Cheating on Taxes. Evasion of Military Service. Litvak Problem. Strong Jewish Separatism

  • In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today S Poland by  Gary S. SchiffPublished August 30th 2012 by Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers (first published January 1st 2012)


The author started out with the common notion, among Jews, of Poland as nothing more than a vast graveyard of Jews, and a place to avoid. He transcended this attitude, and came around to appreciate the vast onetime Jewish culture in Poland. He then travelled to Poland to visit important sites, and to search the archives there for details about his ancestors. His grandfather, Jacob Schiff, had been born in Ostrow-Mazowiecka (Ostroveh), northeast-central Poland. The town is located about halfway between Warsaw and Bialystok.

The bulk of this book, however, is an overview of Jewish-Polish history. Although it adheres to familiar themes, and repeats common oversimplifications and distortions, it is relatively evenhanded in assigning responsibility for the negative aspects of Polish-Jewish relations.


Schiff is candid about the fact that Jews were generally hostile to the first (18th-century) gentile efforts to welcome and integrate Jews into European societies. (pp. 99-104; see also pp. 187-188). In France and in Pre-Partition Poland, the Jews would abandon their own vintage-medieval courts (KEHILAH), except perhaps in strictly religious matters. Jews would adopt gentile-style names, take part in secular education, etc. In return, they would gradually be offered rights as individual citizens. Most Jews, however, rejected these overtures as a threat to Jewish ways, and as a veiled drive to convert them. (p. 100, 104).


Author Gary S. Schiff acknowledges the fact that, even in the heady days of Jewish assimilation in the 19th century, most Jews never „became Poles” even in an outward sense. He comments, (quote) As reflected in their [Jews’] choice of native language in the census, however, it is clear that the vast majority still saw itself–and was also seen by most Poles–as they always had been, as a separate people. They were Polish Jews, not Jewish Poles. (unquote)(p. 9).

The early Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah), active in Russian-ruled Poland soon after her final Partition, at first advocated that Jews assimilate–to Russian, not Polish. (p. 15). In a later generation, the Haskalah went in the exact opposite direction–stressing Jewish nationalism, use of Yiddish, and other forms of aggressive Jewish particularism. (p. 16). [Notwithstanding this volte-face, both policies only steered Jews away from identification with, and support for, the Polish cause.]


Unlike some authors, Schiff recognizes the scale and significance of the Litvak (Litwak) problem, as seen by Warsaw’s Jews as well as Poles. The Litvak problem became especially acute after 1881, and definitely involved Pole-antagonizing tendencies. This included Russification, Russian-style political activism, pronounced secularism, and support for socialism (whether internationalist-revolutionary or separatist-Bundist), autonomism (folkism: aggressive particularism and separatism), and Zionism. (pp. 191-193).


In Austrian-ruled Poland, most Jews came to speak Polish, and a considerable number of assimilated (and even unassimilated) Jews came to support the Polish cause. However, a significant number of Jews supported Germanism and the Austrian crown, and many of them moved to Vienna. (p. 113).

In Prussian-ruled Poland, the Jews gravitated towards German culture and the Prussian state. (p. 109). After about 1870, these Jews became virtually indistinguishable from German Jews. (p. 109). This is despite the paucity of German concessions to Jews, and the proliferation of German anti-Semitic movements in the late 19th century. (p. 110). Later, around WWI, the Warsaw-area Jews and Austrian-German Zionists met with the Germans to set up some form of multi-ethnic Polish dependency under German auspices. (p. 203). (Read: Judeopolonia).


Pointedly, Schiff addresses the question regarding which late 19th-century development had caused the other–aggressive Polish anti-Semitism or aggressive Jewish particularism/separatism. In doing so, Schiff quotes Antony Polonsky (THE JEWS IN POLAND AND RUSSIA, Volume 2, p. 111) as follows, „`The emergence of political anti-Semitism as a significant force in the Kingdom of Poland was primarily the consequence of the fear and anger provoked in Polish political circles by the development of autonomous concepts of Jewish self-definition within the Jewish community of Poland.'”. (Schiff, p. 125). Evidently the emerging Jewish nationalism provoked Dmowski and the Endeks. Guess who nowadays gets blamed for it.

Instead of bashing Polish nationalists as hostile to Jews, Schiff realizes that many Polish nationalists sought to integrate Jews into Polish society, and that exclusivist views of „Poles” did not really develop until the late 19th century. (p. 199). However, the author mischaracterizes Dmowski as a racist anti-Semite. (p. 125). He was not. In fact, Dmowski recognized the fact that some Jews were patriotic Poles.


Gary S. Schiff’s visit to Polish archives is revealing in a way. He notes that vital statistics, based on information provided by the Jews, may have been falsified by them. For instance, a girl born in 1904, within Schiff’s lineage, was not mentioned in 1910. Schiff suggests that this may have happened in order to evade taxes. (p. 166).


Birth dates of men may have been altered in order to avoid military service in the tsarist army. (p. 165). One of Schiff’s great-uncles is missing from the record, perhaps because he moved to another town in order to evade military service. (p. 166). On this subject, Schiff (p. 154) notes that the high Jewish population growth rate owed partly to Jews having fewer casualties because of their underrepresentation in the tsarist army. (p. 154). As for the Jewish avoidance of military service in the Polish army following the 1918 resurrection of Poland, a subject of frequent past Polish complaints, Schiff describes a creative way that the leadership of the Lomza YESHIVOT accomplished this. They opened a Jewish school, the PETACH TIKVAH, in Mandatory Palestine, as early as 1926, which enabled the Jewish men sent there to dodge the Polish draft. (p. 170).

All of the foregoing has a long history. Already by the 18th century in Poland, Jews were tending to undercount themselves as a means of evading taxation and military service. (p. 189).



Jan Peczkis


Published with the author’s permission.


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  • Title image: „In Search of Polin: Chasing Jewish Ghosts in Today S Poland” by Gary S. Schiff  – Part of cover. / selected by wg.pco

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