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Reviewed by:
  • Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present
  • Dorota Glowacka
Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, by Joanna Beata Michlic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 386 pp. $75.00.

Arriving in the midst of acrimonious public debates in Poland (to which Joanna B. Michlic contributed in the past) surrounding the revelations about Poles' complicity in the murder and suffering of Polish Jews during WWII, Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present is a historical inquiry into the etiology of antisemitic prejudice in Poland and its long-term impact on the Polish society. As such, it belongs to a new progressive school of Polish scholarship, dedicated to the task of revising Polish historical and cultural dogmas. The book provides a much-needed background for the events described in J. T. Gross' Neighbors (about the massacres of Jews in Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors in 1942) and Fear (about the Kielce pogrom in 1946), making them more comprehensible as social and historical phenomena, though by no means more justifiable.

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once remarked that, in the Polish language, "the Jew" always functioned as "an abstract negative symbol" and a general term of abuse. Typically, throughout the history of Poland, Jews have been blamed for the country's social ills and economic and political woes. In her study, Michlic excavates the historical trajectory of such pejorative valuations [End Page 173] of Jewishness. She examines their exceptional durability and potency, arguing that negative perceptions of Jews have played a crucial role in the formation of Polish national identity. According to Michlic, ethno-nationalism (a belief that national membership lies in common genealogy, language, and cultural history) emerged in Poland in the 1880s, in the wake of failed national uprisings against occupying powers. At the time when Poland did not exist on the map of Europe, the language of the Jewish menace was disseminated to raise political consciousness and to consolidate the sense of Polish identity and unity. The cohesiveness of the Polish national myth depended on the exclusion of the Jewish other.

The antisemitic topos gained dangerous momentum after Poland regained independence in 1918, when it became, in Michlic's words, "a powerful, emotive tool for nation building" (p. 1). The strife for national self-definition culminated in the coming to power, in 1935, of ultranationalist "Endecja," which implemented discriminatory measures against Jewish citizens and encouraged anti-Jewish violence, leading to the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations on the eve of World War II. Here, Michlic's analyses are especially noteworthy since they throw light on the political provenance of Polish indifference to the Jewish tragedy during the war, the absence of solidarity with the Jews, low societal approval for the acts of rescue, and the lack of recognition for the acts of Jewish resistance, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as part of the Polish struggle against the Germans.

Immediately after the war, the idiom of the Jewish menace played a significant role in Polish people's unsuccessful resistance against the Soviet regime. As Jews were being held responsible for the imposition of the Soviet rule (as reflected in the widespread myth of żydokomuna—"Judeo-communism"), the eruption of violence against Holocaust survivors in Poland was perceived as fully justified. Paradoxically, negative images of Jews were evoked also by the communist government to fight political opposition, eventually leading to an exodus of the remaining Polish Jews (most notably after a virulent wave of "anti-Zionist" incidents in 1968). In this context, Michlic accounts for an apparent paradox of the co-existence of communist slogans of equality and internationalism, and the communist government's reliance on ethno-nationalist traditions to legitimize its rule.

It is unsurprising that a similar vocabulary of the Jewish threatening other resurfaced during the anti-communist struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, especially within the right-wing sections of the Solidarity movement and in the Closed Catholic Church. While Michlic acknowledges the pivotal role of the Church in the preservation of language and culture under changing occupying powers (including the Soviet rule), she also...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 173-176
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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