Footprints of Polonia: Polish Historical Sites Across North America By Ewa E. Barczyk Hippocrene Books, 2022, 320 pp.
I’ve previously posted about my twelve-year (2002 to 2014), deep-dive submersion into my Polish heritage during my prodigal “season” (see here). One of the “problems” I had at the time was Poland and American Polonia’s strong identity with the Roman Catholic church. The reason for that is because the Polish RCC became the repository/guardian of Polish nationalism during the country’s long, drawn out subjugation during the Prussian-Austrian-Russian partitions (1772-1918) and again under Nazi German and Soviet Russian domination (1939-1989). To be Polish was necessarily to be Catholic, perhaps more so than any other European nationality. However, I was able to “somewhat” compartmentalize the RC dimension and enjoy the other aspects of Polish history and culture.
I recently stumbled across “Footprints of Polonia” and thought it would be interesting to review the “Polish Historical Sites Across North America.”
This book documents close to 700 Polish American cultural/historical/religious sites spread over 47 states (Alaska, Alabama, and Hawaii not included) and Canada, and a small number of entries from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
“Footprints” is well-formatted, including plenty of color photographs. However, as I should have expected, the VAST majority of entries are comprised of Polish Catholic churches replete with replica paintings of Our Lady of Częstochowa and statues of Karol Wojtyła aka pope John Paul II. American Polonia also has a VERY large number of monuments to dedicated to American Revolutionary War heroes, Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko.
I finally made it to the end of this encyclopedic tribute to Polonia’s Roman Catholic identity, but it wasn’t easy. You may be wondering why the Reformation didn’t take hold in Poland. I briefly touched upon that question in a previous post here.
It will be interesting to see how Poland and American Polonia react in light of the growing scandal involving highly-reverenced John Paul II and his cover-up of priest sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Krakow. There is currently strong denial in Poland regarding these new allegations, but as the facts become undeniable, will monuments to a pedophile-enabler be allowed to stand?
Polska Dotty 2: Polski Sklep, Polish Plumbers, and Other Tales of Poles in the UK By Jonathan Lipman CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016, 152 pp.
Immigrants and refugees are frequently in the news these days, but a rather large immigration took place almost twenty-years ago in Europe without much U.S. press coverage.
After Poland joined the European Union in 2004, its citizens were immediately able to migrate to other EU nations. Thus began an exodus of 1 million Poles to the UK. Britain offered much better employment opportunities than what was available in Poland at the time, which was still recovering from 44 years of Soviet-communist domination and economic debilitation. The influx of Polish immigrants greatly concerned a large segment of UK citizens, which eventually contributed to “Brexit,” the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union in 2020.
In this book, published in 2016, Jonathan Lipman, examines how the Polish immigrants fared in Britain. I thoroughly enjoyed Lipman’s previous book about his 1997-1999 sojourn in Poland with his Polish wife (see here for my review). Lipman subsequently returned to the UK and in this flip-flop sequel, recorded his observations of Polish emigres in his homeland. There was a clash of cultures as would be expected.
Lipman’s insights are interesting and often humorous. The Polish immigrants struggled a bit with the English language and culture as might be expected, but did surprisingly well in general. They set up their Polish enclaves with their skleps, delis/stores selling foods and dry goods imported from Poland. Many of the immigrants sent money back to their families back in Poland. With Brexit and Poland’s steady economic advances, the population of Polish nationals in the UK has dropped from 1 million to 700,000.
As Lipman notes, Poles are very hard-working (a quality shaped by the previous harsh economic conditions in Poland), but will often speak their minds with very little filter in contrast to the polite Brits. From my own experience, there was a group of Polish women working in my department at Kodak – Bronis, Ewa, and Anna – who constantly aggravated their co-workers with their blunt and forthright comments. At one point, Kodak management even discussed sending the Polish gals to an interpersonal communication skills training class. Can anyone spell “lawsuit”? I know from my experiences with my ex-daughter-in-law and her family that Germans can also speak quite bluntly compared to Anglos.
Polska Dotty 2 was an entertaining book that I enjoyed. There’s lots of wry-dry British humor throughout. Lipman dwells on some personal experiences with Polish contractors in order to typify the Polish worker (industrious, but not always attentive to details), that becomes a bit tedious at times. However, like its predecessor, Polska Dotty 1, this book is of surprisingly good quality (including a very good transcription to Kindle) in light of the fact that it’s independently published.
