Przyslal Jacek Schatz
Was, then, the stereotype of Zydokomuna basically correct? Even if we were to accept the claim made by Jewish Communists after the war that „of the highest number of votes the Communists ever polled in Poland, i.e., of the 266,528 votes collected on several lists of front organizations at the Sejm elections of 1928, two-fifths were cast by Jews,” it would mean that Communist ideals were sympathized with by only about 5 % of all Jewish voters.12 The total picture that emerges is thus one of the very important role Jews played in the Polish Communist movement of the time and, at the same time, a general Jewish community far from sympathetic to Communism.
The party line
The Communist movement’s attitudes towards the problems that faced Polish Jews focused on three different but closely connected topics: anti-Semitism, Jewish ethnicity, i.e., Jewish culture and religion, and, finally, Jewish political ideologies and movements, particularily the Bund and Zionism.
Beside the PPS, the Communist party was the only general Polish party energetically and continously to oppose anti-Semitism.13 In accordance with the stand taken by the international Communist movement, anti-Semitism was regarded as a product of the capitalist system, as „a tool for rooting capitalism and the blackest reaction,” and, for its capacity to split the working class, as „`the most terrible danger’ to an effective class struggle of all the nationalities in Poland.” Because of that, as stated in a resolution at four party congress in 1927, „the party should resolutely fight for the national equality of the Jewish working masses, against bourgeois anti-Semitism and chauvinism which aim at diverting the attention of the Polish and Jewish working masses from the struggle against their oppressors and exploiters, against the fascist dictatorship.” As such, anti-Semitism was to be fought without quarter.
This ideological stand was repeatedly expressed in connection with the government’s anti-Jewish policies, the worsening social situation of Jews and the pogroms. As for the latter, the KPP frequently denounced pogroms and their organizers, seeing them as „the manipulations of the reaction” and calling upon Polish workers and peasants to defend Jews not only out of human compassion, but also because „those workers and peasants who passively observe while Fascism murders the Jewish poor commit a crime against their own class interest.”14 Analyzing the bloody pogrom in Brzesc in May 13, 1937, perhaps the most reputed Communist publicist, Julian Brun, wrote in the theoretical organ of KPP Przeglad: „Pogroms must be seen as a dangerous attack by the reactionaries, aiming at weakening and splitting the anti-Fascist forces.”15 Consequently, the KPP frequently called for the creation of joint defense groups against the pogroms over ethnic and party lines.
In fact, although most probably honest,16 these Communist calls must also be seen as part of the divisive tactics of the „united front from below.” Thus, when in 1936 the KPP called on the PPS, the Bund and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party jointly to fight anti-Semitism, those parties were suspicious of the Communist intentions and considered the proposal to be propaganda. In any case, although such attempts did not result in a broad struggle against anti-Semitism over party lines, they strongly contributed to increased Communist sympathies among Jews and added to the attractiveness of the movement’s internationalist profile. The Communist point of view, according to which a lasting and fundamental solution to anti-Semitism could only be achieved through a basic upheaval of the social and economic foundations of society, carried thus a great appeal to a relatively large segment of the young Jewish generation.
This firm stand against anti-Semitism did not mean, however, an undivided affirmative attitude towards Jewish ethnicity. On this point, Polish Communist attitudes followed the Soviet party line17 and was thus ambiguous. In a longer time perspective, the „progressive” solution to the „Jewish problem” was seen in assimilation. In a shorter time perspective, the Communist movement voiced a program for secular, state sponsored schools, with Yiddish as the language of instruction and for vaguely described free cultural development. In other words, „it tolerated linguistic and, to some extent, cultural Jewish autonomy, but this always stemmed from practical needs rather than comprehension of the Jewish national problem.” Judged from today, one has to agree with the opinion that the Communist line with regard to Jews „meant only an extension of the period within which the assimilation would be accomplished on the principle of the melting pot.”18
The Communist attitude towards Judaism as a religion and the traditions that stemmed from it was radically negative. Judaism was seen as sheer superstition that should be rejected and worked against, as also was the influence of „Jewish clericalism” on the masses.19
This general line was not perceived in a unitary way by all Jewish Communists. There were those, the „Jewish Jews,” who wholly believed in the officially proclaimed Soviet policy of just treatment for all nationalities and their free cultural development. There were also others, the assimilationists, who tended to complete the process of Polonization within the movement; or those, the „universalists,” who thought and hoped that the Communist line would eventually result in „one humanity, because all the other differences are not important and will disappear,” as one respondent said. Thus, for some, Communism meant the possibility to downplay the importance of ethnic boundaries and of a peaceful symbiosis of ethnic cultures in a society without class oppression; for others it meant the possibility of a radical de-ethnification of society; for still others it meant individual prospects for escaping Jewish particularity and for severing bonds with an ascribed identity. Varying in intensity and interlaced with each other, all these perceptions were similar in being rooted in the same burden of the Jewish stigma.
