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Jewish Social Studies 10.3 (2004) 87-122

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Good Maskilim and Bad Assimilationists, or Toward a New Historiography of the Haskalah in Poland

The Jewish Enlightenment movementin the territories of Central Poland—that is, in the Kingdom of Poland and its predecessor, the Duchy of Warsaw, as distinct from Russia or Galicia—is a phenomenon notable for its virtual absence from contemporary studies of the Haskalah and the history of Jewish society in nineteenth-century Poland.1 A mere cursory examination of most of the works devoted to the Haskalah in recent years shows that, in the minds of Haskalah historians, the territories of the Kingdom of Poland were an undifferentiated part of the Russian empire.2 The last to write about Polish maskilim were in fact historians from the pre-war Jewish school of historiography in Poland, most notably Ignacy Schiper, Jacob Shatzky, and Raphael Mahler.3 The lack of attention paid to Central Poland for the past half-century is even more peculiar, given that, numerically, the Jewish population in these territories constituted the second greatest concentration (after Ukraine) of Jews in nineteenth-century Europe and exceeded the Jewish populations of Lithuania, Belarus, and Galicia not only in actual numbers but also in terms of proportional representation in the country's general population and in their particularly high urban concentration. In 1830, the 390,400 Jews living in the Kingdom of Poland constituted 10 percent of the general population. They constituted 35.3 percent of the urban population in 1827, and this would increase to 46.5 percent by 1865. [End Page 87]

Historians have noted that the first maskilim who functioned in Polish territories came from these areas or were active in the central provinces of the old Polish Commonwealth (mainly in Warsaw) in the 1780s and 1790s.4 Did such forerunners of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe as Jacques Calmanson, Israel Zamo&#x0015Bć, Zalkind Hourwitz, and Issachar Ber Falkensohn really leave no successors? When they departed, did the Haskalah cease to exist on Polish soil? Quite the contrary. The Haskalah movement, as I will show, flourished in Central Poland from the 1790s until the early 1860s, and the disciples of the movement (among them Chaim Zelig Słonimski) were active as late as the 1890s.5 However, even if it were the case that the Haskalah, in its march eastward, did bypass the territories of the Kingdom of Poland, an understanding of such an unusual development would provide us with important information both about the nature of the Jewish Enlightenment movementand about Jewish society in Central Poland. If the processes of emancipation and modernization assumed a different form in Central Poland from those in Galicia or Imperial Russia, the fundamental issue will then be to define these differences and to make a detailed analysis of those factors that gave rise to the differences and the consequences thereof.

Irrespective of the above-mentioned issues, the question of the possible existence and character of a specifically Polish (as opposed to Russian or Galician) Haskalah has been almost completely overlooked in recent decades. This found expression in the frequently occurring and very telling phrase in publications devoted to the East European faction of the Haskalah movement: "the Haskalah in Eastern Europe, that is, in Russia and Galicia."6 An expression such as this, whether stated or implicit in the textsof the most eminent contemporary Haskalah historians, would be justifiable only if Imperial Russia and Galicia were the sole political entities in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe or if there were no Jewish Enlightenment movementoutside their borders.

However, common sense and a knowledge of Polish history (for more about this, see further) convince us that both of the above premises are incorrect. Naturally, not all representatives of the Jewish "progressive" (as they called themselves) camp in Poland were maskilim. But an analysis of the letters and activities of a variety of those persons active in the Haskalah, and particularly an analysis of the premises that convinced early historians to deny them the honorific appellation...


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