Jew. The Eternal Enemy?

The History of Antisemitism in Poland

by Alina Cała (Author) Mikołaj Golubiewski (Editor and translator)
©2018 Monographs 396 Pages
Open Access


This book is the first monograph that provides a wholesome overview of the history of Antisemitism in Poland. The author critically analyzes the Polish manifestation of the gruesome phenomenon against the backdrop of historical events in all Europe, as she traces the formation of the ideology and its difference from Judeophobia. A special notion requires the author’s meticulousness in research of the archives referring to the Catholic Church and folk culture. Most importantly, she does not end with the historical perspective but uses her studies to shed light on the events permeating in the thirty years of the recent Polish history as an independent country.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. What Is Antisemitism?
  • Chapter 2. Judeophobia: Formation of the Image of Jews in Europe
  • 2.1. Theoretical Framework
  • 2.2. Sources of Judeophobia
  • 2.3. The Origin of the Superstitious Image of the Jew
  • 2.4. Adaptation of Judeophobia in the Polish Territories
  • 2.5. Summary
  • Chapter 3. The Formation of the Ideology of Antisemitism in Europe
  • 3.1. Theoretical Framework
  • 3.2. The Revaluation of Judeophobia: Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century
  • 3.3. Ideological Ties of Antisemitism
  • 3.4. Summary
  • Chapter 4. The Origins of the Antisemitic Movement
  • 4.1. Origins of Antisemitic Movement in Prussia, Austria, Hungary, and France
  • 4.2. Antisemitism in Russia
  • 4.3. The Antisemitic Movement and Ideology Before and After the First World War
  • Chapter 5. The Representation of Jews in Polish Culture and Models of Interfaith Relations
  • 5.1. The Evolution of Folk Images and Relations in Polish and Jewish Folk Culture
  • 5.2. The Representation of Jews in High Culture
  • Chapter 6. The Emergence of the “Jewish Question” and Antisemitic Ideology in Polish Lands
  • 6.1. The Beginnings of the Antisemitic Movement and Propaganda in Poland
  • 6.2. The Attitude of the Catholic Church of the Kingdom of Poland Toward Antisemitism
  • 6.3. The National Democracy During the First World War: From Hate Speech to Violence
  • Chapter 7. Antisemitism in Independent Poland
  • 7.1. Ideology of Antisemitism in the Interwar Period
  • 7.2. Antisemitism in Politics
  • 7.3. Wave of Collective Violence and Discrimination
  • 7.4. Antisemitism in Culture
  • 7.5. Antisemitism in the Polish Catholic Church
  • 7.6. Summary
  • Chapter 8. The Aftermath of Nazism: Antisemitic Ideology in Postwar Poland
  • 8.1. Antisemitism During the Holocaust
  • 8.2. The Aftermath of Nazism: Antisemitism in the Post-War Years
  • 8.3. The Absorption of Antisemitism by the Ruling Camp
  • Chapter 9. Antisemitic Ideology and Antisemitic Movement in Poland after 1989
  • 9.1. Positioning Antisemitism on the Political Stage
  • 9.2. The Catholic Church and Antisemitism
  • 9.3. Antisemitic Narrative and Propaganda Methods
  • 9.4. Law Enforcement Reactions to Antisemitism and Xenophobia
  • Bibliography
  • Press and Periodicals
  • Primary Literature: Journalism, Survey Polls, Encyclopedias, Dictionaries
  • Secondary Literature
  • Index


The main purpose of this work is an attempt to explain the genesis and causes of Antisemitism in Poland. I shall try to address several important questions: What models has it followed? How have they been distributed? What forms have they assumed? And were these forms endemic, or rather borrowed from others? Or, perhaps, borrowed and subsequently transformed? In order to answer these and similar questions, I trace changes in an Antisemitic propaganda, examining the emergence, consolidation, popularization, and social impact of its particular strands. My hope is that thereby we will be able to discern the functions they have performed contributing to the petrification of this phenomenon in Poland. This book is largely based on my earlier research, as I have been interested in the Polish-Jewish relations in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, including the process of assimilation of Jews in the second half of the nineteenth century and its resulting phenomenon of Antisemitism. Thus, it is a culmination of an important phase of my work, summarizing my previous findings, while also drawing on abundant achievements of other scholars, both Polish and foreign. ← | 8→← | 9→

