Przyslal Jacek Schatz
Fragments from: The Generation. The rise and fall of Jewish communists of Poland.
Jews and the pre-war Polish Communist movement
The participation of Jews in the Polish Communist movement has given rise to many stereotypes, the most persistent of which is that of Zydokomuna (Jewish-Communist conspiracy). This stereotype was very powerful in Poland between the wars: its psychological strength lay in combining a general Polish fear of Russia with anti-Communist sentiments and anti-Jewish attitudes. This stereotype was effectively used by Polish nationalists, especially after Marshal Pilsudzki’s death. In turn, because anti-Semitism was one of the main forces that drew Jews to the Communist movement, Zydokomuna meant turning the effects of antisemitism into a cause of its further increase.1
In fact, Communists of Jewish origin constituted a substantial part of the Polish Communist movement. In general however, Communist ideals and the movement itself enjoyed only very limited support among Polish Jewry.
Jews in the Communist movement
Jewish participation in the Polish Communist movement began already before 1918 and increased in the early 1920s, when the united Communist party integrated splinter groups from the Poaley Zion and from the Vereinigte Yiddische Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei – in short „Vereinigte” – in 1921. It grew when the Kombund, the large splinter group from the Bund, joined the Communists with between one fifth and one fourth of the Bund’s membership in 1923. Shortly afterwards, the Central Jewish Bureau for organizing Communist activities on, as it was called, the „Jewish street” was established.2 Many Jews joined the Communist movement in the second half of the 1920s (especially between 1926-1928), and others in the 1930s, when the activities of the legal Communist front organizations dramatically intensified.
As previously noted, throughout the whole interwar period Jews constituted a very important segment of the Communist movement. According to Polish sources and to Western estimates, the proportion of Jews in the KPP was never lower than 22 %. In the larger cities, the percentage of Jews in the KPP often exceeded 50 % and in smaller cities frequently over 60 %.3 Given this background, the statement by a respondent that „in small cities like our’s almost all Communists were Jews” does not appear to be a gross exaggeration.
The proportion of Jewish membership in the KPP reached its peak in 1930 at 35 %. During the remainder of the 1930s, the proportion is said not to have exceeded 24 %. On the other hand, there are data suggesting that it might have increased further in the large cities: Jewish membership in the Communist organization in Warsaw increased dramatically from 44 % in 1930 to over 65 % in 1937.4
All in all, most estimates put the proportion of Jews in the KPP at an average of from 22 to 26 % throughout the 1930s.5 In the semi-autonomous KPZU and KPZB the percentage of Jewish members was at least similar to that in the KPP.6
In the Communist youth organizations, the proportion of Jewish members was even higher than in the party itself. In 1930 Jews constituted 51 % of the KZMP, while ethnic Poles were only 19 % (the remaining number was composed by Ukrainians and Byelorussians) and in 1933, 31 %, when ethnic Poles formed 33 %.7 If we assume that Polish-Jewish Communists constituted between one-third and one-fourth of the total membership of the whole movement (KPP, KPZB, KPZU and their youth organizations) in the 1930s, this would approximate between 5,000 and 8,400 Jewish Communists (without counting those in prison). If we include those imprisoned, the total number of Jews in the Communist movement in Poland during that period would probably rise to between 6,200 and 10,000 individuals.8 In addition, Jews were in an overwhelming majority in the Polish MOPR (Miedzynarodowa Organizacja Pomocy Rewolucjonistom – International Organization for Help to the Revolutionaries), which collected money for and channeled assistance to imprisoned Communists. In 1932, out of 6.000 members in the MOPR, about 90 % were Jews.9
The qualitative significance of Jewish Communists was even larger than their sheer numbers would indicate. Despite the fact that party authorities consciously strove to promote classically proletarian and ethnically Polish members to the cadres of leaders and functionaries, Jewish Communists formed in 1935 54 % of the field leadership of the KPP. Moreover, Jews constituted a total of 75 % of the party’s technika – the apparatus for production and distribution of propaganda materials. Finally, Communists of Jewish origin occupied most of the seats on the Central Committees of KPRP and KPP.10
This situation can only be accounted for by a combination of three factors: the attractiveness of Communist ideals to at least a section of the Jewish population, the social composition of the Communist movement, and the cultural and social characteristics which Jewish Communists brought with them into the movement.
As for the appeal of the Communist movement, suffice it to say that it opposed anti-Semitism in a more vigorous way than any other Polish political party. Promising to build a society free from both national and class oppression, it had a great potential for attracting radicalized, angry and disappointed young Jews. As for structural and cultural factors, one must remember that Polish society was still predominantly rural: 63 % of the ethnic Poles, 97 % of the Ukrainians and 97 % of the Byelorussians came from rural settings, while 76 % of all Jews lived in the cities. While 74 % of Poland’s total population and 58.8 % of the ethnic Poles were found in agricultural occupations, only 4.3 % of Jews were of the same category.11 Thus, in the predominantly rural population of Poland, Jews constituted a highly urbanized group, with a proportionally larger probability of perceiving the injustices of the capitalist society – which were easier to perceive in urban settings – and of exposure to radical ideologies.
The social structure of the Polish society was mirrored in the Polish Communist movement. As mentioned earlier, in the 1930s peasants and agricultural workers constituted 30-40 % of the membership of the KPP – which had a much more urbanized membership than the KPZU and the KPZB. During the same period, Jews constituted about 24 % of the members of the KPP and, as the number of Jewish peasants was negligible, we arrive at a picture of a party in which Jews constituted about 37 % of its non-peasant membership. With this background it is no wonder that the relatively high degree of formal or informal education and intellectual sophistication among Jewish Communists, their devotion and ideological fervor, paved the way for their rise to the positions of leadership and for their importance to the movement as a whole.