish kehilot by pro-German assimilationists, but they gradually gave way to Zionists, who had the support of recent immigrants. However, because they were generally well-to-do, the assimilationists were able to maintain their position in many small and medium-sized communes. With time the Zionists, who enjoyed the support of the local Sanacja authorities, came to dominate the political life of the Jewish minority in Silesia. The authorities continued to view emigration as a panacea for all the problems of the Jewish minority, a development they also saw as closely linked with Poland’s colonial territorial aspirations. Only the threat of war with the Third Reich, which was felt particularly acutely in Upper Silesia, interrupted public debate on the issue. The emergence of a common enemy brought about a clear consolidation of Polish and Jewish citizens as they united in the cause of defending Polish independence. However, to the end, the problem of the Jewish minority continued to play an instrumental part for the Silesian Sanacja in the basic contest between the local authorities and the German minority over the Polish character of the western borders.18 The fall of the Second Republic opened a new, tragic chapter in the centuries-old history of the Jews on the lands of Silesia.

Translated from Polish by Anna Zaranko


(1) Archiwum Państwowe w Katowicach (APK), Urząd Wojewódzki Śląski (UWS), Wydział Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego, Konfiskaty druków miejscowych, sig. 665; ‘Piłsudski und die Juden’, Tygodnik żydowski—Jüdisches Volksblatt, 16 Nov. 1934.

(2) A. Chojnowski, Koncepcje polityki narodowościowej rządów polskich w latach 1921–1939 (Wrocław, 1979), 109–13 (These restrictions were a result of the Treaties for Minorities signed together with the Versailles Treaty and Geneva Convention.)

(3) E. Długajczyk, Sanacja śląska 1926–1939: zarys dziejów politycznych (1983), 139.

(4) S. Kapuściński, ‘Blok mniejszości narodowych’, Polska zachodnia, 23 Nov. 1927: ‘Daily realities contradict their assurances of loyalty. This is a bloc of elements hostile to the state.’

(5) APK, UWS, sig. 561, report on the state of affairs on 10 Dec. 1927, the Jewish minority and the elections: ‘For more than a month the local Jewry has been convulsed by a lively discussion on the subject of the Minorities’ Bloc which has been created for the forthcoming elections on the initiative of Deputy Grünbaum. Until now negotiations with the Germans have not been successful.’

(6) ‘Silesian Jewry and “Western Poland”’, Przegląd śląski, 1 Sept. 1928.

(7) APK, UWS, sig. 563, report on the state of affairs, 22 Dec. 1928.

(8) APK, UWS, sig. 567, report on the state of affairs, 7 Sept. 1929.

(9) ‘Silesian Jewry’, Polska zachodnia, 12 Sept. 1928 (reply to the articles in Przegląd śląski, Śląski głos poranny, 15 Sept. 1928, and other opposition papers); M. Wanatowicz, Ludność napływowa na Górnym Śląsku w latach 1922–1939 (Katowice, 1982), 139, 234.

(10) F. Połomski, ‘Położenie ludności żydowskiej na Śląsku’, Studia Śląskie, 40 (Katowice, 1967), 64.

(11) ‘Nowy głos krytyki w sprawie Izraelickiej Gminy w Królewskiej Hucie’, Polska zachodnia, 2 May 1934.

(12) APK, UWS, sig. 578, report on the state of affairs, 9 July 1937.

(13) A. Dobrowolski, ‘Kwestia żydowska w Polsce’, Polska zachodnia, 20 June 1937.

(14) ‘Nasze ostatnie upomnienie pod adresem “Katowicerki” i czynników za nią stojących’, Polska zachodnia, 30 Jan. 1938.

(15) APK, UWS, sig. 577, report on the state of affairs, 9 May 1936.

(16) W. Jaworski, Z Żydzi w województwie śląskim w okresie międzywojennym (Katowice, 1991); APK, UWS, sig. 798.

(17) APK, UWS, sig. 823, the liquidationof masonic associations 1938.

(18) ‘Mniejszosci narodowe subskrybują Pożyczkę Obrony Przeciwlotniczej, Żydzi przestaja ą mówic po niemiecku’, Polska zachodnia, 19 Apr. 1939.