I shall emphasize that the most important subject of this work is not the Antisemitic movement itself,1 but it is rather ideas which have contributed to its emergence, becoming an intellectual foundation of its political agenda. That is why the history of Antisemitic movements and parties – which is to say, the problem of state politics toward Jews and the so-called “Jewish question” – is only cursory addressed. Rather, what I underscore is the genesis of Antisemitic imaginations and biases, the stereotype and image of the Jew, transformations of their content, propaganda techniques, and mechanisms of social influence. To that end, I had to move back in time and briefly describe the formation of the image of the Jew since the foundation of Christianity, the emergence of Judeophobia, the discussions about the place of Judaism and its professors in modern Europe and, finally, the emergence of Antisemitism and modern movements that have employed it in Western countries. Chapters devoted to these subjects form an introduction to the main part of the book. In the most important part, in which Poland is addressed, these problems are necessarily related to the national camp and the Catholic Church that have stimulated the formation and proliferation of Antisemitism. Of course, it is impossible to utterly ignore the political history and social attitudes of the period in question, but they nonetheless remain only at the margins of this study.

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The chronological and geographical scope of the first part of this book is very wide, ranging from Middle Eastern antiquity through the European Middle Ages to the twentieth century. It seems neither possible nor necessary for this historical panorama to be addressed in depth. For ways of thinking, beliefs and imaginations, ideological calques and stereotypes are fixed products of human mind, which is why their transformations can be analyzed by using what can be called condensed images – that is to say, by selecting events or social processes which have had the greatest impact on the petrification or transformation of worldviews. This “gallop through history” is facilitated by the abundant academic literature devoted to the genesis of Judeophobia at the close of antiquity, the shifting position of Jews in medieval and modern Europe as well as political Antisemitism in Western Europe. The chronological outline of this subject in Poland begins with a brief presentation of the position toward Jews in the Old Polish tradition (with a special emphasis placed on differences related to their particular situation in the country). Later, I shall address the transformation which took place in the Enlightenment and continued throughout the nineteenth century until its last quarter when Poland became influenced by the anti-Jewish politics of tsarist Russia, on the one hand, and by political “novelties” from the West, corresponding to the processes of national awakening, on the other. I devoted much space to the interwar period which was in many respects intensive and full of events significant for this study. The chronological outline is concluded by a presentation of contemporary times, that is to say, of Antisemitic propaganda during the Polish People’s Republic and the development of this phenomenon until as late as 2010.

Scholars researching the Polish strain of Antisemitism find themselves in a much more inconvenient situation than their Western European colleagues. For, so far, neither the beginnings nor the history of the nationalist movement and its ideology have been sufficiently researched. The same is true with respect to the history of Jews in Poland, and especially to Polish-Jewish – or, more generally, Christian-Jewish – relations. Existing descriptions of the interwar period still contain “blind spots:” for example, we do not know the exact number of anti-Jewish incidents and collective actions during 1918–1920 and 1935–1938, let alone their circumstances. In this case, I had to rely mostly on my own research.

In my research, I employed methodologies from several different fields of the humanities: history, sociology, literary studies, cultural anthropology, and ethnology. It was this interdisciplinarity that made it possible to examine problems and phenomena from different viewpoints, which, in turn, required a diversified source base. I relied on historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical works as well as ethnographic field research and sociological surveys, archival sources, press, political writings, fine literature, websites and iconography. This body of sources was also supplemented by a huge collection of Antisemitic leaflets from 1968–2005 which I handed over to the archive of the Jewish Historical Institute.

1The term Antisemitic movement is here understood as a specific form of social movement: organizations, political parties, associations, and sociable circles created by proponents of Antisemitism, whose aim has been to popularize this ideology and fulfill its purposes.

Chapter 1.What Is Antisemitism?

