Jews in Galicia and Warsaw: Experiences under occupation

by Paul Stein

Observant Polish Jews prior to World War I (source:

            This story is the story of occupations. More specifically, it aims to describe how Austrian, German, and Russian occupation shaped Polish Jews’ experiences. Prior to World War I, Poland had the largest Jewish population of any European country. Many Jews had settled here, under Catherine the Great and her Pale of Settlement, the specially designated area for Jewish settlement. During World War I, Polish Jews came under the occupation of three great armies: the Russian, Austrian (Austro-Hungarian), and the German. This story is the story of how these occupations affected Polish Jews, specifically Galician and Warsaw Jews.

Galicia on the eve of World War I (Credit:

            Our story begins in Galicia, in the southwest of Poland, an area under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years prior to World War I. However, within two weeks of the war’s beginning, Galicia was overrun by the Russian Army (Ansky, The Enemy at His Pleasure, 7).  Almost immediately, deportations of Galician Jews to the Russian interior began. They were seen as an “internal enemy,” along with ethnic Germans. Out of a population of nearly 1,000,000 Jews in the borderlands, somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 were deported (Polonsky, The Jews in Russia and Poland 1914-2008, 6). Here, the story switches from a broad, top-down story, to an intensely personal narrative written by S. Ansky. S. Ansky, also known as Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, was a Jewish playwright, best known for The Dybbuk, about a malevolent spirit. His book, The Enemy at His Pleasure, was originally published as The Destruction of Galicia after Ansky’s/Rappoport’s 1920 death. This memoir shows the horrors of the war and how the Jewish population reacted to the Russian and Austrian occupations.


The story now shifts briefly to Russian government records. These records describe deportations and investigations conducted by the Cheka, the Russian secret police responsible for authoring the anti-Semitic book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Cheka eventually morphed into the NKVD after the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin to power. After the Russians occupied Galicia, the Cheka began to keep records on “internal enemies,” encompassing Galician Jews. Moreover, their property was claimed as part of the Russian war effort (Vakareyliska, “Due Process in Wartime,”594-595), and the Jews deported. Unfortunately, these records are largely incomplete due to the ravages of time.  However, they still provide valuable insight into Russian attitudes towards the Jews.  

From the Cheka’s records, we now move back to a broader view with Alexander Prussin’s Nationalizing a Borderland, which covers Polish attitudes towards Galician Jews. Here, we see one of the low points of Russian-Jewish relations, which came in Lwow, just after the Russian Army occupied the area. After an unknown party shot at the Russians, wounding or killing one Russian (accounts vary), existing anti-Semitism was mobilized to claim that the Jews were resisting in support of the Austrians, which led to Cossacks, or mounted Russian troops, attacking the affluent Jewish areas in Lwow (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 30). Sadly, however, this was not the end. Later that night, Russian troops and the local populace stormed the Jewish quarter, looting Jewish homes and businesses. Ironically, after the pogrom’s merciful ending, several Jews were arrested and interrogated, as they were the “usual suspects” (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 31).

Unfortunately, this process repeated itself time and again during the Russian occupation, despite the fact that nearly 1,000,000 Jews served with the Russian Army during the First World War (Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia 1914-2008, 7). From these pogroms, we see that the Russians often mobilized existing anti-Semitism in order to further their goals. Fortunately for Galician Jews, the Russian occupation did not last indefinitely, and the Austrian army re-occupied Galicia in June 1915, after an offensive smashed the Russian lines (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 54). According to sources of the time, the Russian occupation resulted in the destruction of 50-70 percent of Jewish homes, and the destruction of the majority of synagogues and schools (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 62). As is plainly illustrated, Galician Jews suffered as a result of the Russian occupation. Fortunately, with the Austrian Army’s re-occupation, the story begins to take a somewhat happier turn.

