Polish - Jewish Patriots

After thousands of years of war and being an occupied territory, Poland finally gained its' own independence on November, 11th 1918! The declaration was a big celebration and victory for Poles, many of whom were Jewish who served on the front line to fight and defend their country.

For many Polish Jews, the declaration of a newly independent Polish state on the 11th of November, 1918 was a dream come true. What reinforced this positive feeling was the man behind the declaration of independence, Józef Piłsudski. Widely acknowledged as a philo-semite, Piłsudski believed in the values of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Those values included religious tolerance, freedom of speech, the press, and many others that we have come to know and enjoy.  Polish Jews fought with Piłsudski during his days as the leader of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), and gladly enlisted in his Legions, which became the basis of the independent Polish army. While many Jews no doubt viewed the formation of a Polish state with some skepticism, especially with the presence of Polish ultra-nationalists such as Roman Dmowski, having Piłsudski as leader reinforced for many that this would be a Polish state that was friendly to Jews which the 2nd Republic would become during much of the 1920s and 1930s. 

Jews were enthusiastic volunteers during the first years of the Polish Republic, fighting on the front-lines in Poland's many conflicts with a myriad of neighbors turned enemies in the post-Versailles maelstrom that was East-Central Europe. Culminating with the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the “Miracle on the Wisła” was made possible in part by Warsaw's Jewish community, the largest in Poland, who volunteered in large numbers for the battle against the Soviet Union. The Soviets never forgave Poland for their victory, and they forgave even less the many thousands of Polish Jews who fought in the battle to defend their country. 

Photo: Jewish soldiers in Polish Army with matzoth received from JDC. Suwalki, Poland. 1916-1918. JDC Archives

Photo: Jewish soldiers in Polish Army with matzoth received from JDC. Suwalki, Poland. 1916-1918. JDC Archives

Polish Jews understood that the demands of independence did not end with a declaration or even a successful military campaign, and went to vote in large numbers in Poland's first democratic elections. They formed a bloc with other minorities to ensure that their candidate won Poland's first democratically-elected President, Gabriel Narutowicz. Jews became in many ways the political front-line against growing nationalist and ultra-nationalist resentment. Their victory turned to ash in their mouths when Narutowicz fell by an assassin's bullet within a week of taking office, killed by an ultra-nationalist Pole. Despite this setback, most Polish Jews never abandoned Poland, serving in numerous governments and civil service positions throughout the Republic. 

While we reflect on Polish independence, let us also consider that this meant independence for millions of Polish Jews who had been suffering under subjugation for centuries. The independence of Poland, “Polin”, the land of Jews for millennia, was a seen as a hopeful future for a land of freedom and tolerance.