Social sciences struggle with defining the precise subject of their research. Just as the understanding of the notion of “nation,” or “society” remains nebulous, so does the definition of Antisemitism. Sociologists and historians unceasingly discuss the semantic scope of the term and the exact description of the phenomenon. Some works confuse different elements; for instance, they identify the negative stereotype of “Jew” with Antisemitism, while other texts conclude the extent of the phenomenon from the so-called “Bogardus scale,” which measures declarations of sympathy and aversion, but indicates only ethnic distance. Therefore, a typology of the phenomenon should precede any satisfactory definition of the object under consideration. Given Antisemitism’s longevity and geographic spread, it is not a simple task to describe it, but nonetheless a necessary one. At present, every researcher uses the same broad term to speak about a slightly different phenomenon or about its different aspects. Suffice it to recall the amazement of German scholars at the results of their early 1990s survey in East and West Germany. The same questions led to answers both different and difficult to understand. Although neo-Nazi movements enjoyed growing support in the former GDR, the level of Antisemitic attitudes turned out to be much lower than in the western part of the country.2 It remains unclear whether the survey method failed or Communism has effectively protected East Germans from Antisemitism. During a 1993 conference at the Technische Universität Berlin, the first Russian-led survey caused major controversy, when its authors claimed that only 2% of anti-Jewish attitudes were evident in Saint Petersburg. We do not know whether these results were correct, or tendentiously presented. Maybe the methods failed, transferred from Western European studies, or the scholars investigated a phenomenon different from the forms present in other countries. Another example offer the 1991 measurements of Antisemitism in Poland, which Demoskop used to determine that 17 % of Polish society displays Antisemitism.3 In the same year, the Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) conducted its own study which found that 5 % of Poles show “extreme Antisemitism,” 10 % a “strong” one, while 16 % – “moderate or weak.”4 In both cases, even though the institutions listed – different – criteria for Antisemitism, the precise object of investigation and the cause for such figures remain unknown.

The matter grows even more difficult, because analyses of complex phenomena rooted in many cultures require interdisciplinary methods. Sociologists ← | 12→study Antisemitism’s typology, functions, dynamics, cyclical nature, and its ambivalent relation to crises which incite social frustration.5 Those scholars try to pinpoint the mechanism of how ethnic conflicts turn into physical violence. Is there a simple direct link between the activity of Antisemitic organizations and the spontaneous violence of pogroms? Armed groups who “hunted” Jews in Poland and the frenzy of “ritual murder” reached their peak in 1945–1946, right after the war, but it remains unclear whether and how both factors affected the outbreak of pogroms in Chełm, Rzeszów, Kraków, and Kielce. In the early 1990s, the reach of anti-Jewish attitudes was larger in Poland and Slovakia than in Hungary; however, it was in Hungary where most anti-Jewish violence occurred.6 What was the decisive element that enabled the events? Was it only the size of the Jewish minority? Or, perhaps the better organization of skinhead groups along with the sympathy of some politicians? Historians, on the other hand, argue about the origins of Antisemitism: Was there Antisemitism in the ancient world? And, in modern era, is there one yet changing Antisemitism? Or, are there different Antisemitism’s, very little interrelated with each other? Hence, greatly divergent opinions and evaluations proliferate; such that juxtapose medieval persecutions of Jews with the Holocaust; or, on the contrary, such that negate the existence of Antisemitism until the rise of modern Antisemitic movements.

Depending on the research assumptions, two types of definition dominate the field. The first one links the concept of Antisemitism to all historical ages. A frequently repeated definition was first formulated by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946. This version emphasizes that the background of the phenomenon form irrationality and frustration along activist attitudes, which demand discrimination or persecution:

If a man attributes all or part of his own misfortunes and those of his country to the presence of Jewish elements in the community, if he proposes to remedy this state of affairs by depriving the Jews of certain of their rights, by keeping them out of certain economic and social activities, by expelling them from the country, by exterminating all of them, we say that he has anti‐Semitic opinions.7

Helen Fein formulated a similar definition in a collection published in the series Current Research on Antisemitism by the Berlin Research Centre on Antisemitism at the Technische Universität:

I propose to define antisemitism as a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs toward Jews as a collectivity manifested in individuals as attitudes, and in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions – social or legal discrimination, ← | 13→political mobilization against the Jew, and collective or state violence – which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.8

The sociologist Aleksander Hertz, in turn, authored a slightly different definition:

An Antisemite is a person, who perceives Jews as alien and hostile, then assumes a negative disposition toward them … and, finally, supplements this disposition with a rational form. Such person expresses this disposition by negatively evaluating Jewish qualities and using them to explain the necessity of active opposition to Jews by way of isolating them, on the one hand, and active fight against them, on the other hand.9

