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June 03, 1977 - Image 56

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1977-06-03

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.


Friday, June 3, 1977


-Agony of Polish Jewry Between World Wars Described


(Copyright 1977, JTA, INC.)

No sooner did Poland re-
gain its independence after
World War I than the Jews
there became the targets of
pogroms, personal abuse.
economic boycotts and
other efforts aimed at
denying them their legiti-
mate rights to be accepted
as full Polish citizens. In
fact, when some Polish
Jews volunteered to serve
in the Polish army when
the Soviet Red Army at-
tacked Poland in 1920, they,
as well as some Jewish
regular army officers and
men, were kept confined to
special barracks at a mili-
tary camp and treated al-
most as traitors.
The entire history of Po-
land from November, 1918
until Hilter's army attacked
on Sept. 1, 1939 is one of op-
pression against Jews. Is it
any wonder that the Nazis
found Poland fertile ground
for their plans to extermi-
nate the Jewish people!
This period of Poland be-
tween the two World Wars
is described graphically by

Jewish laborers in Poland.

* * *

Celia S. Heller, a City Uni-
versity of New York sociolo-
gist who herself was born
in Poland, in her excellent
book, "On the Edge of De-
struction" (Columbia Uni-
versity Press). Her book is
a well-written example of
fine scholarship with many
quotations from autobio-
graphies and diaries of
Jews who lived through
that period as well as per-
sonal interviews. There are

also many photographs
taken during that period,
some of them extremely
But Dr. Heller, who is not
only a Columbia University-
trained scholar, but a Pol-
ish Jew, also writes fre-
quently with indignation
and emotion as she de-
scribes the plight of Jews
in pre-Holocaust Poland.
Her indignation is based

on the fact that Jews had
lived in Poland for 1,000
years, had come to Poland
on the invitation of the nobi-
lity in order to improve the
country's economy, but
were still considered aliens.
It was based on the fact
that Jews were considered
inferior by most Poles, yet
had almost no illiteracy in
a country where the illiter-
acy rate approached 90 per-
cent. It is based addition-
ally on the fact that the ef-
forts aimed at destroying
the economic life of Jews al-
so resulted in making post-
World War I Poland in poo-
rer economic condition than
before the war and left the
country weaker than it
should have been to face
the challenge of Hitler.


As a sociologist, Dr. Hel-
ler compares the situation
of Jews in Poland to that of
blacks in the United States
before the civil rights
She notes that "it was
firmly rooted in Polish cus-

50Dun,edinfewsStruggle for Survival


Special to The Jewish News
(Copyright 1977 JTA, loco)

(Editor's note: The follow-
ing article by Robert St.
John is the last in a series
of three based on his recent
trip to the South Pacific.)

Where is the most south-
erly Jewish congregation in
the world?
It's a congegation few
travelers ever visit and is
one of the smallest in the
world with a synagogue.
Just 20 families. Only 50
souls. (There is no chance
that any births have taken
place since we were there a
few weeks ago, because
,there are no young people,
but it may be that a death
or two has occurred.) In
few communities in the
world is the ratio of Jews
to total population so
small: one to every 2,200.
(The only place I know
with a slimmer ratio is
Elko, Nev.: one Jew among
7,620 other people.)
The most southern Jewish
congregation in the world is
in Dunedin (pronounced
Du-KNEE-din) New Zea-
land, a Scottish-looking city
(because it was settled by
Scotsmen) at the lower tip,
of the South Island, Lati-
tude 46, with almost noth-
ing between it and the
South Pole but water and
But the little Dunedin con-
gregation has a proud his-
tory, which any of the 50
local Jews will relate at the
drop of a yarmulke. In the
mid-19th Century, New Zea-
land had a gold rush.
People flocked to the South
Island from Austrailia and


even from Europe. Among
them were some Jews.
By 1880 there were 200
Jews in Dunedin, making it
the largest Jewish commu-
nity in all of New Zealand.
Because everyone was pros-
pering and because they
were certain the commu-
nity would continue to
grow, they built on a valu-
able piece of land in the
center of the city a syna-
gogue large enough to ac-
commodate 500 congre-
But early in the 20th Cen-
tury the gold ran out and
the fortune hunters began
leaving. Year by year the
size of the congregation
Then another trend set in.
The young people, as soon
as they had some educa-
tion, went off to places like
Wellington, Auckland, Aus-
tralia and some to far-off Is-
rael. One reason they left
was because they did not
want to marry out of their
religion and the chance of
finding suitable Jewish part-
ners in Dunedin was ob-
viously limited.
There was a temporary
upsurge in the Jewish popu-
lation immediately after
World War II, when several
dozen families came from
the D.P. camps of Austria
and Czechoslovakia.
When the worldwide cam-
paign to "Save Soviet
Jewry" began, Dunedin's 20
families — "the last outpost
of Judiasm," as they call
themselves — offered to
support any Russian Jews
that HIAS would send
them. They made only one
request: "Please send us

young people. Couples with
What Dunedin got was a
Russian dentist, who con-
fessed he was a confirmed
bachelor, and a woman doc-
tor. Both are, happily, still
practicing in Dunedin.
By 1966 the congregation
was down to its present
size, so a decision was
taken to sell the 500-seat
synagogue and build a mod-
em structure seating 100 be-
cause at that time New Zea-
land's only medical college
was in Dunedin and there
were always many Jewish
students who attended serv-
So they built the new
synagogue with the medical
students in mind and al-
most immediately a medi-
cal college was built in
Auckland, New Zealand's
largest city, where most
New Zealand Jews live, and
so now there are only two
or three Jewish medical stu-
dents a year at Dunedin
Univeristy and the syna-
gogue is twice as large as it
need be.
The average age of the
Dunedin Jew is now about
65. They have no rabbi. The
head of their community,
who conducts the weekly
service, is Ernest Hirsh, a
gentle intellectual, who was
a businessman in Germany
before he left there in 1938.
He choose to go to New Zea-
land because:
"Do you remember what
was happening in 1938?" he
asked. 'Now, look at a
map.. New Zealand is as far
from Germany as it is pos-
sible to go and still be on
this earth."
The community was

