Treatment of Jewish Themes in Polish Schools

Treatment of Jewish Themes in Polish Schools

Seven textbooks have been developed for grades 5-8, one each for grades 5 and 6, two for grade 7, and three for grade 8.

History of the Jews Through the Centuries

In the textbook for grade 5, a separate chapter is devoted to the history of ancient Palestine. The earliest history of the Hebrews is presented, as well as a little information about Judaism. This chapter is referred to as well in the workbook accompanying the textbook. On the other hand, in the part of the book devoted to the medieval history of Europe and the Polish state, there are only two brief references to the Jews. The Jewish settlements are mentioned as one of the factors leading to the creation of cities in thirteenth-century Poland, while the text of primary source materials contains information about the religious disputes conducted by Wlodzimierz the Great, including those with the Jews. Both entries are rather accidental and are not connected logically. The development of Jewish settlements on Polish territory is not discussed, and Ibrahim ibn Jakub is depicted as an Arab merchant. Nor is the fact mentioned that the Jewish population received separate rights (the first such privileges were granted in 1264).

In the textbook for grade 6, covering the period from the fourteenth to the end of the eighteenth century, Jews are not mentioned at all in the text, yet are portrayed in two illustrations, although this fact is not noted in the captions. The only information that might relate to the Jews, located under a drawing unrelated to the Jews, is incorrect and misleading. Thus the existence of a Jewish community under the Polish crown is overlooked. The participation of Jews in economic life is not mentioned, nor is the existence of Jewish self-government, whose model was the self-government of the nobles; nor the anti-Jewish and not only anti-Polish nature of the Chmielnicki uprising; nor the design for the change in the legal status of the Jewish population in the eighteenth century; nor the participation, however episodic, of the Jews in the Koíciuszko uprising of 1794.

In the first of the two textbooks for grade 7, there are barely two references to the Jews. The participation of Dov Ber Meizels in patriotic demonstrations is noted, but he is not identified as the chief rabbi of Warsaw. The emergence of the ideology of anti-Semitism is also noted, but many reservations can be made with regard to the definition presented. Anti-Semitism is considered one of the currents of racism.

The second of the textbooks for the seventh grade conveys to a broader degree the history of the Jewish population in the Polish lands in the nineteenth century. It relates the participation of Berek Joselewicz in the Koíciuszko uprising, mentions the involvement of Jews in the November uprising, their participation in patriotic movements during the period of the January uprising, the equal rights and emancipation of the Jewish population, and the relations among the various ethnic groups on the eastern frontier. Some information unfortunately contains errors—for example, Jozef Berkowicz did not manage to form a Jewish cavalry division. This textbook is also missing several important items. The contribution of the Jews to the economic development of the kingdom of Poland is not described, nor does the book mention such cultural transformations as the growth of Hasidism or the birth of Yiddish culture; yet one of the maps indicates cities in which the Jewish population constituted more than 50 percent and more than 75 percent of the general population.

Interpretation of the Holocaust

The textbooks for the eighth grade cannot be evaluated as a whole. All of them possess merits and faults connected with their scholarly and methodological problems. In the textbook by Elzbieta and Jerzy Centkowski, little informa-tion is devoted to the history of the Jewish people, whether in Poland or Europe as a whole during the period of World War I and the interwar years (1914-39). Mention is made of the legislation depriving Jews of political and civil rights during the Third Reich, yet the term "Nuremberg Laws" is not used. The anti-Semitic nature of the Nazi ideology is not shown. The concepts racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism are explained in the glossary. The text itself only mentions that the Jews, like the socialists, communists, and the clergy, were considered enemies of the Reich. The information regarding the Jews is too dispersed and does not create a picture of the situation of the Jews in the Third Reich, which constituted a foreshadowing of the later per-secution and extermination.

The Jewish theme is treated extensively in the chapter concerning World War II. Unfortunately, these references are often too brief; furthermore, they contain errors and insinuations. In its descriptions of the extermination of the Jewish and Gypsy populations in the death camps, it does not clarify why the extermination included these two ethnic groups. There is a gross simplification in the sentence that "the Nazis prepared the biological extermination of the Polish people." It is unclear whether this statement relates to the rationing of food, the execution of the population (and especially the intelligentsia), or the existence of death camps; if it refers to this last subject, this concerns not the Polish people but the Jews. A brief paragraph is devoted to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, including information about the activity of the Zegota (Polish Council for Assistance to the Jews). However, the nature of the extermination camps and their tragic result are not discussed. It is difficult to evaluate whether such essential defects were caused by the belief that certain topics are unintelligible for students fourteen and fifteen years old, by an overloaded instruction plan, or simply by the incompetence of the authors.

In the next textbook intended for the eighth grade, by Tadeusz GlubiÕski, information about the Jews appears extremely rarely. A separate chapter about the minorities inhabiting the Second Republic contains only very general information about individual ethnic groups. The discussion of racism and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany is too simplified. There is no mention of the Nuremberg Laws, nor is Kristallnacht described. World War II is discussed at length, with little mention devoted to the fate of the Jewish people; nevertheless, the most important topics are mentioned. The book contains a map locating the death camps and the largest ghettos. It gives basic information about the restrictions imposed upon the Jewish population and about life in the ghettos. The majority of topics concerning the fate of the Jewish people are presented in a paragraph entitled "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising." Korczak's activity is mentioned, as well as the creation of the Jewish Defense Organization and the Jewish Army Union (referred to incorrectly as the Jewish Army Organization), the ghetto uprisings (incorrectly mentioning an uprising in Lvov), as well as the activity of the Zegota. This paragraph contains a large quantity of information, especially in comparison with other textbooks, yet fails to clarify the ideological and political causes of the Holocaust.