Antisemites rationalized their belief in the objective existence of “Jewish qualities,” as argued by Hertz, in two ways: that they are a result of historical circumstances and therefore subject to change; or, that they result from Jewish biological nature and remain immutable. G. I. Langmuir separated Antisemitic from xenophobic attitudes by arguing that the latter are typical for intergroup relations in all cultures. Langmuir considered that Antisemitism is not so much an unfair generalization or a reluctant judgment, but above all a deeply rooted belief that is not only untrue, but fantastic – and which the researcher called “chimerical assertions.”10 Still, others describe Antisemitism as a manifestation of antipathy or hostility toward Jews “throughout history and throughout the world.”11 Some Israeli and American works tint this broad understanding ideologically, in extreme cases serving political purposes; for instance, when trying to simplify the complicated and multi-faceted Arab-Israeli conflict to Antisemitism only, or when considering Antisemitism to be anti-Zionism. The latter approach leads to a paradoxical situation, in which one should consider as Antisemitic the program of the Bund, hostile to Zionism, as well as exclude from the circle of Antisemites those who agree that Jews should live only in Israel.

The second, narrower way of understanding the word “Antisemitism” refers to the ideologies and political movements of the nineteenth century in Central and Eastern Europe, which have spread in many countries.12 The most well-known definition ← | 14→of this type formulated Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Thomas Nipperdey defined it similarly:

Nipperdey argues that Antisemitism was, indeed, historically associated with earlier manifestations of hostility toward Jews, especially in the Christian world, but those phenomena were different in quality from the political Antisemitism and should be addressed with a different term. In the English-language literature, one can find the term “Judeophobia” employed with this meaning.

Recognizing the limitations of this approach, I nevertheless lean toward the second definition of Antisemitism understood as a product of the post-Enlightenment period, different from the preceding Judeophobia. This choice stems from general theoretical assumptions, methodological benefits, as well as practical conclusions of my earlier research: discovery of a diversity of hostile images and unfavorable attitudes to Jews.14 However, forms of discrimination against Jews in European culture in different epochs remain linked with each other. Undoubtedly, there is a certain historical continuity in this respect and the modern persistent stereotype of a Jew retains attitudes developed long ago.

One of the aims of this book is to reflect on the phenomenon and to refine its definition. I propose the following definition as introduction to further considerations:

Antisemitism is an ideology, worldview, or political current which includes a set of prejudices that justify hostile attitudes toward Jews. Related mostly with the formation of nationalism and totalitarianism, Antisemitism stems from the tradition of Judeophobia. Antisemites sometimes referred to racism and wrongly distinguished Jews as an anthropological race. In broader term, Antisemitism means social attitudes that are verbally or physically aggressive, unfavorable generalizations or prejudices against the Jews, and their justification based on religion, nationality, race, politics, or economics.15

← | 15→

Antisemitic attitudes refer to the Jewish community, although they affect reactions toward its individual representatives. It is therefore a generalized aversion to someone because he is a Jew and not because of his behavior or personal faults. Or, to put it more subtly, Antisemites believe that the assumed “defects” or deeds of a Jewish individual originate from the fact that he or she belongs to the Jewish community. However, the three are separate: Antisemitism as an ideology, Antisemitism as a worldview, and Antisemitism as a political movement.16 They do not always intertwine, because one may subscribe to the ideology without identifying with any organization advocating political Antisemitism. Antisemitic parties may manipulate the intensity of propaganda, use it as a sociotechnical tool, while their activists – more or less sincerely – renounce the Antisemitic worldview. Some develop an obsessive hostility to Jews, which becomes part of their psychological mechanisms of coping with life; we should understand such Antisemitism as pathological and characterized by a distorted perception of reality. Such pathology differs from paranoia, because it may be a group and social phenomenon, which inclines to produce narratives or ideologies that would consolidate and uphold it. I understand “pathology” here as do physicians; that is, as a symptom that harms all the affected.

We should specify the “components” of Antisemitism: negative stereotype, declared aversion, generalized judgement, prejudice, superstition, sense of threat, verbal aggression, conspiracy theories, xenophobic attitudes, psychological mechanisms of frustration and displacement, explanations of mutual interdependence. Sometimes the phenomenon assumes subtler forms, such as sympathy for Jews coincident with themes of ideological Antisemitism; that is, when a person admires the supposed “leadership abilities” of Jews but this only strengthens the belief that “Jews rule the world.” Some sociologists define this form with the term “hidden Antisemitism.”

