Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

The Jews in Poland and Russia

Volume 3: 1914-2008
Antony Polonsky

The history of the Jewish communities of these lands-where most of the Jews of Europe and America originated-is often the subject of woolly thinking and stereotypes. Antony Polonsky recreates this lost world in a way that avoids both sentimentalism and the simplification of the east European Jewish experience into a story of persecution and martyrdom. This is an important story whose relevance extends beyond the Jewish world or the bounds of east-central Europe.

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Antony Polonsky provides a comprehensive survey of the history - socio-political, economic, and religious - of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe from 1750, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the dominant political unit, to the present. Until the Second World War, this area was the heartland of the Jewish world: almost all the major movements which have characterized that world in recent times had their origins here, and it was home to the majority of the world's Jews. Nearly three and a half million lived in Poland alone, while nearly three million more lived in the Soviet Union.

Although the majority of the Jews of Europe and the United States, and most of the Jews of Israel, originated from these lands, the history of their Jewish communities is not well known. Rather, it is the subject of mythologizing and stereotypes that fail both to bring out the specific features of the Jewish civilization which emerged here and to illustrate what was lost in the passage across the Channel and the Atlantic. Jewish life in these parts, though often poor materially, was marked by a high degree of spiritual and ideological intensity and creativity. Antony Polonsky recreates this lost world—brutally cut down by the Holocaust and less brutally but still seriously damaged by the Soviet attempt to destroy Jewish culture—in a way that avoids both sentimentalism and the simplification of the the east European Jewish experience into a story of persecution and martyrdom. Wherever possible, the unfolding of history is illustrated by contemporary Jewish writings to show how Jews felt and reacted to the complex and difficult situations in which they found themselves.

It is an important story whose relevance reaches far beyond the Jewish world or the bounds of east-central Europe. Polonsky establishes the context with a review of Jewish life in Poland and Lithuania down to the mid-eighteenth century, describing the towns and shtetls where the Jews lived, the institutions they developed, and their participation in the economy. He also considers their religious and intellectual life, including the emergence of hasidism, and the growth of opposition to it.

He then describes government attempts to integrate and transform the Jews in the period from 1764 to 1881 and the Jewish response to these efforts. He considers the impact of modernization and the beginnings of the Haskalah movement, and looks at developments in each area in turn: the problems of emancipation, acculturation, and assimilation in Prussian and Austrian Poland; the politics of integration in the Kingdom of Poland; and the failure of forced integration in the tsarist empire.

The third part of the book considers the deterioration of the position of the Jews in the period from 1881 to 1914 and the new Jewish politics that led to the development of new movements: Zionism, socialism, autonomism, the emergence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish urbanization, and the rise of Jewish mass culture. Galicia, Prussian Poland, the Kingdom of Poland, and the tsarist empire are all treated individually, as are the main towns.

The final part deals with the twentieth century. Starting from the First World War and the establishment of the Soviet Union, it deals in turn with Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union up to the Second World War. It then reviews Polish—Jewish relations during the Second World War and examines the Soviet record and the Holocaust. The final chapters deal with the Jews in the Soviet Union and in Poland since 1945, concluding with an epilogue on the Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia since the collapse of communism.

 

Author information

Antony Polonsky was born in Johannesburg, and studied history and political science at the University of the Witwatersrand. He went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1961 and read modern history at Worcester College and St Antony's College. He taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1970 to 1992. Since then he has been at Brandeis University, where in 1999 he was appointed Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies, an appointment held jointly at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Brandeis University. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw, the Institute for the Human Sciences, Vienna, and the University of Cape Town; Skirball visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies; and Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford.

He is the author of Politics in Independent Poland (1972), The Little Dictators: A History of Eastern Europe since 1918 (1975), and The Great Powers and the Polish Question, 1941-1945 (1976). He is the editor of Abraham Lewin's A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto (1988), which was awarded the Joseph and Edith Sunlight Literary Prize in 1989 and the prize of the (US) National Jewish Book Council in the Holocaust section in 1990. He is co-author of The History of Poland since 1863 (1981) and The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland (1981), and co-editor of Ideas into Politics Aspects of European History, 1880-1950 (1984), The Jews in Poland (1986), Polish Paradoxes (1990), The Jews in Warsaw (1991), Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-1946 (1991) and The Jews in Old Poland (1993). He is the editor of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, also published (since 1993) by the Littman Library.

Professor Polonsky is vice-president of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies and of the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Mordecai Anieliewicz Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Warsaw, and of the Executive Committee of the National Polish American–Jewish American Task Force, and an Associate of the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. In 2011 he was awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of Polonia Restituta and the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of Independent Lithuania.

