And yet, historical periods are multifaceted, even Janus-faced. Cultural pessimism often stands alongside a competing sense of hope and renewal, especially in the destructive wake of major military conflagrations. This has never been more evident than in Weimar Germany, where forces of apocalyptic despair clashed with messianic hope in the aftermath of the Great War. A similar pairing can be noticed in an adjacent place and time — interwar Poland, where new hopes for a democratic future coincided with rising tides of fascistic anti-Semitism.
Scholars of Jewish history have devoted a great deal of attention to interwar Poland as the site of a cultural efflorescence that emerged out of the devastation of World War I. Representing one-tenth of the Polish population, the three-million-strong Jewish community produced a dizzying array of literary, artistic, and political innovations, as the landmark 1989 collection edited by Yisrael Gutman et al., The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars, chronicled. An especially powerful visual symbol of the vibrancy and diversity of Polish Jewish culture was a Warsaw kiosk where one could purchase Jewish newspapers in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew trumpeting a wide spectrum of ideological perspectives.
Now Kenneth B. Moss, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Chicago, has come to complicate the story, in ways at once surprising and intuitive, in his new book An Unchosen People: Jewish Political Reckoning in Interwar Poland. The golden age of 20th-century Polish Jewish history was, Moss shows with exceptional erudition and profundity, also a time of Kulturpessimismus, marked by a widespread sense of limited options and a narrowing horizon. In advancing such a claim, one must be cautious of a pair of lurking dangers: first, what the great macrohistorian Salo W. Baron called the “lachrymose” perspective that reduces the preponderance of Jewish history to a long series of persecutions and pogroms without recognizing the periods of quotidian encounters with non-Jewish society; and second, the impulse to engage in what Michael André Bernstein called “backshadowing,” in which the historian crafts a narrative of the past with an air of predictability, treating historical periods as narrowly deterministic. Backshadowing, Bernstein observed in his 1994 book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, is especially difficult to escape when treating Jewish history in Europe prior to the Holocaust.
This, then, was the challenge that Moss faced in An Unchosen People: how to uncover the ambience of pessimistic thinking and sentiment among Polish Jews while holding at bay the immense lurking presence of the Holocaust? And indeed, it is no mean task, as a matter of cognitive self-discipline, for the reader of this book to disconnect the sense of foreboding and “futurelessness” of Polish Jews in the 1930s from the knowledge of what awaited them after 1939.
Moss confronts the challenge, and he largely succeeds in keeping our focus trained on the concerns of Polish Jews in the years between 1926 and 1935, a period dominated by the personality of Józef Piłsudski, the legendary general who assumed political control of the Polish state in a 1926 coup and held it until his death in 1935 (and about whom a major new biography by Joshua Zimmerman has just appeared). The coup led by Piłsudski, Moss reports at the outset of An Unchosen People, “put in power a regime committed, more or less, to the civic model of Polishness.” Jews believed that Piłsudski’s ascent opened up a new gateway to their inclusion in Polish society. But Moss also notes that there was “a dangerous swerve in Polish political culture before Piłsudski’s death in 1935” toward a virulent ethnonationalism.
The reign of Piłsudski sets out the temporal frame for the Jewish Kulturpessimismus in interwar Poland, in which “enmity and tension were intermixed with dialogue and intimacy.” Alongside the inspired cultural creators of the period, we encounter a broad range of Polish Jews who apprehended that the horizons of their world were shrinking in the face of severe economic crisis (the Great Depression of 1929), rising anti-Semitism, and the strong link between them. One important demographic component was Polish Jewish youth, hundreds of whom reflected on their predicament in a series of autobiographies collected in 1932 and 1934 by YIVO, the preeminent Yiddish-language research institute based in Vilna (now Lithuania, but then under Polish control). YIVO’s cofounder and moving spirit, the philologist Max Weinreich, wrote a searching analysis of these autobiographies in Der ṿeg tsu undzer yugnṭ (“The Path to Our Youth”), published in 1935. One of those whom he studied, a 22-year-old, captured the despair of the day by observing that “Jewish youth is roasting in a hermetically sealed pot and cannot release its energy. Every path is closed before it, it is not allowed in anywhere.” Another youthful autobiographer, Binyomen Rotberg, wrote a follow-up commentary to his original text in 1935 in which he responded to Weinreich’s analysis by highlighting the distinction of the Jewish condition in Poland:
It is indeed true that things are bad for everyone. […] But it’s nonsense to compare the situation of Jewish youth to the situation of Polish [youth]. […] If [Poles] suffer, they suffer only from the bad economic conditions but don’t know any national oppression. All economic positions are open to them and they feel themselves to be rulers in their land. The drive to emigrate among them is small […] [But] we Jews began to feel a specific national oppression even before the [economic] crisis. At every step we are abused, at every step we are given to feel that we are second-class citizens. […] Is it then so strange that our youth does not feel at home in its “home,” which is in fact no home at all?
Moss meticulously reconstructs this world of disaffection, angst, and anomie. He has a masterful command of the Yiddish language and culture in which the despairing emotional state of Polish Jews — or their “crisis of subjectivity,” as he calls it — was expressed. He is also an exceptional archival historian who has plumbed the depths of the YIVO youth autobiographies to excavate and recreate the Polish Jewish mentalité of the day. In addition to this rich autobiographical trove, Moss draws on two other crucial sources. The first is a body of social scientific research — sociological, psychological, and political-scientific — produced by Jews in the 1930s that sought not only to explain the threatening trend line of anti-Semitism in Polish society but also to venture predictions about what the fate of Jews might be. The second body of sources on which Moss draws amply is literature. He has already exhibited in previous work an exceptional feel for both prose and poetry, particularly in his first book, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (2009). In An Unchosen People, he offers finely grained readings of poetry, which came to serve as a mouthpiece for the rising concerns of Polish Jews. The poems he summons are brutal and stark, as in the case of the Yiddishist Arn Tsaytlin, who, in apparent response to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, wrote with a mix of cataclysmic premonition and mystery about the future:
They’ll choke us with gases. We’ll lie under ash,
Dead cities will yield to the village green.
Young rains will give old earth a wash,
And objects will speak in unknown tongues,
Children will laugh, God will come on down.
In their desperate attempt to make sense of their predicament, Polish Jewish poets cast about for comparisons. Interestingly, they were often drawn to the African-American experience and to the poetry it produced. On the occasion of the appearance of a Russian-language anthology of African-American poetry in 1934, one Yiddish critic, writing in the language of his day, opined about the poems in the collection: “They give voice to the Negro tragedy, and that voice flows from an ancient source, from the Negro poets who were driven from African jungles to the banks of the Mississippi and who know well that life and death is in their tongue.” In related fashion, Weinreich included in his book on the youth autobiographies an extended excursus on the African American experience. Moss captures with nuance the alternating and, at times, tortured comparison that Weinreich made between African Americans and Polish Jews. In one case, he recognized the shared psychic costs of “belonging to a downtrodden community.” In another, he distinguished between ignoble assimilationists in both communities and those who recognized and were proud of their cultural distinctiveness.
It is important to add that cultural distinctiveness was not merely the product of external imposition by anti-Semitic Europe upon its Jews; it was also an ideological choice. In fact, one can describe European Jewish culture from 1897 until 1933 as a long cacophonous conversation among competing ideologies, including socialists, nationalists, religious separatists, and assimilationists. What Moss trenchantly grasps about Jews in Poland in the 1930s, though, is the way the fierce conversations that had previously characterized the community came to an abrupt end. Hitherto these debates had demarcated clear ideological battle lines: between socialists who promoted the interests of the working class and nationalists who advanced the ideal of the nation, or between nonstatist nationalists who sought Jewish cultural autonomy in the Diaspora and territorial nationalists, or Zionists, whose main goal was Jewish settlement in Palestine. The air of Kulturpessimismus in Poland in the 1930s, however, dampened enthusiasm for socialist, Diasporist, and assimilationist visions, each of which required some measure of cooperation or assent from the broader Gentile world.
Or at least this was true for some, since Moss is well aware, as are other scholars, that the socialist-Diasporist Bund party grew in popularity in the 1930s, in no small part due to its attention to the condition of Jews in the here and now. The resulting historiographical tension reminds us that explosive Jewish cultural and political energy in interwar Poland coexisted with foreboding and despair — complementary features of an era charged with frenetic energy and anxiety. But for the sector of Polish Jews that Moss studies, especially the young, the old ideological debates were no longer relevant. They were newfound realists who groped for a path forward, arriving at a space that he variously calls the “politics of doubt” or the “politics of exit.” Doubt about the present meant exit in the future, shorn of any ideological ardor. Here Moss is at his strongest, bringing compelling evidence of erstwhile Diasporists — deeply committed to a robust Yiddish cultural world in Poland — who saw no option left but to immigrate to Palestine under the auspices of Zionism, a movement they had unequivocally resisted until then. Similarly, pious Jews who had previously opposed Zionism on theological grounds — described by one memoirist as “those who were waiting for the Redemption and the coming of the Messiah” — evinced a new openness to Zionism as a default guarantor of their distinctive way of life. Jewish parents looked on at the choices their children were making with begrudging approval, given the limited options, but “without any serious hope that Palestine would save them from whatever fate their children would be escaping.”
The reluctant recourse to Zionism tells us a good deal about the limited agency and sense of futurelessness found among Polish Jews in this age of cultural pessimism. It is a story exceptionally well told by Kenneth Moss, who has produced a brilliant affective history of Jewish political culture in interwar Poland. And yet, the implications of the book reach beyond the Polish milieu to encompass the route of exit to Palestine, which became the new home of the transplanted, ideologically indifferent Polish Jews, at least those who managed to escape before the German invasion in 1939. An Unchosen People reminds us that Jews immigrated to Palestine, or attempted to do so, chiefly in order to escape a dire fate in Europe which they had already begun to sense in the Piłsudski era. The fact that Zionism would later uproot and expel — and become synonymous with a doctrine of Jewish supremacy that animates the dominant right in Israeli politics today — should not conceal what is perhaps an inconvenient truth: the exiters did not come with the intention of imposing their will upon, displacing, or dominating the local Palestinian population.
No less than the Lebanese novelist of the Palestinian Nakba, Elias Khoury, has captured the logic of this choice in his extraordinary and devastating “catastrophe” novel Children of the Ghetto (2016). Khoury’s Palestinian protagonist, Adam, imagines, among other mythic origin stories, a Jewish father whose “only sin was to be a Polish Jew who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he was able to escape, making a difficult journey that took him in the end to Istanbul, where he had no choice but to board a ship that carried him to the Promised Land.” It is one of the merits of Moss’s fine book to show that, for Polish Jews even before the German invasion of 1939, immigration to Palestine was nothing more or less than a path of escape from a hellish abyss, the full depths of which they could not yet imagine.
David N. Myers is a Distinguished Professor of History at UCLA, where he holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History. He is the author, with Nomi Stolzenberg, of American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York (2022).