Howard Sachar takes as his epigraph Lysander’s speech in the first act of William Shakespeare’sA Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) on the fragility of love, which, he says, lasts no longer than a flash of lightning. Similarly, Sachar shows how rapidly in many European nations the Jewish dream of liberty and equality faded in the period between the two world wars.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 guaranteed civil rights and cultural autonomy to all Poland’s minorities. Jews were granted two additional rights: to administer state funding for Jewish schools and to keep the Jewish Sabbath inviolate. In March, 1921, the Polish senate, the Sjem, enacted legislation consistent with these stipulations, but Sachar shows that the government never fulfilled its promises to any of the country’s minorities. Lithuanian, Byelorussian, German, and Ukrainian schools were suppressed. Germans and Ukrainians were allowed only limited land ownership. Voting districts were designed to limit minority representation. Jews were excluded from civil service posts. Jewish schools were not funded despite the stipulation in the Treaty of Versailles. Throughout the 1920’s, Jews were compelled to maintain separate unions, credit cooperatives, health insurance programs, student associations, and health clubs.
The worldwide economic depression of the 1930’s further eroded the Jewish situation in Poland. In 1934, as xenophobia and Catholic anti-Semitism grew more pronounced, Poland renounced the Versailles provisions for minorities. Cardinal August Hlond (1881-1948), prelate of Poland, urged an economic boycott of Jewish businesses. This position was echoed in a joint statement by the Union of Polish Catholic Lawyers, the Union of Catholic Writers, the Coordinating Committee of Academic Corporations, and the Union of Technicians and Engineers. Jews were systematically excluded from higher education and their businesses nationalized. In 1935-1937, various parts of Poland witnessed a renewal of pogroms rivaling the dark years of 1919-1920. A three-day pogrom in June, 1937, in Czestochowa, for example, left four Jews dead and hundreds wounded. The government did nothing to check the violence.
In the early post-World War I years, the Polish government had muted its anti-Semitism in an effort to encourage foreign Jewish investment. In 1928, as a means of improving the nation’s economy, the Polish consul in New York, Mieczyslaw Marchlewski, urged the Landsmannschaft of Polish Jews in America to support Jewish businesses in Poland. He even organized a Polish-Jewish Goodwill Committee. A decade later, the Polish government was refusing foreign Jewish money unless it would be used to fund Jewish emigration from Poland. The elimination of all Jews from Poland had become the government’s goal. Ironically, Poland supported the Zionist movement because this was a means of relocating Jews to another place.
Sachar shows how in Romania, as in Poland, the dream of Jewish emancipation turned to a nightmare of persecution. Article 44 of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin barred religious discrimination in the granting of Romanian citizenship, but before 1914 only 361 of the country’s 280,000 Jews had been granted that right. Although the 1923 Romanian constitution granted citizenship to all Jews, this provision was largely ignored as the government set about marginalizing its Jewish population. At the University of Bucharest, the Jewish population fell from 4,200 in 1920 to 1,500 in 1928. By that year, Romania’s medical schools were admitting virtually no Jews.
In the 1930’s, Romania’s political parties vied to outdo each other’s anti-Semitism. This stand received the support of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Sachar quotes Grand Patriarch Doctor Miron Cristea (1868-1939) in a pastoral letter: “One feels like crying with pity for the good Romanian nation, whose very marrow has been sucked from its bones by the Jews.” When Octavian Goga (1881-1938) became Romanian prime minister in 1937, he suppressed the nation’s three largest newspapers, all Jewish-owned, dismissed those Jews who still held government posts, and threatened to expropriate all Jewish-owned land. Although Goga did not act on this last proposal,...
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