My wife and I had to take a short trip to Syracuse (a one hour drive from Rochester) last Wednesday, so I took the opportunity to arrange for us to have dinner at that city’s only Polish restaurant, Eva’s European Sweets (photo above).
Eva’s European Sweets Polish Restaurant 1305 Milton Avenue Syracuse, New York
Polish immigrant, Eva (spelled Ewa in Polish) Zaczynski, nee Marcinkowska, opened her desserts bakery in 1997 and gradually transformed it into a full-scale restaurant serving a wide variety of Polish and Eastern European ethnic foods. I had visited Eva’s many years previously as a side-trip on one of my solo visits to the Syracuse Polish Festival, but this time I brought along my piękna żona.
My non-Polish bride is not as familiar with Polish cuisine as myself, so as she scanned Eva’s extensive menu she asked for my help. I knew she would enjoy the breaded pork cutlets, popularly known in Germany and even in America as Schnitzel and as Kotlet Schabowy in Polish. It was served with red cabbage, pan-fried potatoes, and cucumber and tomato salad. My piękna żona enjoyed her dinner very much.
I ordered the Polish Platter, which included a gołąbek (a single gołąbki is properly called a gołąbek, cabbage stuffed with a rice and ground beef mixture), a serving of bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew), which is a melange of sauerkraut, cabbage, kielbasa, beef, ham, bacon and mushrooms, two pierogies (Polish dumplings) stuffed with potato and sauerkraut, and a kiełbasa (Polish sausage) link.
My dinner was good, but I had a few quibbles. The gołąbek (pronounced gaw-WOAM-bek) filling was plentiful, but a bit bland and there was no tomato sauce topping. The bigos was very good, although not quite as good as my homemade recipe. The pierogies were tasty and the dough edges were chewy, just the way I like them, but they were quite small. The undersized, cut-in-half link of smoked kiełbasa was waaaaay over-fried. The above criticisms are minor, except for the kiełbasa. A meaty and properly-cooked kiełbasa portion would have erased all of the other minor objections. I do realize this was a sampler platter and that portions would be limited. However, I have nothing but sympathy for the poor patron who makes a full dinner of this cringeworthy over-fried kiełbasa (note: a “kiełbasa dinner” is on the menu).
Eva’s has a pleasant interior with many Polish-themed decorations. Outside dining is offered during the warm months, which I was looking forward to, but it was raining when we visited. The service was very prompt and friendly.
Overall, the experience at Eva’s was an enjoyable B to B+. I look forward to going back to Ewa’s in the future and trying the Placki (potato pancakes) and one of their authentic Polish desserts.
Polish restaurants are scarce here in Western and Central New York, so I appreciate that Eva’s has been able to survive and thrive for 25 years.
Postcript: The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” with chef, Guy Fieri, visited Eva’s European Sweets in 2013. Eva prepared Placki Hungarian Style in that episode.
The liturgical calendar with its seasonal religious holy days/holidays is the warp and woof of Roman Catholicism. After 27 years of being a Catholic before trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone in 1983, I had had my fill of following the liturgical calendar, but I don’t begrudge my fellow believers who enjoy the seasonal religious holidays. I’m also not a fan of using the word, “Easter,” for the commemoration of Resurrection Sunday since it may possibly have a pagan connection (although the presumed connection to the pagan fertility goddess, Ishtar/Asherah, is not an open-and-shut case as some assume, see here), but it’s not my hill to die on, either.
Anyway, last Thursday, Easter/Resurrection Day was coming up and for any Pole that means getting some “fresh” kielbasa. Many of you are familiar with the delicious smoked variety of Polish sausage/kielbasa, but you may not know about the fresh, unsmoked biała (“white”) version. Growing up, my family always had fresh kielbasa for the holidays. So delicious. But it’s hard to find. Fresh kielbasa was occasionally available at our local big box grocery store, Wegmans’, but I haven’t seen it there in long time. No big loss. Their version of fresh kielbasa isn’t all that good, anyway. The word “pedestrian” comes to mind when thinking about Wegmans’ fresh kielbasa. You see, a Pole is very fussy and discriminating about their fresh kielbasa. Nope, my aim was to drive to the Polska Chata (pronounced pole-skuh ha-tuh, “Polish House”) deli/restaurant in Irondequoit to pick up a couple of pounds of fresh kielbasa because I knew from experience that theirs was excellent.
