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  • Jüdische Polonität: Ethnizität und Nation im Spiegel der polnischsprachigen jüdischen Presse 1918-1939
  • William W. Hagen
Jüdische Polonität: Ethnizität und Nation im Spiegel der polnischsprachigen jüdischen Presse 1918-1939, by Katrin Steffen. Schriften des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts, Band 3. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2004. 422 pp. €48.90.

Katrin Steffen frames this valuable book's concluding chapter as a question: "'Jewish Polishness'—Tragic Delusion or Workable Design?" (p. 369). Thus she links her study of the increasingly widely read and prestigious Polish-language press, edited and read by Polish Jews, to the anguished debate over the possibility in pre-Holocaust Poland of a peaceful and fruitful coexistence of Christian Poles and Jews based on a fraternal embrace of Polish identity and patriotism. She draws her book's title from the a letter written in New York in 1946 by refugee Jakób Appenszlak, pre-war editor of Nasz Przegląd ("Our Review"), a Warsaw daily newspaper which, with a circulation of some 25,000, reached the largest polonophone Jewish readership in 1930s Poland. "I cannot break my ties to Poland," he wrote, nor could many other Polish Jews living now in America. Their devotion to the emigré journal Nasza Trybuna, which [End Page 184] Appenszlak had published since 1940, demonstrated "how deeply one part of our intelligentsia has grown into Polishness, or"—as Appenszlak underscored it—"into this specifically Jewish Polishness (żydowska polskość)" (p. 373).

As Appenszlak's words signaled, this "Jewish Polishness" was not the fruit of a program of Jewish assimilation into the majority culture. In his circle, assimilation figured as a morally unworthy abandonment of Jewish self-identity, often (though not necessarily) paired with religious conversion. "Jewish Polishness" was, rather, the cultural-political identity of those increasingly numerous Jews inhabiting geographically far-flung and ethnically diverse interwar Poland who grew up in, or adopted, the Polish language, whether alongside or in preference to Yiddish, traditionally the Polish Jews' mother-tongue and everyday medium. By the late 1930s, social scientists estimated that some 25 percent of Polish Jewry habitually spoke Polish. Thanks among other things to cost-free elementary education in Polish schools, this proportion was rapidly rising, while Yiddish was losing followers, especially in the propertied and educated classes.

Steffen underscores the strong sense of Jewish ethnicity which distinguished the interwar Polish Jews from their deeply acculturated German Jewish counterparts. She emphasizes, too, the insularity of Polish Catholic nationalists, who—especially because of the stateless Poles' embattled condition before 1918, and the weak appeal to them of liberal nationalism—viewed the notion of Jewish self-polonization with suspicion or hostility. In 1912, the Polish writer Stanisław Pieńkowski wrote: "The Jews in their millionfold masses are streaming into the Polish language, into our culture, into a community of feeling and spirit with us! Can one imagine a more terrible, a more satanic danger?" (p. 292). Julian Tuwim, the great polonophone Jewish poet, said in a 1924 interview in Nasz Przegląd that "the Jews regard me as an assimilator. That's a false description. In my view, an assimilator is indifferent to questions of nationality and race. But I am a polonized Jew, one of those 'Jewish Poles' (Żyd-Polak)." Tuwim added, drastically, that "antisemitism in an unthought-out, just plain pathological sense has poisoned in the highest degree practically the whole of Polish society. And, although I consider assimilation of the Jews the only solution of the Jewish question, I don't believe in it" (pp. 166–67).

Unlike Tuwim, the Polish-language Jewish press, radiating from its strongholds in Warsaw, Kraków, and Lwów (now L'viv), fused its concept of "Jewish Polishness" with a Zionist self-understanding of Jewishness as ethnicity rather than religiosity. Though not organs of the Zionist parties, Nasz Przegląd and similar journals supported them as vehicles of liberal bourgeois modernity against Agudat Yisrael, the powerful ultra-conservative party of [End Page 185] Jewish Orthodoxy, as well as against the ultra-leftist and Yiddishist workers' Bund party.

Like their German counterparts, many of the Polish Jews Steffen analyzes were "drawing-room Zionists" (Salonzionisten), enthusiasts for the Palestinian...


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