HCH 21 / March 2018
The Myth of the “Żydokomuna”: Its Origins and Impact, by Jared Sorhaindo
Anti-Semitism is a truly remarkable phenomenon. To their enemies, the Jews can play any role: they are shapeshifters who can take on any form to represent deeply-held fears, anxieties, and resentments. To the right, the Jew is a communist; to the left, he is a capitalist exploiter. The Jew is simultaneously too assimilated and not assimilated enough. On the one hand, the Jew is overly cosmopolitan and internationalist; on the other, he is too narrow-minded, clinging to absurd, outdated traditions and to Israel. There is one constant that ties all of these together: the Jew is the very personification of the other, of evil on earth; a god-killer, a blood-drinker, a liar, a swindler – Satan himself. In every epoch, the Jew becomes what is most feared. Anti-Semitism differs from racism in that it is, among die-hard haters, a conspiracy theory that defines entire worldviews.
The most significant form of anti-Semitism in the first half of the 20thcentury was the identification of Jews with communism (in the second half of that century, and today, it is the unhinged, obsessive, and disproportionate hatred heaped upon Israel from all quarters). The notion of the Jewish communist (Żydokomuna in Polish) had a shattering impact on the Jews of Europe, directly leading to the extermination of two-thirds of their number. The events of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War in the east, which were (rightfully) terrifying for Europeans to behold, were conveniently laid at the feet of the Jews. So while the fear was not irrational, what was was the analysis of the circumstances and the prescribed remedies, which included discrimination against Jews and, ultimately, their murder.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the devastating impact of the First World War on European society. The conflagration witnessed the deaths of 10 million people and the mutilation of twice that. It also destroyed three empires: the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Habsburg Empire. In the wreckage, new nation-states began to take shape including, most importantly for our purposes, Poland, which, once a mighty empire, had declined in status and then been wiped off the face of Europe via three partitions, enacted by Prussia, Russia, and Austria, and culminating in 1795.
The Poles celebrate November 11, 1918 (Armistice Day to several Western countries) as their independence day. Russia capitulated in February 1918 after the Soviets signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany. This treaty gave present-day Poland, Belarus, parts of Ukraine, and the Baltic States to Germany – however, after Germany was defeated on the western front, it was forced to surrender these territories. In light of the German relinquishment of the territories and United States President Woodrow Wilson’s promotion of self-determination, the Poles took this opportunity to declare their independence and sovereignty, after months of intensive diplomacy. For the first time in 123 years, Poland appeared on the map of Europe.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, two dominant strains of Polish nationalism took shape. One, whose standard bearer was Józef Piłsudski, the first leader of modern, independent Poland, wanted Poland to be inclusive: it would welcome the Jews, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who lived in the Polish lands and incorporate them as full citizens into any Polish state that would take shape. He was also open to the Ukrainians and Belarusians having their own states and to form a confederacy of Slavic nations to push back against the traditional enemy, Russia, now under the rule of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The other form of nationalism was sharply exclusivist and was argued most consistently and vociferously by Roman Dmowski, the leader of the right-wing National Democracy party. Dmowski believed that Polish identity applied specifically, and only, to Polish Catholics who spoke the Polish language. Neither of these conditions applied to the Ukrainians and Belarusians, who spoke their own language and were overwhelmingly Greek Catholic and Orthodox in their religious identities, respectively; nor did they apply to the Jews, who obviously were not Catholic and predominantly spoke Yiddish, although there was an urban stratum that was increasingly assimilating and speaking Polish as their mother tongue, primarily in large cities like Warsaw and Lwów. To Dmowski, these minorities could never be Poles, no matter how much they spoke the Polish language or adopted Polish culture; they could be in Poland but not of it because, to his mind, Polishness and Catholicism were essentially synonymous. After Piłsudski’s death in 1935, Dmowski’s became the dominant form of Polish nationalism, leading directly to ghetto benches in Polish universities (where Jews had to sit in a particular section of the lecture hall), the boycotting of Jewish goods, and the use of quotas in the acceptance of university students as well as in certain professions. So, in other words, by the eve of the Second World War, life had become decidedly uncomfortable for the Jews of Poland.
Dmowski in particular was quite animated by the notion of the Jew as communist. He elaborated on this theme in his treatise W kwestii komunizmu (“On the Question of Communism”), in which he laid out his belief that communism was essentially a Jewish plot. When the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in September 1939, and some Jews welcomed them enthusiastically, this was all the evidence that Poles prone to anti-Semitism needed that Dmowski was correct in his analysis: the Jews and communists were one and the same.
Further east, in Russia, the Bolsheviks were fighting for their very lives in a horrifically bloody, and confusing, civil war against various anti-Bolshevik forces and Ukrainian nationalists, who fought both sides. While both sides committed pogroms against the Jews, it was the anti-Bolshevik forces (the “Whites”) and particularly the Cossack legions fighting alongside them who did the lion’s share of the killing and destroying of Jewish communities. In this context, naturally, Jews gravitated to the Bolsheviks (the Reds), which was done not out of any love for them, but out of fear and the need for security. When the Bolsheviks eventually won the war, due to the Whites’ lack of equipment, insecure supply lines, and inability/unwillingness to coordinate their efforts, Jews in the lands they had conquered were able, for the first time in their history, to serve in government institutions and rise in the military above the NCO level.