So, on the Thursday before Easter/Resurrection Day, I first took a trip to the Dybowski Authentic Polish Market (photo above) on Hudson Avenue on the fringes of Rochester’s old Polish Town neighborhood. Dybowski’s has a much larger variety of Polish food items than Polska Chata and I had a few things in mind. The place was busier than downtown Warsaw with Rochester Poles preparing for Easter/Resurrection Day dinner. I bought two cartons of Krakus brand zurek (“sour rye soup”) and two bottles of Vavel (Americanized version of the Polish Wawel) brand black currant juice aka czarna porzeczka nektar. Both zurek and black currant juice are very popular in Poland. Both food items are so delicious. I also couldn’t resist browsing Dybowski’s impressive sausage display. They have about ten different varieties of smoked kielbasa in addition to many other types of Polish-style meats. I ended up buying two large links of cherry wood smoked kielbasa aka kielbasawisniowa. I also noticed they had two varieties of fresh kielbasa, but I was determined to pick up my biała sausage at Polska Chata.
I then got in my car and drove the two miles to Polska Chata and they were packed with customers as well. The deli/restaurant changed hands in 2018, but I was hoping they still offered the fabulous fresh biała kielbasa that the previous owner, Margaret Gorniak, had shipped in from Toronto. No such circumstance. As I stood in the long line, I noticed several customers requesting fresh kielbasa and the owner retrieving frozen…ach…FROZEN fresh kielbasa from the back freezer. Two problems, 1) fresh kielbasa should never be frozen, and 2) the kielbasa looked mediocre, like the stuff Wegmans’ sells’. It certainly wasn’t the sausage imported from Toronto that I bought in previous years.
So I got in my car and drove back to Dybowski’s. I asked the young pana behind the display cases, which of the two fresh biała varieties she recommended. She suggested the big, fat variety produced by the Winding River Meat Company (Bloomfield, NJ, Joe Krzyworzeka, proprietor). The kielbasa actually resembled my previous favorite imported by Margaret G.
I drove home with my Polish stash and a couple of hours later I prepared my fresh biała kielbasa. Unlike smoked kielbasa, you don’t pan fry fresh kielbasa. My mom always boiled it, but I subsequently learned from “old country” Poles that there’s only one way to cook fresh kielbasa and that’s to put it in a pyrex baking dish with about a half-inch of water, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes.
Mój, o, mój! My, oh, my! The fresh biała kielbasa from Winding River was sooooo good. The best I ever had. My wife concurred that it was the best she had ever tasted. Very little fat. Mild. No grizzle. The cherry wood smoked kielbasa wisniowa was also good, but I couldn’t detect the slightly sweet flavor it was claimed to have.
Well, my Polish fresh kielbasa excursion adventure definitely had a happy ending. I’ll be going back to Dybowski’s in a month or two for another Polish fix.
Note: Fresh kielbasa is served with freshly-ground horseradish.
Polska Dotty: Carp in the Bathtub, Throttled Buglers, and Other Tales of an Englishman in Poland By Jonathan Lipman CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011, 224 pp.
When Americans consider traveling to Europe for a vacation, they rarely think of Poland. If you go to Amazon.com, you’ll find very few Polish travelogue books. Why is that? Due to its unique history, Poland didn’t have a chance to develop at the same pace as other European countries. Poland was absorbed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the late-18th century and did not reappear as a nation until after the conclusion of the First World War. The Great Depression hit a decade later, followed by the horrific devastation inflicted by the invading Nazi Germans and Russian-Soviets, followed by 44 years of Russian-Soviet domination and oppression. Poland finally achieved its independence in 1989 and has been trying to catch up economically ever since.
In this interesting book, British lawyer, Jonathan Lipman relates his experience living in Poland from 1997 to 1999. Lipman had met a Polish panna (single woman) when the two were studying at Oxford in 1994. They subsequently married and Lipman took a job with a Warsaw law firm advising on foreign business investment contracts written in English.
Lipman describes daily living in Krakow (home of his wife’s family) and in Warsaw along with some interesting vacation trips to Sopot (a resort city on Baltic Sea) and Zakopane (a village in Tatra Mountains). He devotes chapters to such topics as transportation in Poland, weather, religion and festivals, entertainment, customer service (or the lack thereof), Polish work ethic, and “the Polish character.” There’s also a chapter on Polish-Jewish relations, a fascinating topic that I studied intensively during my long “prodigal season.” Poland is probably the most Catholic country in Europe, but as Lipman describes it, Polish Catholicity is mostly about bonding with family via religious rituals and traditions.
