Polish Pogroms and American Apologies
Why has anti-Semitism persisted so stubbornly over the centuries, even among “civilized” peoples and nations, and the diplomats who represent them?
Two otherwise distinguished American diplomats exhibited such behaviors in the first half of the twentieth century, with ultimately deadly consequences — for others. The stage was Poland. The play was in two acts linked to two world wars. Americans intervened to shore up shaky regimes in Poland, at the expense of Jews.
Up until World War II, predominantly Catholic Poland was home to more than 3 million Jews, about 10 percent of the country’s population. They were mostly poor, religious and apolitical. Yet, Polish Jews during those years absorbed repeated waves of pogroms — organized violent attacks with official backing. And this was before the Holocaust, when more than 90 percent of the Jewish population would be destroyed.
In 1919 and again 1946, the U.S. State Department inserted itself prominently into Polish politics, not to protect Jewish victims but to shield the Polish government from responsibility for the murderous attacks on Jewish communities. American policymakers in both cases viewed Poland as a bulwark against Soviet Russia and communism, regarded as an immediate threat, with harm to Jews a distraction.
Shortly after the First World War, Poland became an independent country for the first time since 1795. Poles had suffered terribly during the war, more than a million dying as soldiers or civilians, the country devastated. The new Polish State faced an identity crisis. Nationalists wanted a Poland dominated by ethnic Poles, not Ukrainians, Russians or Jews, all considered outsiders. Other leaders envisioned a multiethnic state in the western model, minorities welcome.
To the Nationalists, Jews were anathema. Religious divisions dated back centuries but now took new forms. Poles accused Jews of dominating Poland’s commerce and trade and, during the war, of showing mixed loyalties. With peace, many Jewish leaders in Poland sought special status for their community, with separate Jewish schools, recognition of Yiddish as a language, local autonomy and their own parallel Jewish nationalism, which they called Zionism. The Jewish question in Poland was not religious, Polish Nationalists insisted, but political.
Tensions rose, with boycotts, firings and beatings targeting Jews. In many towns, Jews armed themselves for defense. To this toxic mix, add the violence of border wars. Independent Poland faced armed encroachments from Germans, Russian Bolsheviks and Ukrainians, each also trying to create their own postwar states. The result: Anti-Jewish attacks erupted in more than a hundred towns and cities in late 1918 and early 1919.
Lvov (or Lemberg, in today’s Ukraine), then a city of more than 200,000, a third Jewish, had been occupied by Ukrainian militias until November 1918, when Polish troops chased them out. Jews had declared themselves “neutral” in the fight and organized a self-defense militia.
When Ukrainian militias withdrew, Polish soldiers disarmed the Jewish militia. Then violence broke out. The town was overrun by some 15,000 irregulars, deserters and criminals released from local prisons, as the regular Polish troops waited outside the city. It took three days before Polish soldiers restored order. Later investigations heard evidence that Polish military officers promised local fighters “forty-eight hours’ plunder of the Jews” as reward for their part in the battle. Houses and shops were burned, a synagogue set afire.
Counts of Jews killed ranged from 50 to more than 150; some newspapers claimed over 1,000. Hundreds of Ukrainians also died in the melee. Criminal charges were brought later against 164 people, including several Jews. Similar outbreaks occurred in Pinsk (35 killed), Lida (35), Minsk (31), Kielce (4), Vilna (55), and other towns. Total confirmed Jewish deaths in the incidents reached almost 350.
The international press published lurid headlines. The reports told of “slaughters,” “massacres” and “horrors,” of Jews burned alive in synagogues, of casualties in the thousands. With only sketchy information reaching the West, accounts often exaggerated or misstated facts. In America, cities declared “days of mourning”; stores draped windows in black. In New York City, 15,000 Jews packed Madison Square Garden, and tens of thousands more marched the streets in protest. Angry petitions flooded the U.S. Congress.
Polish officials denied the charges. “There have been no pogroms in Poland,” insisted Ignace Paderewski, the world-famous pianist who was Poland’s first prime minister. He blamed Jews for causing the hatred against them; the church, the military and local leaders all agreed. Jews hoarded food, they said. Jews profiteered and colluded with enemies. Where violence occurred, they provoked it.
The controversy came at a bad time for the new Polish state. World leaders had gathered in Versailles, France, for the postwar peace conference that would decide Poland’s status on the world stage.
How surprising, then, to suddenly hear from the American government’s highest-ranking official in Warsaw, Hugh Gibson, the newly appointed minister to Poland, that Jewish Poles faced no such dangers. “GIBSON DENIES POLISH POGROMS,” and “JEWISH MASSACRES ARE EXAGGERATED,” read headlines from The New York Times and other papers, attributing these conclusions to the new minister.
The U.S. State Department had taken sides.
Gibson, son of a California banker and educated at Paris’s elite École Libre des Sciences Politiques, had joined the American Foreign Service in 1908. World War I sent him to Paris and Brussels, where he aided future President Herbert Hoover in his epic war relief efforts. By 1919, Gibson, 36, was a rising diplomatic star, worldly, multilingual, comfortable in elite circles, a natural choice as America’s first minister to newly independent Poland.
Reaching Warsaw, Gibson and his small staff were welcomed warmly, wined and dined by Poland’s elite, and became charter members of what historian Martin Weil would later christen the “Pretty Good Club,” a tight circle of wealthy, well-bred Ivy League American men who dominated that era’s State Department. Gibson dined at Warsaw’s exclusive Club des Chasseurs, brought golf clubs and rented Warsaw’s famous Blue Palace — where Chopin performed as a boy — for the American legation.
Pressed by Washington superiors, Gibson investigated the pogrom allegations. He traveled to key cities and concluded that, while anti-Jewish attacks had occurred, newspapers had exaggerated the details, and many had taken place near battle zones where non-Jews had also been killed.