Although Antisemitism contains a considerable dose of xenophobia, the two are not identical. Xenophobia is present in every culture in the form of distrust to all otherness, not just ethnical, and forms an attitude driven by fear of the outside world. One cannot simply condemn this common phenomenon, because its harmfulness depends on its intensity. Xenophobia proves useful when motivating caution in relations with others, but it may raise anxiety leading to aggressive reactions, which sometimes become destructive. Attitudes close to xenophobia are ← | 16→willful jealousy and willingness to negatively judge others, which then affect aggression levels encoded in culture. Xenophobia of societies largely depends on prosperity, culture, and history: for instance, the more xenophobic groups are those, which cherish virtues of a warrior and live under a threat of frequent wars.

An important role in Antisemitism play generalized anxiety and negative judgments. Antisemites attempt to persuade others not only that they are threatened by the Jews but also that they themselves are victims of persecution by the rest of the society, their own state, or other political groups. To perceive oneself as a “besieged stronghold” is an important component of a consciously applied tactic, in which the anti-Jewish narrative becomes a model argument against all other “internal enemies,” such as leftists, freemasons, or homosexuals. This strategy strengthens Antisemitic xenophobia and directs it not only against Jews; which leads one to suppose that Jews are merely its means to another end. As the Polish present day reveals, Antisemitism is quite possible without the presence of Jews. Even though current conflicts refer to completely different issues and, at times, exacerbate xenophobic attitudes, the mythical power inscribed in the image of “the Jew” has already petrified the main veins of propaganda. The 1990s frictions surrounding the Carmelite nun convent in Auschwitz allowed Antisemitic activists to test their influence on the public opinion.17 Accusations against “Jews” appealed then to the proven resource of such suggestions as the Jewish desire to “dominate Poland” or even “make Poles into alcoholics.” The Auschwitz conflict did not negatively affect the fast pace, in which Western European Antisemites adopted elements of the “Auschwitz lie” narrative.

The principle of exclusion accompanies the phenomenon of xenophobia. Peasant traditional closed communities formed according to this principle, that is to say, by creating a series of overlapping circles of belonging and exclusion. Such groups threw out or marginalized misses with children, old maidens, illegitimate children, cripples, mentally ill, and eccentrics by way of stigmatization and scorn. Folk culture excluded smiths, witch doctors, and weather charmers in a different manner. In their case, an ambivalent mixture of respect and fear allowed members of the community to still ask for their services and authority. Noblemen, priests, and bourgeoisie remained outside of the rural community, although rarely encountered with open enmity. However, there were instances of hatred between ← | 17→neighboring villages. In turn, communities did not automatically exclude representatives of different language, religious, or national groups but, depending on the situation, locals often positioned them in the place of the witch doctor, the eccentric, the bourgeoisie, or the hated neighbor.

Xenophobia and the circles of exclusion/inclusion rest on the function of guarding social cohesion. In a similar way operates ethnocentrism, which persuades members of a culture that it is “the only right one” by fostering a set of beliefs about its unique value. Ethnocentrism seems then to be a milder form of xenophobia, which manifests itself in worldview instead of attitudes. Ethnocentrism is different from national megalomania: you may be very critical thinking about your own society, yet you cannot imagine a situation in which you would have to function away from what you know, unable to understand other customs. Ethnocentrism very strongly influences the perception of reality. That is, it subordinates knowledge about the world to the opinions of the group and narrows the horizon of ideas. The ultimate criterion of truth is group opinion. Polish ethnographers often encounter a phrase that expresses this attitude, “This is true, because everyone says so.” For the speaker, this argument is often sufficient proof of even the most fantastic revelations. Thus, ethnocentrism must not necessarily lead to hostility toward different groups, but it certainly hinders efforts to understand, contact, and exchange ideas with others. Unfortunately, even in present day Poland, some authors of history textbooks reproduce this assumption.

What facilitates the adaptation of a reality presented by xenophobia and ethnocentrism is stereotype. Stereotype refers to many cultural phenomena and social interactions – and this book concentrates especially on the latter. Stereotype is a simplistic image of own or another community; it refers to an ethnic group, a nation, a social stratum, a subculture, or even a professional group; it comprises generalized opinions, emotional reactions, and behavioral patterns toward a given group. Thus, the term “stereotype” includes cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components.