larger then and the average
age was much younger.
Hirsch's eyes sparkle as he
reminiscences. "Then there
were 20 children in the
Hebrew class." He bites his
lower lip. "Now...of course
now there are none."
The most important event
of the year for the Dunedin
Jews is the community
Seder, which is held in a
rented hall. Attendance is
greater than at either the
Yom Kippur or Rosh Hash-
ana services.
- In all of New Zealand
there are just 3,736 Jews, af-
filiated with congregations
in Auckland, Wellington,
Christ Church, Dunedin and
two smaller towns. That's a
ratio of little more than one
practicing Jew per 1000 pop-
ulation. (New Zealand has
exactly as many people as
In addition there are
about 2000 Jews who pay no
congregational dues but
sometimes attend High Holi-
day services. Then there
are thought to be another
5000 who are not counted as
Jews at all, because they
are partners in mixed mar-
Except for several hun-
dred families belonging to
liberal Jewish congrega-
tions in Auckland and Wel-
lington (who describe them-
selves as "something like
members of Conservative
congregations in your coun-
try") the other practicing
New Zealand Jews are all
Orthodox. Their rabbis will
not convert anyone to
Judaism if there is even a
suspicion that it is for the
purpose of marrying a Jew.
(As the Orthodox rabbi in
Wellington explained it to
me: "Love exists today,
but not tomorrow.")
Also, no Jew who has
married a non-Jew is per-
mitted to retain his mem-
bership in a congregation.
I was unable to find any
sign whatsoever of anit-
Semitism in this amazing
little down-under con-
stitutional monarachy so
close to the South Pole.

torn and the Polish psyche"
that "any association be-
tween individual Jews and
Poles must not imply social
equality of Jews and Poles
as groups. As a member of
the Jevfish group, one was
an object of contempt and
ridicule, and occasionally of
pity...The secularized Jews,
especially the young, were
contemptuous of such behav-
ior as undignified and de-
meaning, and often defied
it. Their break with the pat-
tern was seen by many
Poles as impertinence and
While these conditions ex-
isted before Poland re-
gained independence in No-
vember, 1918 it was the
basis of the acts against
Jews in independent Po-
land. Dr. Heller vividly de-
scribes the methods used
against Jews from 1918
until anti-Semitism became
official government policy
in the 1930's. Part of it was
based on Poland's poor eco-
nomic conditions in which
Jews were driven out of
businesses and trades as
well as jobs. Part of it
stemmed from the tradition-
al anti-Semitism of the Cath-
olic Church in Poland.
But the major source of
the most virulent anti-Semi-
tism was Polish nation-
alism, and the hotbed of
this as Dr. Heller so graph-
ically displays was the uni-
versity where quotas were
instituted, where Jewish stu-
dents were forced to sit in
special areas and where
Jewish students were fre-
quently physically attacked.
Dr. Heller's book de-
scribes how Jews from the
beginning fought to become
a part of Poland until they
became disillusioned just be-
fore the outbreak of World
War II. But by that time
there was nowhere to es-
cape. It shows how some
Jews sought answers in reli-
gion, in socialism or in Zion-
Perhaps the most inter-
esting chapters of the book
are the three devoted to de-
scribing the three types of
Jews Dr. Heller says were
in interwar Poland. She de-
votes one chapter to what
she calls the "Jewish
Jews ; " the traditional 0 rtho-
dox which she said made
up one-third of the Jewish
population in interwar Po-

Another very revealing
chapter is on the assimila-
tionists who comprised a
small fraction of Polish
Jewry and offered little at-
traction .to other Jews, ac-
cording to Dr. Heller, first
when they refused to join
with other Jews on political
issues and secondly when it
was seen that although they
con'sidered themselves
chiefly as Poles they were
looked upon by most Poles
as Jews.
The most revealing chap-
ter is the one in which Dr.
Heller points out that the
majority of Jews were
traditionalist, a cone
held by most American
Jews today, but secular
Jews who wanted full equal-
ity as Poles without sacri-
ficing their identity as,

Most of this book deals
with the oppression of Pol-
ish Jewry and as Dr. Heller
herself admits, she did not
have the room to include
the great creativity of Pol-
ish Jews during the period
described. She also depicts
the efforts of some Poles to
help Jews.
But most of this book is a
revealing picture of the suf-
ferings Jews underwent in
interwar Poland. Most of
the Jews described in this
book perished in the
Holocaust. But as Dr. Hel-
ler points out, that didn't
end it, After the Nazis had
been defeated, individual
Jews were killed by Poles
when they returned to their
home towns and there were
pogroms in some of them.
Anti-Semitism also contin-
ued under Communist Po-
land and became an offical
government policy in 1968.
Today only a few thousand
Jews remain in Poland.
Dr. Heller concludes:
"...the link to that past Jew-
ish community of Poland
continues to exist; not in Po-
land but in Israel and also
in the Jewish communities
of the Western world.
where numerous descend-
ents of Polish Jews live.
That link is and will be as
strong as The numbers of
them who cling to a Jewish
self-identity and to a proud
or sad memory of the Pol-
ish community that once
This book is an important
strand in that link.

One of the oldest synagogues in Poland is shown above,
Grodek Jagiellonski in Lvov.



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