The Jews in Poland and Russia

BookThe Jews in Poland and Russia

The Jews in Poland and Russia

Volume III: 1914 to 2008

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


February 9th, 2012

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Antony Polonsky provides a comprehensive survey of the history - socio-political, economic, and religious - of the Jewish communities of eastern Europe from 1750, when the Polish - Lithuanian Commonwealth was the dominant political unit, to the present. Until the Second World War, this area was the heartland of the Jewish world: almost all the major movements which have characterized that world in recent times had their origins here, and it was home to the majority of the world's Jews. Nearly three and a half million lived in Poland alone, while nearly three million more lived in the Soviet Union. Although the majority of the Jews of Europe and the United States, and most of the Jews of Israel, originated from these lands, the history of their Jewish communities is not well known. Rather, it is the subject of mythologizing and stereotypes that fail both to bring out the specific features of the Jewish civilization which emerged here and to illustrate what was lost in the passage across the Channel and the Atlantic. Jewish life in these parts, though often poor materially, was marked by a high degree of spiritual and ideological intensity and creativity. Antony Polonsky recreates this lost world - brutally cut down by the Holocaust and less brutally but still seriously damaged by the Soviet attempt to destroy Jewish culture - in a way that avoids both sentimentalism and the simplification of the the east European Jewish experience into a story of persecution and martyrdom. Wherever possible, the unfolding of history is illustrated by contemporary Jewish writings to show how Jews felt and reacted to the complex and difficult situations in which they found themselves. It is an important story whose relevance reaches far beyond the Jewish world or the bounds of east-central Europe. Polonsky establishes the context with a review of Jewish life in Poland and Lithuania down to the mid-eighteenth century, describing the towns and shtetls where the Jews lived, the institutions they developed, and their participation in the economy. He also considers their religious and intellectual life, including the emergence of hasidism, and the growth of opposition to it. He then describes government attempts to integrate and transform the Jews in the period from 1764 to 1881 and the Jewish response to these efforts. He considers the impact of modernization and the beginnings of the Haskalah movement, and looks at developments in each area in turn: the problems of emancipation, acculturation, and assimilation in Prussian and Austrian Poland; the politics of integration in the Kingdom of Poland; and the failure of forced integration in the tsarist empire. The third part of the book considers the deterioration of the position of the Jews in the period from 1881 to 1914 and the new Jewish politics that led to the development of new movements: Zionism, socialism, autonomism, the emergence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish urbanization, and the rise of Jewish mass culture. Galicia, Prussian Poland, the Kingdom of Poland, and the tsarist empire are all treated individually, as are the main towns. The final part deals with the twentieth century. Starting from the First World War and the establishment of the Soviet Union, it deals in turn with Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union up to the Second World War. It then reviews Polish - Jewish relations during the Second World War and examines the Soviet record and the Holocaust. The final chapters deal with the Jews in the Soviet Union and in Poland since 1945, concluding with an epilogue on the Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia since the collapse of communism.

‘An invaluable research resource with maps, tables, endnotes, statistics, glossary, and bibliography. It also delivers a compelling picture and credible picture of how Jews responded to dramatic change . . . does well to focus on women, whom previous histories often ignore.’
- Lawrence Joffe, Jewish Chronicle

‘Remarkable for its scale and ambition . . . Polonsky manages to combine great themes with fascinating detail . . . [he] has read widely in numerous languages. The erudition is impressive . . . extremely judicious in negotiating a number of notorious historiographical minefields . . . makes important distinctions between different countries in eastern Europe and consequently the different experience of the Jews . . . a magnificent, scholarly work, clearly written, with a magisterial overview of its subject.’
- David Herman, Jewish Renaissance

Each of the three volumes of this magisterial work provides a comprehensive picture of the realities of Jewish life in the Polish lands in the period it covers, while also considering the contemporary political, economic, and social context.

Volume I: 1350 to 1881 provides a wide-ranging overview down to the mid-eighteenth century, including social, economic, and religious history. The period from 1764 to 1881 is covered in more detail, with attention focused on developments in each country in turn, especially with regard to the politics of emancipation, acculturation, assimilation, and forced integration.

Volume II: 1881 to 1914 explores the factors that had a negative impact on Jewish life as well as the political and cultural movements that developed in consequence: Zionism, socialism, autonomism, the emergence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Jewish urbanization, and the rise of popular Jewish culture. Galicia, Prussian Poland, the Kingdom of Poland, and the tsarist empire are all treated individually, as are the main cities.

Volume III: 1914 to 2008 covers the interwar period, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, including Polish–Jewish relations and the Soviet record on the Holocaust. A survey of developments since 1945 concludes with an epilogue on the situation of the Jews since the collapse of communism

'Polonsky's sweeping study offers an illuminating, accessible view of Jewish life in eastern Euope since the end of World War II. In elegant prose, the author engages major historiographical issues while analyzing important cultural, religious, social, and political trends among eastern European Jewry. He carefully frames each section with a chapter-long overview of the relevant historical context for the following chapters . . . Throughout, Polonsky masterfully navigates the different realms of a turbulent eastern European Jewish world, conveying both the richness of its history and the tragedy of its destruction. Highly recommended.'

J. Haus, Choice

'Exemplary and formidable . . . Polonsky, as much as anyone else, has created the field of modern Jewish history as a subject to be considered and understood rather than simply a tragic past to be mourned. He is too good a historian to confuse the history of Jewish life with the German policies that brought Jewish death . . . The barely visible commitment in these three wonderful volumes is to rescue a world from polemic, for the sake of history.'
Timothy Snyder, Wall Street Journal

'Succeeds admirably. Simply put, these volumes are required reading for anyone with a serious interest in East European history or for anyone looking for a scholarly assessment of a particular feature of Polish or Russian Jewish history. Handsomely produced, with extensive maps and tables, and a glossary . . . will remain a standard work in the field for some time.'
Sean Martin, European History Quarterly

Author Information

Antony Polonsky is Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the Global Education Outreach Program at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. His three-volume history the Jews in Poland and Russia (2010–12), also published by the Littman Library, was awarded the Pro Historia Polonorum Prize of the Polish Senate for the best book on the history of Poland in a language other than Polish.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title3
Title Page4
List of Maps12
List of Tables12
Note on Transliteration14
Note on Place Names15
1. The First World War and its Aftermath48
2. The Jews in Polish Political and Social Life, 1921–193999
3. Jewish Life in the Towns and Cities of Inter-War Poland141
4. Jewish Writers in Independent Poland193
5. Religious Life in Inter-War Poland227
6. Lithuania between the Two World Wars248
7. Jews in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, 1921–1941282
8. Towns, Shtetls, and Agricultural Settlements in the Soviet Union317
9. Jewish Writing in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, 1917–1941342
10. The Prelude to the ‘Final Solution’, 1939–1941404
11. The Mass Murder of the Jews, 1941–1944456
12. Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution519
13. Contemporary Literary Responses to the Genocide581
14. The Soviet Government and the Holocaust606
15. From 1944 to the Death of Stalin636
16. From the Death of Stalin to the Invasion of Czechoslovakia697
17. The Last Years of Communism, 1968–1991751
18. Jews in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania since 1991808
19. Jews in Poland since the End of Communism852