Although the events and observations described within happened over twenty years ago, this book still offers many very relevant and astute insights into the Polish nation and its people. The author interjects a good amount of entertaining droll British humor throughout, although there are some British-isms that will leave the American reader scratching their head. For an independently published book, this was very well done. I read the Kindle version and the transcription was excellent. I’m impressed.
Postscript: Poland isn’t all Soviet-style, utilitarian, nondescript, gray, architecture. There are many, many lovely spots to visit. My wife and I spent five days in Krakow a decade ago. The extremely well-preserved, former capital of Poland until 1596, Krakow was largely untouched by WWII bombardment. Krakow’s central city is as nice a place to visit as any city in Europe.
American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago By Dominic A. Pacyga University of Chicago Press, 2021, 329 pp.
This book is a fascinating history of the large Polish diaspora in Chicago, Illinois. Polish immigrants came to the city in droves as part of the Za Chlebem “for bread” migration in the years 1860-1918. These immigrants of partitioned Poland were mainly poor peasant stock seeking better opportunities in the United States. They were attracted to Chicago because the city was a growing industrial center that required many low-skill, manual laborers. Next to Warsaw, Chicago would eventually become home to the world’s second largest Polish population.
The Catholic church, the repository of Polish nationalism in partitioned Poland, played a leading role in the establishment of Polish immigrant neighborhoods. Tensions arose as Poles challenged the dominance of Irish Americans in the American Catholic hierarchy, leading to the splinter Polish National Catholic church and the rivalry between the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America and the more secular Polish National Alliance fraternals. Many Poles intended to return to their homeland if Poland were ever re-established as a nation (that happened in 1918), but those dreams faded over time. The relationship between the Chicago Polish diaspora and Poland, with its struggle for independence and subsequent trials and tribulations under Nazi and Soviet domination, is a fascinating story.
Subsequent waves of Polish migration to the city occurred following World War II and during the Solidarność (Solidarity) opposition to the Soviet Polish government, 1980-1989. There were often tensions between the new arrivals and the Americanized Poles over Polskość (Polishness) or who is really Polish?
Following World War II, returning Polish American vets and their families began moving out of the city to the suburbs. Some Polish institutions remain within the city proper, but many of the old Polish neighborhoods with their modest houses are now home to African Americans and Hispanics. In Greater Chicago, generational assimilation continues to grind away at Polish ethnic identification.
“American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for Polish Americans and for others interested in the history of immigration to the United States. This book would have been even better if the author had given some focus to a particular Za Chlebem immigrant family or two and their generational journey through assimilation and acculturation.
Postscript: Roman Catholicism is so interconnected with Polskość (Polishness) that a Pole who is not Catholic, like myself, is considered by many to not be a “true Pole.” For a believer, while our ethnic, racial, or national identity can be a positive and enjoyable aspect of who we are, it’s (very) subordinate to our identity in Jesus Christ.
Postscript 2: While reading this book, I could not help but think of the millions of Ukrainian refugees currently fleeing Putin’s genocide. Local news has reported that a few of the refugees have already made their way to the Ukrainian diaspora community here in Rochester.
The Blondes of Wisconsin By Anthony Bukoski University of Wisconsin Press, 2021, 152 pp.
Like many industrial cities in the Rust Belt, Rochester had its Polish Town neighborhood, which was centered along Hudson Avenue, north of Clifford Avenue. The Polish immigrants of the late-19th and early-20th centuries settled along Hudson Avenue and established churches, businesses, and social clubs where Polish was spoken and the shared ethnicity was the binding currency of the “Polonia” neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived on Avenue D, just a few houses down from Hudson. Vets returning from World War II, like my Dad, chose to buy houses in new developments in the bordering suburb of Irondequoit rather than live in Polish Town. Second-generation Polish immigrants had a strong desire to assimilate and downplay their ethnicity.
As first-generation Poles died off, their small, cottage-style houses were bought by African Americans who had moved up to Rochester from Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the South to take advantage of the city’s then-economic opportunities (Kodak, Xerox, etc). Polish businesses and institutions in the Hudson Avenue neighborhood shuttered one after another. Manufacturing has since moved out of Rochester and most of the city’s neighborhoods, including the old Polish Town, became steeped in poverty. There’s still a few hold-out Poles and Polish-owned businesses and institutions remaining in the crumbling and crime-ridden Hudson Avenue neighborhood. I occasionally frequent a Polish deli on the fringes of the old neighborhood.
