Subproject 4: The Polish community

Iwona Guść

This part of the project deals with attitudes toward Jews among Polish migrants. It will also try to relate those attitudes to the dynamics of contemporary antisemitism in the Netherlands and the world.

Poles in the Netherlands

Poles are among the largest groups of foreigners living in the Netherlands. Their migration has mostly economic and political dimensions. Political reasons prevailed as motives for migration during the communist period (1945-1989). The Netherlands was among many Western countries that gave refuge to generations of Polish dissidents. However, the changes brought about by the revolution of 1989, as well as the admission of Poland to the European Union in 2004, stimulated another type of migration. During the last decade, thousands of Poles moved to the Netherlands mainly for economic reasons. According to recent estimates, there are about 150, 000 Polish people living in the Netherlands.

In comparison to the other groups involved in the project, the Polish community in the Netherlands has never been linked to antisemitism, nor there have been any antisemitic incidents recorded involving Polish migrants. However, the Polish-Jewish relationships have their own complicated history in which anti-Jewish prejudices play an important role.

Poles and Jews: a history of ambivalence

Jews settled in Poland from the 12th century onwards. The favourable conditions guaranteed them by Polish rulers attracted many Jewish refugees who faced persecution in other parts of Europe. As subjects of the Polish king and later of the nobility and magnates, Jews were allowed to fill the commercial niche and played an important role within the premodern Polish society. Poland was therefore soon to become the biggest centre of the Jewish diaspora in the world. In the 16th Century it was even called a Paradisus Judaeorum (‘a Jewish Paradise’). However, this privileged position of Jews in the premodern Polish society often evoked hostile reactions, not least among the Catholic clergy. During the political crises in the subsequent 17th and 18th Centuries, the tolerant attitude towards Jews began to wane. In the time of the so-called Polish Partitions, Jews were often depicted as the incarnations of enemy of Polishness, especially in political pamphlets or Catholic writings. This image of the Jew as ‘the threatening Other’ also prevailed during the interwar period among the Catholic clergy and nationalist circuits. The majority of the Jewish population in prewar Poland adopted Polish nationality and participated in public life, but those three million Jewish Poles were rarely perceived as full-fledged Polish citizens.  In occupied Poland, the majority of Jewish Poles were murdered by the Nazis.

Post-war antisemitic incidents in Poland

A variety of anti-Jewish incidents that took place in postwar Poland cemented Western views on Polish antisemitism. Therefore, in the context of Jewish history, Poland is not only perceived as a doomed territory where millions of Jews were murdered, it also figures as a land without Jews, with still-prevailing antisemitic attitudes.

As early as 1946, Western public opinion was shocked by outbursts of anti-Jewish violence in Poland (especially the Kielce-pogrom). In the late 60’s, Poland’s communist government made itself infamous by giving Jewish citizens so-called ‘one-way tickets’ to Israel. This anti-Jewish purge shifted international attention to the relation between antisemitism in Poland and its communist regime. The anti-communist opposition in the 80’s, closely related to the Solidarity movement, was among the first to start an open discussion about Jewish history and antisemitism in Poland. At the same time antisemitic attitudes were also recorded within the more nationalist ranks of the Solidarity and the Catholic clergy, closely collaborating with the Solidarity. The notion of Judeo-Communism was especially vivid in this context, as well as the anti-Judaic stereotypes. Nonetheless the nationalist and ultra-catholic circuits were also, after 1989, notoriously accused of antisemitic acts and statements. One of the underlying questions is how, on the one hand, Poles in the Netherlands reacted to those incidents, and to the perceptions of Poland as an antisemitic country on the other.

Approach and sources

The aim of this project is to unravel the attitudes toward Jews shared and transmitted among Poles in the Netherlands. Several themes deeply rooted in Polish-Jewish relations and often evoking antisemitic expressions will therefore be taken into consideration: (1) the memory of the Shoah in relation to the perceptions of Jewish victimhood on the one hand and of Polish complicity on the other hand; (2) the so-called ‘victimisation envy’ and the perception of the Holocaust in relation to other mass killings of the Second World War (3) romanticised memories about the Jewish presence in Poland prior to 1939 and their role in the revival of philosemitic sentiments in Poland during the last two decades; (4) the concept of Judeo-Communism and its enduring presence in the Polish political discourse; (5) the anti-Jewish attitudes within Polish ultra-catholic circles and their impact on the Poles.

Among the sources are: archival documentation, Internet publications, audiovisual material, and interviews. From this variety of sources an inventory of expressions, stereotypes and memories about Jews, Jewish history and culture will be extracted. Further analysis will look at the functions attached to diverse expressions and stereotypes in relation to the (changing) historical context. It will also take the interactions between Polish migrants and the Dutch society into consideration. Last but not least it will reflect on the debates on the Polish-Jewish relationships in Poland and their role in (re)shaping Polish attitudes towards Jews during the post-communist decades.