The visibility of Jews in these areas jolted the average Russian, who had never seen such a thing and did not believe it possible. Their perception that Bolshevism was Jewish in nature was fueled by the Jewish origin of certain prominent Bolsheviks (such as Leon Trotsky, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev). Practically no Jews had lived in Russia until the partition of Polish lands in the late 18th century, when hundreds of thousands came under Russian control. Beginning in 1791, the Jews were forced to live in the Pale of Settlement (which includes modern day Belarus, Lithuania, and western Ukraine), with only extraordinarily wealthy and educated Jews allowed to live in the Russian lands. In 1916, after hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported from the Pale to interior Russia (following German and Austro-Hungarian military defeats of the Russian army and pursuant to the belief that the Jews were pro-German traitors and spies), the Pale essentially came to an end. The Pale was officially abolished by the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.
Seeing Jews serving as local customs and post office officials where literally none had lived before was a jolting experience to the average Russian. So, concurrently with the Bolshevik coming to and consolidation of power, there was an increased visibility of Jews in public life and the concomitant impression that it was the Jews who were gaining from the Bolshevik coup, not the average Russian (in fact, most Russian Jews were Zionist in their inclinations and, to the extent that they favored the left, they supported the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who the control-obsessed Bolsheviks abhorred). The Russian right-wing, already infused with an anti-Semitism (some of it formed by the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was of Russian provenance and became particularly influential in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Civil War, when devastated and traumatized people sought answers for these calamities), inculcated this belief. In their defeat in 1921, they emigrated from Russia, many to Germany. There, they explained their defeat by attributing it to a malevolent Jewish conspiracy, of which the Bolsheviks were the most visible manifestation. After all, look at the Red Army’s leader, the decidedly violent and hateful Leon Trotsky; was he not a Jew? Therefore, a German nation that was trying to come to grips with having lost a war that it believed it was on the cusp of winning, and already prone to blame the Jews and the Left for having stabbed the German army in the back, was infused with a potent strain of anti-Semitism from Russian rightists that ultimately helped to convince Adolf Hitler of the symbiosis between Jews and Bolshevism. Hitler came to his anti-Communism via his anti-Semitism, not the other way around. Ironically, the Nazis’ fervently-held belief that the Soviet regime was Jewish, which ultimately led to Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union that unleashed the bloodiest war in history, killing millions of Russians – was largely attributable to Russian influence. Hitler’s chief “philosopher”, Alfred Rosenberg, was born in Estonia in what was then the Russian empire, and traveled in these Russian monarchist circles.
The Żydokomuna concept that Dmowski had done so much to popularize was largely internalized by certain swathes of Polish society, particularly in the lower-middle and middle-classes where there was direct economic competition with the Jews. Many Poles of this socioeconomic class believed that, now that Poland was free, Poles and not Jews, should have their livelihoods and opportunities improve. Hence the economic boycotts, alluded to above, in parts of eastern Poland in the mid- to late-1930s. Because the concept of the Jew as the ultimate other was so taken for granted, Jews were held to be more aligned with communism than they actually were. In the 1928 parliamentary elections, for example, only seven percent of Jews voted for the Communist Party; half of them voted for Piłsudski’s Sanacja bloc. On the other hand, nearly half of Belarusians, who were largely peasant and almost uniformly Orthodox, and not integrated into the Polish body politic, voted for Poland’s Communist Party. But when push came to shove, it was the Jews who were associated with the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik Party, and communism writ large – not the Belarusians. This has to do with several reasons, including traditional anti-Semitism, the sense of economic competition, and the general sense of there being an alienness to the Jews, an alienness that set them apart even from the other minorities in the Polish midst. Yes, Trotsky and Zinoviev were Jews prominent in the Bolshevik movement and therefore visible to the masses; but if not for them, other scapegoats would surely have been found to “prove” that Bolshevism was but a Jewish conspiracy.
When the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in September 1939 and instituted its communist system, destroying civil society, church and synagogue finances and administration, and deporting hundreds of thousands of Poles to Siberia and Kazakhstan, many Poles came to blame the Jews. While surely there were young Jews who not only welcomed the Red Army but lorded it over the Poles in their new roles, the vast majority of Jews did not welcome Soviet rule. After all, the Soviets destroyed religious institutions as well as the livelihoods of business managers, merchants, and artisans – in all of which Jews featured prominently. In fact, Jews were deported out of all proportion to their actual percentage of the Polish population during the 21 months of Soviet occupation. Large portions of Belarusians were involved in the Soviet administration, but for the Poles, there was a perception that only the Jews had benefited from the Soviet occupation. Just as Russians farther east had never seen a Jew, let alone in a position of power (even at a local level), so too were Poles taken aback by seeing Jews – a tolerated minority, at best – in positions of influence. It was this shock to the system that made the “arrogant Jews” stick out so sharply in the Polish collective memory – significantly more so than Belarusians, Ukrainians, and indeed Polish Catholics themselves who also collaborated with Soviet power. They too came to associate the rise of Jewish influence and opportunity with the influx of Soviet institutions and domination – and it formed an indelible image in their mind of the Jewish-Communist, an image that has not been erased even to this very day.
