In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poland, 1800-1939

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Jewish Studies Poland, 1800-1939
Scott Ury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0104


Jews in modern Poland have attracted a great deal of scholarly and popular attention over the years. This ongoing academic and popular interest is due not only to their status as the largest Jewish community in Europe during the period in question, but also to the pivotal role that many Jewish individuals, institutions, and organizations played in key political, religious, social, intellectual, and cultural developments over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Designed as an introduction to the vast and growing body of academic literature on the topic, this article is by no means meant to serve as an exhaustive survey. Starting with the partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), Jews and other residents of the region encountered modern bureaucracies and governments that repeatedly attempted to turn them into integral, productive, and loyal members of imperial society. Although some Jewish adherents of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) embraced such reforms, many others turned their back on government officials and the modern ideologies that they advocated and represented. Hence, Poland quickly became the geographic base for the incredibly popular religious movement of Hasidism, a movement that grew rapidly just as modern governments began to design and implement various reform projects. The nineteenth century also witnessed the advent of industrialization and the sudden growth of new urban centers. Warsaw, Lodz, Białystok, and other industrial centers soon arose and with them new types of Jewish communities. Although some urban Jewish residents became entrepreneurs, leaders of bourgeois society, and model citizens who advocated and embodied a distinctly proud Polish-Jewish symbiosis, the vast majority became part of a growing Jewish working class. Difficult working conditions, the vicissitudes of urban life, and brief periods of political freedom encouraged many young Jews to join some of the new political movements that began to develop in the region, such as the General Jewish Labor Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia (the Bund); Zionism and other variants, Jewish and non-Jewish; as well as those that attempted to bridge this gap. Although welcomed by many, the social and political changes associated with urban development and modern society unsettled many residents and, in some cases, led to increased hostilities between Jews and Poles, including the growth of political antisemitism. All of these developments continued during the interwar period when Poland regained its political independence. Independent Poland provided ideal social and political conditions for different Jewish political parties, many of which flourished in Poland between the two world wars. In addition to political organization and activity on the part of the Bund; the General, Left-Wing, and Revisionist Zionists; the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party and other organizations grew quickly in the interwar era. Many of these parties also created modern educational systems that catered to many of Poland’s three million Jewish citizens. Modern Jewish culture also underwent a renaissance in interwar Poland, not only in Yiddish and Hebrew but increasingly in Polish. Here, as well, the rapid pace of change was embraced by many but also contributed to hostilities, tensions and even violence as well as the growth of antisemitic parties, politicians, and policies. That said, although the situation of many Jews in interwar Poland was socially, politically, and economically difficult, it paled in comparison to the tragic fate of Polish Jewry after the German invasion and conquest of Poland in September 1939.

General Overviews

Students, scholars, and readers can benefit greatly from an array of relatively recent general histories of Jews in Polish lands. Each of these studies provides its own distinctive interpretation of Jewish history and society in the region as well as the connection between Jewish and Polish societies and histories. Those interested in an academic overview of the topic can start by turning to the concise introductory history written by Bartal 2002 as well as the recent three-volume study by Polonsky 2010–2012. The two-volume set by Davies 1982 on Polish history remains the most useful guide in English to general events in Polish lands. All of these works are excellent resources for scholars, students, and other interested readers who wish to begin studying or researching Jewish history and society in 19th- and 20th-century Polish lands.

  • Bartal, Israel. The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772–1881. Translated by Chaya Naor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

    A wonderful introduction to the history and culture of the Jews in Eastern Europe over the course of what has been called “the long 19th century.” The author discusses political changes, demographic developments, intellectual and religious trends, and the impact of antisemitism. This study also examines the experiences of Jews in different empires and lands, including central Poland and Galicia.

  • Davies, Norman. In God’s Playground: A History of Poland. Vol. 2, 1795 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

    An extremely useful historical resource for those seeking background on larger social and political developments in Polish lands during the period in question. Although the volume’s thematic structure is periodically confusing and its conclusions regarding Jews in Poland are often polemical, the amount and reliability of information available remain unprecedented.

  • Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. 3 vols. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010–2012.

    This massive, sweeping survey of the history of Jews in Polish and Russian lands begins in the 14th century and continues into the early 21st century. Although the scope is expansive, the author lends preference to politics and literature over other realms. That said, this is an incredibly important and useful resource for students and scholars.

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