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  • Between a Love of Poland, Symbolic Violence, and AntisemitismThe Idiosyncratic Effects of the State Education System on Young Jews in Interwar Poland
  • Kamil Kijek (bio)


The establishment of new states after the First World War constituted a revolution for the people affected and had a major impact on every aspect of their lives. The Second Polish Republic was the largest of these new states and also contained the most sizeable Jewish community, numbering some three million. Throughout its existence this state was enmeshed in the contradictions of a nation state aspiring to be a democratic republic in a situation in which one-third of its citizens did not consider themselves or were not recognized as Polish. The term that perhaps most accurately describes the new state's character and, more specifically, its internal policy towards the Polish majority and its ethnic minorities was that coined by Rogers Brubaker: 'a nation-oriented state'. The Second Polish Republic was formed in the name of and for an ethnically defined Polish nation, whose interests it was first of all to guarantee.1 Although it was meant to be democratic and all its citizens were to enjoy equal rights, the failure to put this into practice fully led to serious tensions between the ethnic minorities and the government, which defined the new polity in exclusivist terms as the state of the Polish nation.

The aim of this chapter is to examine how this contradiction manifested itself in the state education system and how this affected young Jews in interwar Poland. In order to do this, I will firstly describe how Jewish children, who until 1918 had been educated mostly in traditional institutions, entered the Polish public school system. I will then investigate the relationship between Jewish pupils enrolled in [End Page 237] state institutions and in the private Jewish school systems. Finally, I will evaluate the experience of Jewish children studying in government schools. Did the education system attempt to integrate its youngest Jewish citizens? If so, how did it attempt to connect them to the state? What attitudes did it try to promote, and was it successful? What emerges is the paradox of a state successfully acculturating young Jews, inculcating in them an attachment to Polish national symbols and to the national historical narrative, while at the same time reinforcing their alienation and, instead of reducing, increasing their political radicalism and opposition to the political system.

From the emergence of Polish nationalism in its modern form at the end of the nineteenth century, the 'Jewish question' had been a subject of internal debate. At the time, discussions over whether and how to assimilate Jews frequently evolved into arguments about whether the assimilation of the Jews was, in fact, possible and whether their absorption by the Polish nation was not actually harmful to it.2 This position was closely linked to the birth of modern antisemitism in the Polish lands, to the increased popularity of racial ideology, and finally to integral nationalism, which a priori also excluded from the ranks of the Polish nation even those Jews whose consciousness, identity, and daily culture were Polish.3 At the same time, the nascent Jewish national movement, in its various Zionist and diaspora autonomist forms, began to acquire increasing support. At the beginning of the twentieth century, its supporters started to make increasingly specific demands, not only for equal civil rights but also for collective rights which would guarantee Jews cultural and political autonomy, including their own national school system.4

These phenomena and processes became more significant after 1918. Most Jews now supported nationalist or Orthodox groups, which declared their attachment to the Polish state, while simultaneously being in favour of retaining their own religious and national identities. Various forms of antisemitism, ascribing an array of negative attributes to Jews, took centre stage in the Polish public arena and differed from the xenophobia directed against other ethnic groups: Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians. According to those who held these views, Jews [End Page 238] were a hostile element, harmful to Polish interests, no matter what their vision of the world, degree of assimilation, or social and cultural attributes.5 Such phenomena have...


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