Józef Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland after World War I, is hardly known today — and many Jews have previously regarded him pejoratively as just another one-dimensional strongman figure in an anti-Semitic inter-war Eastern Europe. This excellent biography by the American academic, Joshua Zimmerman, presents a far more nuanced account.
Piłsudski grew up in Vilna whose population was 40% Jewish. As an early member of the Polish Socialist Party, he worked with figures such as Arkadi Kremer and Tsemach Kopelzon in an attempt to form a Jewish section of his party. He helped to smuggle socialist publications in Yiddish into Tsarist Russia, wrote about the strike of 160 Jewish tailors in Vilna and praised Jews for their revolutionary zeal in participating in the Polish uprising of 1863. Even so, like Lenin, Piłsudski was opposed to the formation of a separate Jewish party, the Bund.
Zimmerman recalls that Piłsudski was also a great military leader who repelled the Red Army as it advanced on Warsaw in 1920. Piłsudski’s exemplar was Napoleon a century before and drew the conclusion that only an armed struggle could liberate Poland from over a century of Russia’s medieval rule. On the basis of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, he unsuccessfully courted Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, but secured the support of the Austro-Hungarians on the outbreak of war in 1914 to form the Polish Legion.
Piłsudski became disillusioned with the new state that he had created when the Polish president, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated in 1922 after only five days in office by a far Right nationalist. This was the culmination of a campaign of vicious incitement, the Polish Right believed that the president should be elected solely by Poles — and not by national minorities, especially not the Jews. The non-Jewish Narutowicz was depicted by the Right as ‘the Jewish president’ and his election the result of a devious Jewish conspiracy. In court, his killer held Piłsudski responsible as the creator of ‘Judeo-Poland’.
It was for this reason that a probable majority of Polish Jews supported Piłsudski in his overthrow of a democratically elected right wing government in 1926 which they feared would implement anti-Semitic policies. They saw Piłsudski as their protector.
Certainly Piłsudski pursued a dual approaching combining both authoritarianism and pluralism. He instigated the Brześć trial of his political opponents while protecting minority rights and opposing anti-Semitism. Both Communists on the Left and the National Democrats on the Right detested him.
Zimmerman demonstrates that Piłsudski believed that the new Poland should be a state not only for the Poles, but also for its Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Jewish citizens. His political aim was ‘state assimilation of the people’ and not national assimilation of the minorities. He also quotes the late Felek Scharf, a well-known Polish Jewish intellectual who found sanctuary in Hampstead. As a young man, he came down to breakfast in Kraków to discover his father in tears and inconsolable — Felek’s father had just heard about the death of Marshal Piłsudski, the founder of the state. Indeed just a few weeks after his passing in 1935, there was a pogrom in Grodno.
The future Israeli prime ministers, Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, emerged from and were influenced by inter-war Poland — and it is often said that the real father of the Israeli Right was not Vladimir Jabotinsky but Józef Piłsudski.
This is a detailed, absorbing book which peels back the complexities of histories to reclaim the figure of Józef Piłsudski for a new generation.
Jewish Chronicle 30 September 2022