Anniversaries & holidays
October 1950

The end of the short-lived Jewish autonomy in Poland

Budynek Teatru Żydowskiego i Towarzystwa Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce przy placu Grzybowskim 12/14/16 w Warszawie
Budynek Teatru Żydowskiego i Towarzystwa Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce przy placu Grzybowskim 12/14/16 w Warszawie, fot. A. Grycuk, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL (Wikimedia Commons)

Seventy years ago, the Social-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland [TSKŻ] came into being, following a merge of the Jewish Cultural Society with the Central Committee of Jews in Poland [Tsentraler komitet fun di yidn in poyln, CKŻP]. The merge put an end to a short yet very significant period when Jews of Poland, being a national minority, enjoyed non-territorial national autonomy.

By granting them such an autonomy, the postwar pro-Soviet Polish government met the chief pre-war demand of the Jewish politics.

In the course of almost six years, from November 1944 until October 1950, practically the entire public life of Jews in Poland was organized under the supervision of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland: politics, culture, economy, education and social services. The only exception was the religious life which ran its course independently from the CKŻP.

The Central Committee of Jews in Poland was set up in Lublin in the autumn of 1944. Its goal was, on one hand, to look after the few surviving Jews in the territory of Poland liberated from the German occupation. On the other hand, its role was to represent Jewish people to the new administration - the Polish Committee of National Liberation [PKWN] and other state authorities. Emil Sommerstein from Lwów, a former MP and a Zionist, was appointed as the chair of CKŻP.

The Central Committee of Jews in Poland began its operation straight away, among others by delivering food and finding lodgings for the Jews who had survived the war in the camps or in hiding. Canteens and dormitories were opened for that purpose, as well as homes for the elderly and for children.

The Department of Culture and Propaganda informed Jews on all such developments by publishing bulletins and leaflets in both Polish and Yiddish, and also by producing radio programs which were later aired on the Polish Radio. Towards the end of 1944, the Central Jewish Historical Commission was established, its task being to document German crimes committed on Jews during the Holocaust. In 1947, the Commission was transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute.

In 1945, CKŻP moved its headquarters to the liberated capital city - Warsaw. Regional and local Jewish committees were organized all across Poland. Thanks to this network, tens of thousands Polish Jews were repatriated from the Soviet Union. Many of those decided to settle down in the Recovered Territories, especially in Lower Silesia. The area of operation of the Central Committee was expanding: Cooperative Bank and numerous co-ops were to provide employment, while schools with Yiddish as a language of instruction, along with youth clubs and community centres, were opened to serve children and young people.

Newspapers such as Dos naye lebn and Nidershlezye were published in Yiddish, and - since 1947 - the Yidish Bukh publishing house began to publish Yiddish books. Jewish theatres were opened in Łódź and in Lower Silesia, and Łódź-based “Kinor” film cooperative produced films in the Yiddish language. CKŻP supported Polish Jews also in the matters of emigration; in the summer of 1946, following the Kielce pogrom, it decided on setting up the Civic Internship. CKŻP boasted a relatively high level of pluralism - its board consisted of the representatives of various Jewish parties: the Jewish faction of the Polish Workers’ Party, All-Jewish Workers’ Union - the Bund, various Zionist parties and Jewish organizations.

Why did the Polish government allow Jews such considerable freedom? Poland was the only state within the Soviet bloc - and beyond - to grant Jews liberty to organize an all-encompassing self-government. The reasons for such a state of things are manifold: firstly, CKŻP freed the state administration from organizational duties related to providing food to the Holocaust survivors and from the bulk of the cost it involved - in 1946, about 80% of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland budget came from a donation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [the JOINT].

Since the JOINT provided its subsidies in dollars, it offered the Polish state access to foreign currencies. In all likelihood, the Holocaust and its enormous impact on the Jewish life in Poland rendered Poles more eager to support Jews, even if the support were only symbolic, namely granting Jews the autonomy. It also improved the image of People’s Republic of Poland abroad, especially in the West.

Alas, the autonomy was not meant to last. Already in the autumn of 1948, the communists began working towards “putting an end to the institutional separatism of the Jewish people in Poland.” Thanks to the efficient human resource policy, they managed to become a dominant power within the Committee.

The communists’ seizure of power was confirmed in 1949 by appointing Hersh Smolar as the Committee’s chair. Smolar replaced a leftist Zionist Adolf Berman, successor of Emil Sommerstein who had emigrated in 1946. In the course of several months, the majority of Jewish institutions operating under the aegis of CKŻP was either nationalized or dissolved. The merge between the Central Committee of Jews in Poland and the Jewish Cultural Society in October 1950 marked the end of the Jewish autonomy in Poland.

However, one element of the old order has survived: while the Jewish communities represented Jews of a given country in all European states on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Poland boasted a double structure: the Social-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland as a secular union of the national and cultural minority, and the Jewish communities as a religious representation.

Bibliography: 

  1. August Grabski: Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polce (1944–1950). Historia polityczna. Warszawa 2015.
  2. Helena Datner: Po Zagładzie. Społeczna historia żydowskich domów dziecka, szkół, kół studentów w dokumentach Centralnego Komitetu Żydów w Polsce. Warszawa 2016.
  3. Piotr Kendziorek: Program i praktyka produktywizacji Żydów polskich w działalności CKŻP. Warszawa 2016.