Gibson quickly recognized a threat, not to Jews, but to the Polish state. In official cables and private letters, he repeated Polish claims that Jews had spied for Bolsheviks, monopolized the economy and hoarded food. The “bitter feeling against classes of Jews,” he concluded, stemmed from “economic causes and not from religious intolerance.” The fault, he claimed, lay with Jewish “propaganda artists,” the reports of pogroms “exclusively of foreign manufacture for anti-Polish purposes.”
Gibson’s chief deputy in Warsaw was Yale-educated Arthur Bliss Lane, 25, son of a wealthy New York merchant. Lane was openly dismissive of pogrom stories and ready to accept a report that the beating to death of five Jews in one town was “a perfectly natural outcome of poor food conditions.”
President Woodrow Wilson, sensing political trouble, decided to send a fact-finding mission to Poland headed by lawyer-diplomat (and later a member of the B’nai B’rith executive committee) Henry Morgenthau. Britain sent a separate group headed by Jewish parliamentarian Sir Stuart Samuel. Their separate reports each confirmed widespread killings while recognizing the nuanced situation. Morgenthau, for instance, avoided the word “pogrom” in his report, finding no proof of direct involvement by the Polish government in the attacks. But that didn’t stop him from seeing the obvious human tragedy: “Excesses had occurred in Poland and Jews had suffered cruelly.”
Gibson remained in Warsaw as American Minister until 1924 and went on to an accomplished diplomatic career before leaving the State Department in 1938. His deputy, Arthur Bliss Lane, would keep his focus on Poland and communists.
Poles also suffered horrifically during the Second World War, at the hands of both Nazis and Soviets. An estimated 6 million Poles (including 3 million non-Jews) perished. Of the Jewish population, more than 90 percent were massacred; barely 50,000 remained in the country after the Holocaust. By 1946 Soviet Russia, acting through a local communist-led regime, was asserting ever-tighter controls. Fear, bitterness, poverty and a sense of betrayal all wracked Polish society.
On July 4, 1946, Poles attacked a building housing some 150 Jewish survivors in Kielce, an industrial town of 60,000, about a third Jewish before the war. Now, Jews were virtually extinct. The assault stemmed from charges that a Christian child had been kidnapped by Jews in an attempted “ritual murder.” The allegation was easily disproven; the boy said he’d been kept in a cellar and the building had none. But instead of protecting the Jews, police and militias joined the attack. A reported 42 Jews were murdered. Polish authorities later charged 12 attackers for the slaughter; nine received death penalties.
The Kielce pogrom shocked the world, including many Poles. Victims included mostly death camp survivors. The attitudes of surviving non-Jewish Poles toward surviving Jews — a mix of fear, guilt, shell shock and bigotry — is analyzed unflinchingly by writer Jan Gross in his book “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz” (2006). Just as striking, though, was the reaction of American diplomats.
America’s ambassador to postwar Poland in 1946 was none other than Arthur Bliss Lane, Hugh Gibson’s deputy in1919. Poland in 1946 sat at the center of the emerging Cold War with Soviet Russia. Like Gibson in 1919, Lane saw his principal job as supporting Polish sovereignty against communism. Again, learning of the Kielce pogrom, Lane — like Gibson before him — saw it in geopolitical terms. Global reaction to the massacre, he believed, weakened outside support for Poland as the country faced threats from Moscow.
Shortly before the Kielce violence, Poles had approved a national referendum supporting the new Moscow-backed regime — which conspicuously included a small number of Jews in prominent posts. Western observers had alleged fraud in the vote count. This, to Lane, was the principal issue — and not the attacks — facing the country that July.
Lane didn’t issue a public statement after Kielce, but instead called foreign newspapermen to his office and suggested they talk with Poland’s Roman Catholic Primate, Augustus Cardinal Hlond — who could speak without implicating the U.S. government itself. The Cardinal, in turn, explained how Poland’s anti-Semitism stemmed from politics. Jews, he said, “occupy leading positions in Poland’s [pro-Moscow] government.” The Kielce killings, he argued, “did not occur for racial reasons.”
Hlond’s statement drew quick criticism for seeming to justify the killings, but in private reports Lane supported Hlond’s point. He traced the anti-Jewish violence to Poles being “infuriated” over “falsification of the referendum results,” and pointed to the handful of Jewish leaders in the Warsaw regime as being highly unpopular, including security chief Stanislaw Radkiewicz, who had appeared at a funeral for Jewish victims.
“[W]ere it not for the unpopularity of the Jews within the [communist-leaning] Provisional Government,” Lane argued, “the anti-Jewish feeling [in Poland] was bound to have diminished …”
Lane would quit the State Department in protest a few months later, but not over his government’s lackadaisical attitude toward attacks on Polish Jews. Instead, he publicly blasted what he saw as American weakness in resisting Soviet expansion, making his case in a 1948 book pointedly titled “I Saw Poland Betrayed.” He would remain active in anti-communist causes until his death in 1956.
Looking back at Hugh Gibson and Arthur Bliss Lane in 1919 and 1946, one might ask: Were they anti-Semites? Personally, each would deny it, pointing to Jewish friends or colleagues. Did they minimize or make excuses for pogroms? Yes, though each would insist he was doing his job by supporting American interests. Did their reasons make any difference to the victims? No.
Gibson and Lane had long records of public service, hiding any prejudice behind good manners and worldly outlooks. But both were prepared to justify, minimize or explain away mass killings of Jews for what they saw as a larger cause, fighting communism or maintaining stability in Eastern Europe. If such well-educated, sophisticated professionals could gloss over or rationalize guilt-by-association, how difficult remains the challenge of separating convenient excuses for bigotry from legitimate public discourse.