            The story now moves toward a form of toleration between the Austrians, Poles, and Jews. While the Russians had been notoriously intolerant of the Jews, the Austrians minimally tolerated the Jews. Indeed, here, the story is told by Konrad Zielinski, a Polish diplomat and academic historian. Despite the nearly 1,000,000 Jews serving in the Russian Army, the Jews did not welcome them as liberators. Indeed, the Russian advance into Galicia seems to have been marked with a rather somber attitude (Ansky, The Enemy at His Pleasure, 5). However, Galician Jews seem to have widely welcomed the Austrians as liberators (Zielinski, “Polish-Jewish Relations,” 274). Unfortunately, the Poles seem to have used the Jews’ openness to Austrian occupation as an excuse to boycott Jewish businesses. Moreover, this openness led to an uptick in existing, though fairly negligible anti-Semitism. Despite this increase in anti-Semitism, our story also tells of an increase in Jewish rights.

            This increase in Jewish rights manifested itself in two separate ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, a joint decree of the German and Austrian thrones stated that all citizens of Poland were equal before the law, regardless of religious affiliation (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 68). Despite the restoration of rights, the Jews failed to become a nationally recognized minority, which dashed the hopes of some Jews. Becoming a nationally recognized minority would have been a highly important step in the quest for a national Jewish identity, as it would have provided protections that the Jews never had. Furthermore, the Austrian occupation temporarily restored Jewish agency, or the ability for a group to make its own decisions. While under the Russians, all Jewish organizations had been forced to cease operation, the Austrians freely permitted Jewish political and cultural organizations. With increased Jewish agency, however, came a growing enmity between Poles and Jews. This enmity unfortunately came to a head after the Austrian and German withdrawals, and led to a series of very violent, bloody pogroms.

            Secondly, the restoration of Jews to their civil service jobs was a massive leap for Jewish rights. While under the Russian occupation Jewish civil servants had been forced to leave their posts (as Russian civil service was patronage based), the Austrians quickly restored the Jews to their posts. However, this restoration did not last long. As 1915 became 1916, the Jews were gradually forced out in favor of the Poles. (Prussin, Nationalizing a Borderland, 68-69). While this was partially out of a need to control the territory, it also led to an increase in anti-Semitism. Rather than simply earning positions on the virtue of being Polish, the Poles were now forced to compete with Jews in order to obtain bureaucratic positions. Yet again, this increased anti-Semitism has ramifications after the 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which removed Russia from the war.

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw, destroyed 1943

  We have spent a fair amount of time talking about Galicia, and while Galicia is certainly important, it pales in comparison to Warsaw. Warsaw truly was the center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, and many highly influential Jewish works of art and literature originated there. It had the largest Jewish population of any city in Poland. For an excellent overview of Jewish Warsaw, please click here. For our purposes, I will discuss Warsaw strictly under the German occupation. While Warsaw was technically occupied by the Russian Army during World War I, we have already discussed the Russian Army extensively. In any case, the Russian occupation of Warsaw is very similar to the Russian occupation of Galicia. Warsaw provides an interesting case study for the (further) building of Polish-Jewish tensions and the concept of Jewish agency, which is, once again, the ability of a national group (or person) to make its own decisions.

            Unlike Galicia, the story of Warsaw is a much more nuanced one. Mass violence was rare, or non-existent, and Warsaw’s wartime experience came to be shaped by political factors. While Jewish politics in Warsaw had been contentious between 1900 and 1914, to the extent that factions arose on feelings of bitterness, World War I pushed the Varsovian Jewish political stage to new levels of division (Wrubel, The Twilight of Jewish Warsaw, 183). Indeed, the German military government, while attempting to build a joint German-Jewish government, ended up dividing Warsaw’s Jews even further.

            Prior to the First World War, there were four very rough political groups for Warsaw’s Jewry: the assimilationists, the nationalists, the socialists, and the Orthodox (Silber, “Political Program for Polish Jewry,” 213). The assimilationists supported joint Polish-Jewish identity, believing that Jewish identity came from religious practice, not minority designation. On the other side of the spectrum were the Orthodox, who believed that Jewish identity came from both religious practice as well as being set apart from normal Polish society (Silber, “Political Program for Polish Jewry,” 214). The war fractured the assimilationists, and brought new tensions into the previously (largely) homogenous Orthodox Jewish community. These newly found tensions were a direct result of the German occupation.