 

Contents

General Introduction

I From the First World War to the Second

1 The First World War and its Aftermath
2 The Jews in Polish Political and Social Life, 1921–1939
3 Jewish Life in the Towns and Cities of Inter-War Poland
4 Jewish Writers in Independent Poland
5 Religious Life in Inter-War Poland
6 L:ithuania between the Two World Wars
7 Jews in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, 1921–1941
8 Towns, Shtetls, and Agricultural Settlements in the Soviet Union
9 Jewish Writing in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, 1917–1941

II War and Genocide, 1939–1944

Introduction
10 The Prelude to the 'Final Solution', 1939–1941
11 The Mass Murder of the Jews, 1941–1944
12 Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution
13 Contemporary Literary Responses to the Genocide
14 The Soviet Government and the Holocaust

III From the End of the Second World War to the Collapse of the Communist System

Introduction
15 From 1944 to the Death of Stalin
16 From the Death of Stalin to the Invasion of Czechoslovakia
17 The Last Years of Communism, 1968–1991

Epilogue: Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia since the End of Communism

Introduction
18 Jews in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania since 1991
19 Jews in Poland since the End of Communism

Conclusion

Glossary

Bibliography

Index

 

Reviews

'Powerful roller coaster narrative'
15 Minutes Magazine

'Polonsky's sweeping study offers an illuminating, accessible view of Jewish life in eastern Euope since the end of World War II. In elegant prose, the author engages major historiographical issues while analyzing important cultural, religious, social, and political trends among eastern European Jewry. He carefully frames each section with a chapter-long overview of the relevant historical context for the following chapters . . . Throughout, Polonsky masterfully navigates the different realms of a turbulent eastern European Jewish world, conveying both the richness of its history and the tragedy of its destruction. Highly recommended.'
J. Haus, Choice

'Succeeds admirably. Simply put, these volumes are required reading for anyone with a serious interest in East European history or for anyone looking for a scholarly assessment of a particular feature of Polish or Russian Jewish history. Handsomely produced, with extensive maps and tables, and a glossary . . . will remain a standard work in the field for some time . . . a body of work that, in summarizing the current state of our knowledge, effectively sets the agenda for future scholars. Polonsky is perhaps the scholar most responsible for the growth of Polish Jewish studies in the late twentieth century . . Very few historians could write a series of volumes like this . . . [he] has armed scholars with a formidable tool that will help them dispel stereotypes . . . Just as these volumes are destined to become the starting point for the work of many students, they will be the touchstone for scholars working in the field at all levels.'  
Sean Martin, European History Quarterly

'Combines a masterful grasp of Jewish history with that of eastern Europe. While underlining the unique features and achievements of the Jewish communal experience he authoritatively integrates them into the history of the countries in which Jews lived . . . Incorporating current, ground-breaking scholarship from North America, Israel, and Europe these beautifully narrated volumes should not only be seen as a staple of university courses, but also as a must-read for anyone attempting to understand any aspect of modern Jewish history and religious tradition, wherever it may be playing out . . . With this extremely important book, Antony Polonsky not only writes history but, following the example of his illustrious predecessors, makes it.'
Katarzyna Person, European Judaism

'We can only commend Antony Polonsky for his massive effort to explain seven centuries of Jewish history in a mere 2,000 pages . . . Polonsky's strength lies in his ability to illuminate intellectual and cultural developments . . . Because of the excellent bibliographies, extensive annotation, and wonderful maps included in each volume, any reader wishing to read in greater detail about Polish and Russian Jewry will have plenty of resources to enable the search.'
Alexandra S. Korros, Jewish Quarterly

'Magisterial . . . all three volumes, but particularly Volume 3, should be of special interest to Polish Americans and all Americans interested in the history of the Jews in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia.'
Anna M. Cienciala, Polish Review

'Definitive . . . The scope is immense and the author does an impressive job of synthesizing a vast literature . . . This trilogy will no doubt serve as a standard history of east European Jewry for a long time.'
Shaul Stampfer, Religious Studies Review

'Exemplary and formidable . . . Polonsky, as much as anyone else, has created the field of modern Jewish history as a subject to be considered and understood rather than simply a tragic past to be mourned. He is too good a historian to confuse the history of Jewish life with the German policies that brought Jewish death . . . The barely visible commitment in these three wonderful volumes is to rescue a world from polemic, for the sake of history.'
Timothy Snyder, Wall Street Journal

 

Prizes

Volumes 1 & 2 were awarded the Pro Historia Polonorum Prize for the best book on the history of Poland published in a foreign language between 2007 and 2011, established by the Polish Senate and awarded by the Polish Historical Association

Volumes 1 and 2 were awarded the 2011 Kulczycki Book Prize for Polish Studies by the American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.