Anthony Bukoski has written several books of short stories about life in the declining Polonia of Superior, Wisconsin. “The Blondes of Wisconsin” is his latest offering. These are sad and melancholy tales describing characters living amidst the last gasps of fading Polish ethnic identity, just like the few Polish-Americans still living on Hudson Avenue. This is a reminder that all things of this world are fading and are built on foundations of sinking sand. Polish ethnic identity was strongly intertwined with membership in the Roman Catholic church. St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic church is one of the few Polish ethnic landmarks remaining on Hudson Avenue and inside they still preach a false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.
I dug deep into my Polish ethnic heritage during my prodigal “season” away from the Lord, which I documented here, and I like to occasionally read something about the “old country,” which recently led me to…
A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland
By Ben Aitken
Icon Books Ltd, 2019, 306 pages.
Few people think of Poland as a vacation destination, hence the dearth of travelogues devoted to that country. The idea for this book came about due to some unique circumstances. First, some background:
Poland and the U.K. have a unique relationship. When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded and co-partitioned Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II, the Polish government established itself in-exile, first in Paris and then in London. Polish expatriates and refugees continued to flock to England throughout the war and also afterwards when Poland was trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Poland regained its independence in 1989, but the transformation to a market economy was arduous. Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and thousands of Poles immediately began flocking to the U.K. for economic opportunities not available in their own country. There were 90,000 Poles living in the U.K. in 2004, but by 2016 the Polish immigrant population had skyrocketed to 900,000. This heavy influx of Poles sparked resentment among the Brits, contributing to demands by a sizable percentage of the citizenry for the U.K. to exit the E.U.
At the height of the controversy, young British writer, Ben Aitken, wanted to get some perspective on these Polish immigrants so he journeyed to Poland in early-2016 for a one-year stay to acquaint himself with the country and its people. His home-base was the city of Poznań, but during his stay he also made expeditionary trips to Katowice, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Oswiecim, Sopot, Łódź, Lublin, Jelenia Gora-Karpacz, Konin, Krakow, Piwniczna-Zdrój, and Ełk.
Shortly after his arrival, Aitken took an entry-level job peeling potatoes at an English-themed fish and chips restaurant in Poznań and gradually learned some basic language skills and acquired some Polish friends, including a romantic relationship that never quite got off the ground. In describing his journeys throughout Poland, the author makes many interesting observations in regards to the country’s cuisine, history, politics, geography, economy, customs, religion, language, traditions, etc., all told with a good degree of extra-dry British humor. The description of his challenging stay in the mountain town of Piwniczna-Zdrój is especially comical. One criticism is that Aitken devotes an inordinate amount of attention to his frequent visits to the local Polish pubs. While some of Aitken’s youthful antics are funny, I would have preferred a more mature perspective. Ultimately, any non-Christian worldview is going to be unsatisfying for a believer.
During the course of Aitken’s stay, the Brits voted to leave the EU and the Brexit disentanglement continues to drag on. In response to the political uncertainty of the situation, about 100,000 Poles have returned to Poland from the U.K. since this book was written.
I enjoyed “A Chip Shop in Poznań” and I’m glad I stumbled across it, but I’m hoping for a better Poland travelogue in the future.
TIP: The Google Earth app is very helpful while reading a book like this to get a bird’s-eye view of the locations that are mentioned.
By Wioletta Greg
Transit Books, 2019, 191 pp.
When I took my dumb, long prodigal journey from the Lord, I attempted to fill the gaping vacuum with something, so I immersed myself deeply into my Polish culture/heritage, which I’ve described previously (see here). I returned to the Lord six years ago, but I still like to occasionally check out Polish stuff and I recently stumbled across this new autobiographical novel from a Polish author in our library’s catalog.
It’s 1994 and Polish society is still digging out from under 44-years of Soviet domination and repression and must endure the painful transition to a market economy. Despite the new political freedoms, many Poles are still consumed with the hardships of the past. Wioletta moves from the small village of Hektary in southern Poland to the nearby city of Częstochowa to study literature in college. Unable to secure a dorm, she is forced to live at a workers’ hostel with a collection of “misfits.” The circumstances at the hostel disintegrate into chaos and Wioletta is forced to move into a room at a nearby convent. The mother superior is slipping into dementia and confuses Wioletta with a girl from her long-ago past. In a game of accommodating self-interest, Wioletta begins playing the part and barely escapes with her life. But after securing other accommodations, life gets no easier. Throughout this three-year ordeal, Wioletta must constantly navigate through unstable relationships and challenging, difficult circumstances. Her story is an allegory for post-Soviet Poland and Poles.