            The German occupation saw a number of changes. For the first time, the Jews were allowed to run for city council positions, giving them a much larger amount of agency than they had traditionally been accustomed to. The aforementioned German-Jewish government was designed not for any benevolent purpose, but merely because a German-Jewish government would, to some extent, help with Polish-German relationships, a key part of maintaining any occupied area for an amount of time (Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, 27). The 1916 election in Warsaw was part of this grand design to build a government that allowed maximal German-Jewish relations and maintained order.

            The story now goes to the 1916 election in Warsaw. In this election, Jewish elements won 15 of 90 seats, with the majority of seats going to assimilationist and Orthodox candidates. The elections were bitterly opposed by certain Zionist elements, but seeing as how the Zionists were a fairly minor part of Warsaw Jewry at the time, the opposition was fairly unimportant (Zielinski, “Poles and Jews in the Local Authorities of the Kingdom of Poland during WWI,” 126-127). However, this election, as well as other events, led to unfortunate occurrences in the Orthodox community.

            The Orthodox community of Warsaw, which was generally fairly united, divided into factions as a direct result of German interference in the political process. For example, in order to foster better relations between the Orthodox community and the German occupiers, the German management office sent two Orthodox rabbis. These men were named Emanuel Carbech and Pinchas Kohn. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to advise the German occupiers on how to interact with the Jewish populace. This mission led to the founding of Agudas Ho-Ortodoksim. (Grill, “Polticisation of Polish Jewry,” 229-230). This organization was intended to create a large Orthodox front against the Zionists and Folkists, the two other major Jewish movements in Poland at the time. Indeed, it was not only the Orthodox who understood the value of mobilizing the Orthodox- the Zionists believed the Orthodox to be extremely useful if mobilized (Grill, 230). Unfortunately, this attempt to mobilize the large, “Silent Majority” of the Orthodox was ultimately a failure

            Our story now draws to a close with the discussion of the effects of this attempt to politicize Varsovian Jewry. While the attempts were clearly admirable, they resulted in tensions (ironically) between the Orthodox and Zionists. According the Zionists, the German Orthodox rabbis were committing the most horrible, unforgiveable sin- attempting to assimilate into Polish society (Grill, 235). For many Jews, being Jewish was not just in the religious practices- it was in the separation from Polish society. On a personal level (I am an Orthodox Jew), I see nothing wrong with this assimilation. Regardless of my personal beliefs, the fact remains that this assimilation drove a wedge into the heart of the Warsaw Jewish community.

          Our story is now over, and through it, we have seen how the German, Russian, and Austrian occupations affected Polish Jews in both Galicia and Warsaw. The effects were varied, and in some cases, horrific. World War I, sadly, was only a preparation for the destruction of Polish Jewry during World War II. All that was accomplished during World War I vanished after the Germans and Austrians withdrew, and all that remained perished in the fires of the Holocaust.

Works Cited:

Ansky, S. The Enemy at His Pleasure. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002.

Grill, Tobias. “The politicisation of traditional Polish Jewry: Orthodox German rabbis and the founding of Agudas Ho-Ortodoksim and Dos yidishe vort in Gouvernement-General Warsaw, 1916–18.” East European Jewish Affairs 39 (August 2009): 227-247. Accessed November 11, 2014.     

Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia, Vol. 3 1914-2008. Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

Prussin, Alexander V. Nationalizing a Borderland: War, Ethnicity, and anti-Jewish violence in East Galicia: 1914-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Silber, Marcos. “Joint Political Program for the Jews of Poland during World War I,” Jewish History (2005): 211-226.

Vakareyliska, Cynthia M. “Due Process in Wartime? Secret Russian Police on the Forced Relocation of Russian Germans during World War I.” Nationalities Papers 37 (September 2009): 589-611. Accessed November 12, 2014

Wrubel, Piotr. “World War One: Twilight of Jewish Warsaw.” In The Jews of Warsaw, edited by Antony Polonsky, Israel Bartal, and Michael Steinlauf, 156-187. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1991.

Zielinski, Konrad. “The Poles and Jews in the Local Authorities of the Kingdom of Poland during the First World War.” Iggud: Selected Essays in Jewish Studies (2005): 123-134.

Zielinski, Konrad “Polish-Jewish Relations in the Kingdom of Poland during the First World War” Paper presented at VIII Congress of the European Association for Jewish Studies in Moscow, 23–27 July 2006.