The cognitive aspect of a stereotype is a collection of opinions about a group, usually untrue and unrelated to own experience. Generalized judgments about members of other groups are to confirm the value of one’s own culture and identity. In this sense, stereotypes about other groups are significant for their ability to foster own self-definition. When a farmer speaks about “those from the city that do nothing and earn much,” these words stem not only from the lack of knowledge about the nature of intellectual work or the role of trade and industry, but above all from the glorification of farming as the most appropriate way of life. The negative stereotype of the Romani people confirms one’s own group in the belief that stationary life is better than nomadic. In turn, the stereotype of a diligent and enterprising German portrays avarice and praises a rural rhythm of work in the preindustrial community, where monetary transactions coexist with barter. Interestingly enough, the emotional element of a stereotype may disagree with sympathy for or enmity to a given group, whereas the stereotype about oneself often lacks content and conveys also the negative “flaws” and “vices.” Stereotypes ← | 18→about the positive characteristics of “others” serve also as pedagogical reminders. Folk culture reminds about Jewish devotion as a model for imitation, while the Polish proverb “let us love each other like brothers but settle up like Jews” expresses a slight contempt for the parsimony of others, yet encourages meticulousness in commercial relations.

Although stereotype is to guard group identity and its culture, this is not its only function. Stereotype also instructs in how to behave in contact with a representative of the stereotyped group. Various elements of a stereotype will suggest different approaches. Conflicts foreground negative attributes, while peace motivates the application of positive stereotypes. You may believe that all Jews are frauds yet buy in a Jewish shop and foster amicable relationship with a Jewish neighbor. Stereotyping Romani as thieves prevents hosting them at home, but does not deny the service of Romani fortune tellers. Physicians more likely receive expensive gifts if a stereotype attributes bribery to them, although this does not hinder their high placement in social hierarchy.

Stereotypical perception of reality fosters prejudice; or, hasty conclusions from encounters with what is different and incomprehensible. As prejudice interprets customs of a different religious group with suspicion, xenophobia and negative stereotypes fill the content of interpretation. One led by prejudice may observe a realistically described Torah scroll in a synagogue, only to later call it “the golden calf.” Or, he or she may observe the Jewish tradition to lock a padlock after the birth of a child, only to explain that the child is to be “mysterious and cunning.”18 Encounter with a Romani will raise fear of theft. A rock musician will receive traits of a reckless dreamer. Finally, since the stereotype about women is that they are submissive, they will more frequently receive worse paid job offers than men.

Even images of ethnic groups may contain superstitions. Such images play a role in culture protection and regulate attitudes toward others. However, while stereotypes promote group unity and enable peaceful contacts with others by always employing an equal number of negative and positive traits, prejudices discourage any contact at all and sometimes even promote violence. The latter emerges especially in times of social disorder, when ethnic animosity rises along with physical aggression aimed at “aliens,” accused on the basis of superstitions. Usually dormant and degraded to warnings for disobedient children (“keep acting rudely and a Jew/Romani will take you away”), superstition regains the whole of its ominous potential in times of social disorder or economic deprivation. Rumors of Jews kidnapping children incited the last pogroms in Poland, which occurred in Chełm, Kraków, and Rzeszów in 1945, and in Kielce in 1946.

The origin of superstitions is very archaic. For instance, the belief that Jews commit “ritual murder” spread in Western Europe between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries, but dates back to the literature of the ancient Roman Empire. Also the conviction that Romani “kidnap children” hails from medieval times. Both ← | 19→superstitions may be deduced from accusations of cannibalism. Nineteenth-century Polish sources describe the panic that the arrival of Napoleonic troops stirred among the Jewish population of Brody. The inhabitants feared that the French soldiers would kidnap the children to devour them. The scare led to riots. Jews attacked the local garrison and entered the headquarters.19 Until recently, the belief that there are people cannibalizing others, just as if this was their daily meal, was part of the image of Africans. Even today one may encounter cartoon jokes depicting “the savages” in the process of cooking white men in a pot as preparation for dinner.