I write pretty much every day for this blog, but I’m under no pretension that I am a “good” writer in the artistic/creative sense. Ms. Greg’s (nee Grzegorzewska) writing on the other hand is sheer poetic delight. Some of the credit must also go to able translator, Jennifer Croft. I don’t read much fiction, but when the writer is a gifted artist, it can be quite a ride. This is a melancholy tale, but such is the story of Poland’s struggles. Because of my prior immersion in Polish culture, I felt right at home walking the streets of Częstochowa, so ably and richly described in this novel. The imposing Roman Catholic monastery/citadel of Jasna Góra (“Bright Hill”) looms over the city (as well as the nation) and the sensibilities of its inhabitants, but it’s a false hope and deep down, the people know it.
Postscript: This library book still sits at home. When I went to our local library branch on March 17th to return the book, a sign on the door said it was closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve seen several instances of murderous anti-Semitism here in America in the last eight months. Anti-Semitism has a very long legacy and, sadly, was perpetuated by institutional (c)hristianity for sixteen-hundred years. Also, sad to say, we see contemporary examples of people claiming to be born-again believers spewing anti-Jewish hatred. For this post, I’m going to focus on just one example of historical anti-Semitism.
Recently, brother Wally has been posting a series of devotions based on the Book of Esther. Good stuff. See here for just one example. Anyway, the series got me to thinking back about something I stumbled upon many years ago. Not to beat a dead horse, but when I become frustrated with “churchianity” back in the 90s and walked away from the Lord for a long “season,” I had to fill my spiritual vacuum with something, so I poured myself into studying Polish history and culture (I’m 50% Polish) and eventually concentrated on the controversial history of Polish-Jewish relations, which might be better referred to as Polish-Jewish “non-relations.”
We’re going to get to the Esther connection, but first, some background. Back in the Middle Ages, Jews were having a very rough time in Western Europe. They were routinely persecuted (pogroms, forced baptisms, ghetto quarantines, etc.) and even driven out of Catholic kingdoms whenever the intolerance peaked. Whereas other kingdoms had a developing merchant/burgher class, Polish society largely consisted of the nobility and the peasantry. Consequently, Polish monarchs began welcoming Jews to Poland beginning in the 13th century because of the expertise of some in the financial/merchant spheres. Bolesław the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz in 1264 which granted unprecedented liberties to Jews, resulting in Jews from all over Europe flocking to Poland. Subsequent monarchs continued the relatively magnanimous treatment of Jews (it should be noted that at the beginning of World War II, half of Europe’s six-million Jews resided in Poland, making up ten percent of that nation’s population).
However, the influx of Jews into Poland was not without problems. The Polish nobility often appointed Jews as their financial middlemen (i.e., landlords, innkeepers, moneylenders, commercial agents, etc.) and the Polish peasantry increasingly resented these “foreigners” lording it over them. Stoking the resentment were the priests and prelates of the Polish Catholic church, who regularly railed against the Jewish “outsiders” as the “Christ killers.” Myths of Jews abducting Catholic children and using their blood in the manufacture of Matzah bread (aka “blood libel,” see here) were widespread and accepted as factual.
Okay, with that tense historical background in mind, we’ll cut to our Book of Esther connection. The Jewish communities in Poland regularly celebrated “Purim” (Hebrew, meaning: “lots” as in “casting lots”), a festival occurring in early-March, which commemorated the saving of the Jewish people from Haman as recorded in the Book of Esther. As part of the celebration, some Jews would reenact the story of Esther with an effigy of Haman being hung at the conclusion. The Polish Catholic clergy and peasantry did not take kindly to this reenactment. They interpreted the hanging of the Haman figure as a provocation against Gentiles and the Catholic church. In retaliation, as part of the annual Easter ritual, Poles across the kingdom would fashion a figurine with stereotypical Jewish physical features and clothing and hang it in the town square and subsequently burn it. The figure was meant to represent Judas, the betrayer of Christ, but on a broader scale, it also symbolized the hated Jewish “Christ killers.” The excitement rarely failed to whip Polish crowds into a frenzy of hatred and they would scour Jewish neighborhoods looking for victims. Polish Jews barricaded their doors and windows during the Easter celebration.
In the future, we’ll take a look at several other examples of Polish anti-Semitism, but without the lengthy historical introduction featured in this post. Below are some recent news headlines that underscore the continuing popularity of anti-Semitism in Poland, even though almost all of Poland’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust: