The early 1930s constituted an ambiguous moment for the roughly three million Jews that resided in the Polish Republic. On the one hand, as recent scholars have emphasized, Polish Jews found numerous opportunities to partake in flourishing cultural and political projects that spanned the ideological spectrum from Zionism to Yiddishism to Polish integrationism to various brands of socialism. In addition, Josef Pilsudski’s government – while by no means an ally to Polish Jewry – was the lesser of two evils compared to the explicitly anti-Semitic Endecja regime that ruled the country by the end of the decade. At the same time, however, trouble lurked around every corner. Polish Jews found their earning opportunities deeply limited, due to both economic depression and a widespread social prejudice that blocked them from getting jobs. Even more concerning, the rise of fascist politics – in Poland and abroad – made clear the fledgling state’s weaknesses, and cast a shadow of doubt over any sense that acceptance would prevail over national hatred. Polish Jews now grappled with the possibility that Jewish life in Eastern Europe might not be feasible going forward. What was to be done amidst these precarious circumstances? How was one to plan for the future, both as an individual and as a member of a minority community? How was one to handle the anxiety of unclear and multifarious dangers?
In his new volume An Unchosen People: Jewish Political Reckoning in Interwar Poland (Harvard UP, 2021), Kenneth Moss has resurrected the mentalité of those that struggled daily with these questions, illustrating what it meant for Polish Jews to grope for meaning in the face of constant uncertainty and real dread. To accomplish this task, Moss has assembled and examined an astounding breadth of documents produced by people from throughout Polish Jewish society. Readers will find analyses of Polish Jewish intellectual luminaries like Max Weinreich, Jacob Lestschinsky and Chaim Grade, each of whom allowed recent events to influence and mutate their understandings of Jewish life and community. Moss also shines a light on more common Jews that no less vociferously sought to forge practical and pragmatic solutions to their increasingly dire situations. The result is a monograph dedicated to the daily experience of minority life in the modern world; a world permeated by a sense of unease at what tomorrow might bring.James Benjamin Nadel is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Columbia University.