85th Anniversary of Marshall Józef Piłsudski’s passing
Marshall Józef Piłsudski passed away 85 years ago, on 12 May 1935. He shaped the history of the Second Republic of Poland, first as the First Chief of State, and next - following the May coup - as an informal leader of the Polish state. How was he perceived by the Jewish citizens of Poland? What did Piłsudski think of the Jews?
"Jews [who were] born on the Polish soil, wherever they are, revere the greatest hero of the Polish Nation who made the dreams of generations of Poles come true, and who led the Polish Nation and all its sons towards the joy of Liberation and Independence." This is how Aleksander Hafftka described the affection of Polish Jews towards Józef Piłsudski in a letter of the Union of Jewish Participants of the Struggle for Polish Independence in early 1935, a few weeks before Marshall’s death.
Hafftka - deputy chair of the Union, co-editor of the two volumes of Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej [Jews in the Reborn Poland] and head of the Jewish Section of the Ethnic Department at the Ministry of Interior - was responsible for contacts between the government and the representatives of Polish Jews. Surely, he did exaggerate, however his letter was more than mere propaganda.
There were a number of reasons why the majority of Polish Jews held a positive opinion on Piłsudski. Already as an activist of the Polish Socialist Party [PPS], the future Marshall openly opposed racial discrimination. In 1902, he wrote in the PPS magazine Walka [Struggle]: "Let us eradicate all the animosity towards people of different origin, religion or language." More importantly, he did practice what he preached.
There were Jews among Piłsudski’s friends and acquaintances. Hundreds of Jews joined his legions to fight for independent Poland. Piłsudski considered the pogroms and all sorts of antisemitic incitement manifested openly during the first years of Polish independence as a national disgrace.
The fact that, contrary to other politicians, he met with a delegation of Jewish politicians on 12 November 1918, right after his return from a prison in Magdeburg, gained him deep appreciation on the part of Polish Jews.
Piłsudski rejected discrimination and antisemitism; he saw no reason why a Jew should not be a citizen of Poland with equal rights to ethnic Poles. One cannot say the same thing of the National Democrats who were carrying out an openly antisemitic campaign.
Nonetheless, Piłsudski stance on ethnic equality did not necessarily entail any particular support offered to Jews with regard to their national self-government, or to their welfare as a national minority. In general, the Marshall was not particularly interested in the issues of ethnicity and minorities.
A statement of Ozjasz Thon, a Zionist MP, delivered in December 1927, confirmed just that: "Jews should not worry about Piłsudski - he will not inflict a great deal of harm on them. At the same time, they should not hope for any particular support on his part." Thon’s opinion, voiced a year and a half after the May coup, was indeed an expression of disillusionment - very few demands put forward by Jewish politicians had been addressed under Piłsudski’s leadership, and the rules of democracy were being continually tested.
Other Jewish politicians supported Piłsudski’s government and entered elections on one of pro-government electoral lists, e.g. the Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government. The assessment of Piłsudski’s policy depended primarily on Jewish activists’ political orientation.
The May Coup d’Etat removed the openly antisemitic National Democrats from the government - the fact greatly appreciated by all Jewish milieus. Piłsudski became an embodiment of Poland which welcomed Jews as equal citizens.
Piłsudski’s death in May 1935 came as a shock to Jews. Jewish religious communities all over Poland organised memorial services, Jewish delegations attended the official funeral ceremony. For days did Jewish press write exclusively on Piłsudski, with Jewish politicians and journalists paying homage to his contribution to independent Poland and to Polish-Jewish co-existence.
They also expressed hope that Piłsudski’s total rejection of antisemitism would remain the official stance of the new Polish government. Alas, it soon transpired that they hoped in vain. With the establishment of the Camp of National Unity, antisemitism yet again became the order of the day in Poland.
- Szymon Rudnicki: Szacunek ze wzajemnością. Piłsudski a Żydzi, w: Więź 619 (maj/czerwiec 2010), 72-80.
- Natalia Aleksiun: Regards from my Shtetl: Polish Jews Write to Piłsudski, 1933-1935, w: The Polish Review Vol. LVI, Nos. 1-2, (2011), 57-71.