Among the three textbooks for the eighth grade, the work by Andrzej Szczeíniak devotes the most attention to the history of the Jewish population; yet even this textbook contains errors and sometimes controversial, inadmis-sible formulations. It has a very interesting graphic and scholarly design, is easy to use, and is thus very popular among students. Nevertheless it must be noted that it has been critically evaluated by many historians on account of its anti-Semitic interpretations. The book contains such information as that the Bund was a Bolshevik-style party, opposed to Polish independence. In discussing the structure of the multiethnic Second Republic, the author states that in the nineteenth century the Jewish population grew significantly, while the number of Poles declined as the result of Germanization, Russification, and emigration. As if these statements were not enough, there are errors: the Jewish population also underwent Russification and Germanization, and likewise emigrated on a massive scale. The author unequivocally suggests that the growing Jewish community posed a threat to Polish ethnicity. It is worth noting as well that in the list located next to the structure of ethnic groups in the Second Republic, the percentages of Ukrainians, Jews, and Belarussians are presented as lower than they actually were; in the case of the Jews, the percentage varied from 9.8 to 13.4 percent, and it was never as low as 7.8 percent, as the author claims. An unusually tendentious citation was chosen concerning the Polish Communist Party, in which the author suggests that its members were mainly Jews dependent on Moscow and involved in espionage activity. Yet at the same time it claims that the Communist Party isolated itself from Polish workers, and in the margins, where the most important events are contained in titles, is the heading "Ethnic Composition of the Polish Communist Party."

Yet it must be emphasized that the portion concerning anti-Jewish legislation in the Third Reich and the Holocaust, in comparison with other textbooks, is relatively deep and exhaustive. A separate subsection is devoted to the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and the plight of the Jewish people in the Third Reich. An entire chapter is devoted to the extermination of the Jews and Gypsies. It presents the successive stages of the extermination of the Jews by the occupation authorities, beginning in 1939. This information is supple-mented with fragments from the diary of Ludwik Hirszfeld. Separate sub-sections discuss the Jewish resistance movements and the uprisings in the ghettos and camps. Seven pages are devoted to the Holocaust, the longest discussion of the topic among all the history textbooks. Yet even here the author should be confronted with several errors and simplifications—for example, with regard to the allegedly passive attitude of the Jewish people during the period of the Holocaust.

Postwar History and Contemporary Israel

Little attention is devoted to the postwar history of the Jews in the textbooks for students before the eighth grade. Andrzej Szczeíniak's textbook examines the topic most extensively. Among the events discussed relating to the postwar history of the Jews are the emergence of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arab nations. Unfortunately, the author has included his personal evaluation along with the facts. His assessment of the place of the Jews in postwar Polish history is controversial. Among the topics emphasized in the margins of the text, and thus worth memorizing, he notes "Foreign Com-munists Assume Power," and later, in a colored frame, "Secret Political Police." The author explains that this concerns the activists sent from Moscow, yet the names of the high government authorities of Jewish origin are high-lighted next to the text, while those individuals of Polish ethnicity who held the highest positions are overlooked. Equally tendentious is the presentation of some events connected with March 1968. Szczeíniak's book should be criticized since the author, particularly in the portions concerning the role of the Jews in the history of Poland, presents his own nationalistic views along with the facts.

In Centkowski's textbook, the chapter devoted to postwar recon-struction states that the postwar Jewish community numbered several tens of thousands. This overlooks the nearly 200,000 Jews repatriated from the USSR. The later fate of the Jews is not discussed, not even the problem of emigration, which increased particularly after the Kielce pogrom in 1946. The only episode mentioned in the postwar fate of the Jews is the anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, when approximately 20,000 Polish citizens of Jewish origin, largely people completely assimilated and Polonized, were forced to emigrate. This fragment is enhanced with a quotation from an anti-Semitic speech by the first secretary of the Central Committee of the United Polish Workers' Party, WÓadysÓaw GomuÓka, as well as with a citation from J. Tomaszewski's book concerning the results of "March." The "March events" are presented in an interesting way that arouses curiosity. It is worth noting that the textbook discusses the birth of the State of Israel and the Middle East conflict.

In the portion examining the postwar period, Tadeusz GlubiÕski's textbook considers the Jews only in the chapter concerning the "March events." This discussion is conducted thoroughly, although it does not mention the fact that approximately 20,000 Jews were forced to emigrate.


In summarizing the presentation of the elementary school textbooks, one can state that a student ending studies in the eighth grade does not possess much information about the history of the Jewish people. It is true that the student has learned about the ancient Hebrews and the basic precepts of Judaism, but he or she knows absolutely nothing about the settlement and the culture of Polish Jews. The topic of the Holocaust is contained in all textbooks up to the eighth grade, yet in general the information is too selective and does not even sketch the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany and during the period of World War II (with the exception of Szczeíniak's textbook). Faulty scholar-ship, and in particular the personal attitudes of several authors concerning the material under discussion, is another problem. Thus one should anticipate with great interest the material that is presented in the textbooks for secondary schools.

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