We find superstitions in the images of many groups, but some disappeared long ago while others retain astonishing vitality. For instance, sixteenth-century Polish texts nearly equal Germans with the Devil. The very word “Germans” holds, in Polish, a trace of an archaic superstition. The etymology of the Polish word niemiec reveals that it means “the one who is mute, who does not speak.” The superstition hidden in this word suggests that the mute Germans, niemówiący, are not “normal” people. Such belief leads then to a symbolic exclusion of Germans from the human community. If someone is “not quite human,” then the rules of morality do not apply to Germans. So named, then, niemiec is someone less than a human and more of an animal that could be killed for no reason and without consequences. However, culture prevented such dangerous lawlessness by the customs of hospitality. As much as each “alien” is a threat, the menace may be dispelled by available ceremonial and magical rituals, such as sharing food or exchanging greetings: shaking hands, bidding “good day,” or wishing “God bless you!” These rituals appear in proverbs, such as the Polish “Gość w dom – Bóg w dom,” “When a guest is in the house, God is in the house.” Already the Bible offers a story about unknown travelers who turn out to be the messengers of God. Polish folklore offers a legend Jesus and Saint Peter travelling together in disguise, so one should better be hospitable to all guests. The moral of these contradicting folk wisdom is that one should behave with caution toward strangers but also with “decency.” This attitude will lessen the threat, while may bring unknown rewards.

In most countries, there are groups that differ in their social, ethnic, cultural, or religious backgrounds. State or custom law treats these groups differently than the rest of the citizens. This usually results in the isolation of the group that differs, sometimes accepted by both parties. Separation promotes dis-integration and exclusion. If law sanctions such exclusion, it means segregation. In consequence, the less intergroup relations there are, the greater the social distance becomes, the more stereotypical judgments and prejudices abound, superstitions replace the knowledge of culture and the personal experience from encounters between different groups. Segregation always appears together with discrimination, which is a legal disability that sometimes results from legislation itself but, at present, most often stems from legal custom. For instance, we may count here the treatment of ← | 20→peasants in the Polish Commonwealth, the legal position of national minorities in the Second Republic of Poland, or the situation of African Americans in the United States of America.

Discrimination requires arguments, which derive from negative stereotypes, prejudices, and superstitions. For instance, Texan law abolished as late as at the end of the 1960s segregated black citizens in means of transport based on their alleged “bad smell.” Men denied women entry to universities and voting rights, because men deemed women foolish, reckless, and responsible for the original sin. There is a feedback loop between superstition, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Prejudice justifies discrimination and superstition sanctions exclusion, while all result from ignorance by mutual isolation. Such was the situation of Jews in medieval Europe. In consequence, the excluded and unseen group enters the role of a “scapegoat” – it becomes symbolically responsible for various misfortunes.

The mechanisms above apply also to racism, a misconception that there are better and worse human races. In the popular form, racism has much in common with dehumanizing superstitions. In the nineteenth century, pseudo-scientific anthropological theories that link appearance with morality developed racism into an ideology that attracted many educated people. Such ideology justified discrimination against people of different skin color. However, because the perceived difference of appearance is very subjective, people separated Jews and Germans into different racial groups, considering the former to be evil incarnate, the latter to be “superhuman.” Until very recently, Americans ascribed white people to “Caucasian races,” while calling Africans, Asians, Indians, Jews, and Arabs – “colored people.” Who is called “black” differs between countries even today: Poles apply the term to Romani, Muscovites use it for Chechens, and Germans for Arabs and Turks. We need to keep in mind that contemporary genetic studies overturned not only the past speculations linking morality with appearance, but even the sheer division of races based on skin color. Scientists now regard skin color to be a secondary trait. The genetic diversity between the different peoples of Africa, humanity’s cradle, is greater than between Africans and people deemed white-skinned. The difference between people is less than 0.001% of genetic code, which in no way prevents us from mixing and having offspring.

2W. Bergman, R. Erb (1990), Antisemitismus in der politischen Kultur seit 1945, Opladen.

3R. Cohen, J. L. Golub (I 1991), Attitudes toward Jews in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, New York.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (December)
Antisemitism Studies Holocaust Studies Trauma Studies History of Persecutions
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 393 pp.

Biographical notes

Alina Cała (Author) Mikołaj Golubiewski (Editor and translator)

Alina Cała is a Polish writer, historian and sociologist. A former board member of the Jewish Historical Institute, she specialises in 19th and 20th century Polish-Jewish history, antisemitism and Jewish assimilation in Central and Eastern Europe.


Title: Jew. The Eternal Enemy?