JQ Wingate Nominee: The Jews in Poland and Russia by Anthony Polonsky

Posted on 13th March 2015 by Anthony Polonsky
We continue our look at the nominees for the JQ Wingate Prize with The Jews in Poland and Russia by Anthony Polonsky.

This book describes the establishment, flourishing, near-destruction, and slow rebirth of one of the most important communities in Jewish history. Since the Babylonian exile and the beginnings of the diaspora, Jewish life has been characterized by the rise of major centres of creativity and dynamism. In the period of the Second Temple (530 bce–70 ce) and after, Mesopotamia with its exilarch and its great academies was an even more important focus of Jewish intellectual and legal activity than Erets Yisra’el. It remained so under Islamic rule, to be supplanted in the early Middle Ages by the communities of Spain and the Rhineland. When these settlements lost their significance, with the persecutions of the Crusades and more particularly the Black Death in Germany, and with the expulsion and forced conversion of the Jews in Spain, their place was taken by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Turkish empire, along with smaller communities in Italy, the German lands, and the Atlantic littoral. By the early seventeenth century the Jewish community of Poland–Lithuania had become the largest in the Jewish world.

The Jewish population of Poland–Lithuania grew from between 10,000 and 30,000 at the end of the fifteenth century (out of a total population of about 4 million) to between 150,000 and 300,000 (out of 10 million) by 1650, and to 750,000 (out of 14million) by 1764.During the years of its flourishing it gave rise to a unique religious and secular culture in Hebrew and Yiddish and enjoyed an unprecedented degree of self-government. In a penitential prayer composed in the aftermath of the massacres that occurred during the Cossack uprising of the mid-seventeenth century, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller looked back to a golden age, recalling ‘Poland, a country of royalty where we have dwelt from of old in tranquil serenity’.1 Yet even after the devastation of these upheavals, which also marked the beginning of the downfall of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Jewish community continued to grow and even to recover some of its vitality. In the late eighteenth century these lands saw the birth and development of hasidism, an innovative revivalist movement, which was eventually to win the allegiance of a large proportion of the Jewish population and which remains very much alive in the Jewish world today.

The partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century and again in 1815 divided Polish Jewry between the tsarist, Habsburg, and Prussian states (seeMap 1). Four distinct communities developed: in Prussian Poland, in Galicia (Austrian Poland), in the Kingdom of Poland, which was linked dynastically with the tsarist empire and granted restricted autonomy, and in the lands directly incorporated into that empire. These centres formed the largest part of world Jewry. On these lands the western and central European pattern, which had seen the transformation of the Jews from a people linked by a common religious tradition and way of life that transcended national boundaries into citizens of their respective countries—English, French, and Germans ‘of the Mosaic faith’—was not replicated. Because of the size of the Jewish population in eastern Europe, its resistance to the sort of transformation proposed, and the growth of anti-Jewish sentiment by the late nineteenth century, the ‘assimilationists’, whether Polish, Russian, or Jewish, who sought to make the Jews into Poles or Russians of the Mosaic faith largely failed in their efforts. Aminority of Polish Jews in Galicia and in the Kingdom of Poland had accepted the assimilationist dream and were fairly well integrated into Polish society. In Prussian Poland the process of integration was broadly successful, but its effect was to transform the Jews there into ‘Germans of the Mosaic faith’. In the parts of Poland that had been directly absorbed into the tsarist empire, where the majority of Jews from the former Polish republic lived (the Pale of Settlement), the maskilic elite favoured Russification rather than Polonization. Yet here the hopes that Tsar Alexander II would do away with Jewish legal disabilities and establish full legal equality were dashed.

The JQ Wingate Prize recognizes Jewish and non-Jewish writers resident in the UK, British Commonwealth, Europe and Israel who stimulate an interest in themes of Jewish concern while appealing to the general reader.


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