So when the German armies invaded the Soviet Union and its occupied territories on June 22, 1941, they unleashed a tsunami of ethnic hatreds. The combination of emergent, exclusive, integral nationalism, combined with economic anxiety and both traditional and modern anti-Semitism, and oftentimes sheer thuggery and the desire to loot, was a combustible mix that needed but a match to strike it. The German invasion was that match. Comparable and analogous views of the Jew as the ultimate other and as a communist overlord had also been forged in the Baltic States and in densely Ukrainian-populated areas of eastern Poland (eastern Galicia and Volhynia). Upon the Nazi invasion, cities such as Lwów and Kaunas, as well as villages such as Jedwabne and Radziłów, were the sites of extremely bloody and ruthless pogroms. In Jedwabne, the Jewish-Bolshevik theme was underlined when Poles forced the Jews to tear down the statue of Lenin that stood in the town, carry its pieces to a pit to be buried, and recite prayers for the statue. Subsequently, the Jews were beaten to death and buried alongside the pieces of the statue; those that could not fit were marched into a barn, which was lit on fire. Anyone escaping was hacked down with axes, drowned in wells, and so forth. In Lwów and other cities, the Soviet NKVD had massacred thousands of civilians it had taken prisoner; when the Germans opened these prisons to the public and revealed these atrocities, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and others took their considerable fury out on the Jews, much to the Germans’ delight. Then, and ever after, it became a convenient “explanation” for these atrocities that the Jews had been willing collaborators of the communists and had deported and killed the Poles’ family members to the east. What this elides is that the Poles themselves often collaborated, as did other minorities, and in even larger numbers, both absolutely and relatively, and the fact that the Jews themselves were destroyed economically and deported (to repeat, disproportionately) to Siberia and Kazakhstan. But in the context of a historically anti-Semitic Europe, it was the canard of the Jewish Communist that stuck, and has continued to stick.
(A bloodied Jewish woman being chased by a Ukrainian mob; Lwów, 1941)
It has been a popular trend in the countries of Eastern Europe to continue to identify Jews as communists, or at least communist sympathizers, which explains why so many of their national heroes committed atrocities against them (this is particularly true in Ukraine and Lithuania). Poland in particular is prickly about being accused of any sort of complicity with the Nazis, or anti-Semitic violence committed by Poles, or the Polish repossession of Jewish property, money, and valuables. This is understandable. The Holocaust was planned and administered by the Germans, and they slaughtered the majority of European Jews on Polish soil because that is where the majority of Jews already were. It is a canard and historically illiterate to suggest that the Nazis built the death camps on Polish soil because Poles are somehow uniquely anti-Semitic, which is a popularly held idea. It is also ridiculous to call Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau “Polish death camps.” In fact, no country of Europe acquitted itself well during the Holocaust with the exception of Denmark – to be blunt, no one really cared. That is the horrific reality. The Poles have a severe complex vis-à-vis the Holocaust and Jews more generally because they witnessed the extermination on their very soil, they did very little to try to stop it, and they know very well the provenance of some of their belongings. This has led to an extreme sensitivity on the part of the Poles about the entire time period, and a quick trigger finger to accuse the Jews of communist collaborators. As explained above, that is nonsensical and deeply misconstrued, yet has caused the deep suffering of Jews, who suffered pogroms in various parts of Poland in 1946-47 and state anti-Semitism (promulgated by the allegedly Jewish Communists in power) in 1968, both leading to floods of emigration.
The bill that recently passed the lower house and Senate of the Polish parliament – which stipulates that any mention of the term “Polish death camp” or accusation of Polish complicity or crimes against Jews during the Holocaust is a crime – is deeply disturbing and, ironically, Stalinist in its overtones. The Poles were heroic during the Second World War. They fought and died in the skies over the English Channel and on the slopes of Monte Cassino. The single largest uprising against Nazi rule was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Poles were killed and their capital city was completely obliterated. More than two million non-Jewish Poles were murdered by the Germans. Thousands of righteous Poles risked their lives to save Jews from certain death. However, it must be stated that there were many more who either did not care or who collaborated with the Nazis. This is simply, and sadly, factual. The Poles will not be able to come to grips with their history during the Second World War – warts and all – until they face some hard truths. Simply waving away historical investigation or asserting “but the Jews were communists” will not do.
The Polish government, in collaboration with other governments and private Jewish groups, has done an exemplary job of preserving such sites as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Bełżec. Many young Poles are fascinated by Jews, genuinely interested in their history and their nightmarish fate, perhaps haunted by ghosts, and have done profoundly moving research into the former Jewish communities of Poland. I speak specifically, but not exclusively, of the work being done by the Teatr-NN in Lublin, which is doing everything it can to document and commemorate the lost world of Lublin Jewry. But the complex persists, and this latest law is but the latest manifestation. For one who has a high estimation of the Polish people, their history, and their culture, I hope the day of genuine, widespread, and official self-appraisal comes sooner rather than later.