Acting on the „Jewish street” the Communist movement had to compete with the Jewish political parties. Taking stand on the concrete issues facing Polish Jews – the problem of taxation, anti-Jewish economic boycotts, pauperization, the lack of state support for Jewish schools, etc. – the Communists frequently proposed the same solutions as the Bund, the Zionists or even the religious parties. Yet, determined „to achieve a dominant position on the „Jewish street,”20 they also had to attack these parties for alleged political and ideological wrongdoing. This line was coherent in so far that the Communists were convinced that the „Jewish problem” could only find a definite solution through a revolutionary struggle under their leadership, „because the victory of the proletariat will mark the equality of rights for all the oppressed nationalities.”21 Consequently, they regarded all competing Jewish parties with a fundamental hostility. All the proposed cooperation, common fronts and alliances were never more than tactics. In practice, there was a continuous struggle for power, in which infiltration, diversion, ideological debate, disruption of meetings and even violent fist fights were frequently used.
This Communist line on the „Jewish street” followed the notion of „Social-Fascism.” It was pursued until 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany with his radically anti-Jewish rhetoric and program. The immediate result of this was a rise of Jewish national sentiments in Poland and a consequent decrease in Communist influence. As Hitler was perceived as a threat to the Soviet Union, the line against the „Social-Fascists” was replaced by the idea of a popular front, which the KPP (March, 1933) proposed to the PPS, the Bund and the Poaley Zion Left. Although the Communist calls for cooperation were, after repeated negotiations, turned down, the appeal of the slogans for „Proletarian Popular Front” or „Anti-Fascist Front,” coupled with the secret „popular front from below” and the vibrant calls for join actions against the pogroms, led the Communists to regain soon their strength on the „Jewish street.” Other factors that also contributed to this was the very successful propaganda on the subject of the achievements of Jews in the Soviet Union, propagated through the Communist front organizations Gezerd and Agroid, as well as the growth of violently anti-Semitic Fascist or semi-Fascist organizations in Poland.
These calls for unity against anti-Semitism and Fascism, coupled with the polemics against Jewish nationalism and Jewish separatism (i.e., in the Communist vocabulary, the Bund and the Zionists) and attempts to infiltrate the ranks of non-Communist parties and organizations were to last until the dissolution of the KPP in 1938.
The dissolution of the KPP was part of the Great Purge of 1937-1938. During this purge almost all Polish Communists who found themselves in the Soviet Union were shot or sent to concentration camps. This fate met the entire leadership of the KPP and all those minor functionaries who fell into Soviet custody. The exact number of victims is unknown; estimations run from „several hundred”22 to „some five thousand.”23 In the opinion of the respondents the truth lies somewhere in between. The proportion of Jews among the victims of this purge was very high.
The KPP was formally dissolved by the Comintern at the end of 1938. The exact date of the decision is not known. The official reason for dissolution was the disintegration of the KPP and its infiltration by police spies and provocateurs on one hand and by the Trotskyists on the other. The real reason has never been stated, not even when the KPP was rehabilitated in February, 1956. Probably Stalin never forgot or forgave the support the KPP gave Trotsky. However, the main reason for the dissolution of the KPP was most probably the fact that the Soviet leadership was contemplating an alliance with Nazi Germany, which the KPP with its large Jewish membership could be expected violently to resist.
The result of the ideological and psychological climate of absolute faithfulness and obediance towards the Soviet party and the Comintern, and the mutual ideological suspicion within the rank and file of the KPP, was that the decision to dissolve the party met with little resistance. The only protest came from a small Trotskyist group under the leadership of Isaac Deutscher, who accused the Comintern of „ultra-rightist deviation” and anti-Semitism.
When the purges took place, members of this generation were either rank and file members of the movement or minor functionaries. The importance of the purges for their later life career is obvious. Had the purges and the dissolution of the KPP not taken place, their life paths in the Soviet Union during the war and in Poland afterwards would have been completely different in many respects. In any case, they owed their lives to the paradoxical situation of either serving sentences in Polish prisons or being otherwise unable to go to the Soviet Union at a time when being in the Soviet Union was their greatest dream and when their leaders and older comrades, among whom were several of their former recruiters and mentors, perished there.