Poles and Jews in Wartime Scotland: Setting the Record Straight
Examining the complex relationship between Jews and Poles in Scotland during World War II.
The relationship between Jews and Poles in Scotland during the Second World War was deeply complex. In many ways the interactions were correct, even cordial at best, but fraught, hostile and potentially violent at worst and problems tended to follow the desperate wartime conditions. Attitudes followed patterns that had been formed during the many centuries of Jewish life in Poland and which in the twentieth century represented the greatest Jewish community in Europe. Poland’s three million Jews formed an important section of the country’s thirty million people, forming around a third of its urban population.
Jewish life in Poland was also diverse. Traditional religious life flourished in both rural and urban areas. This society that no longer exists in its homelands but echoes of it can be found in its extensive diaspora. Growing number of Jews assimilated into the Polish mainstream, adopting the Polish language in place of Yiddish and seeing themselves as ‘Poles of the Mosaic faith’. Some acculturated Jews retained aspects of their traditions while others went to so far as to convert to Christianity.
Poles and Jews came together in Scotland during the dark days of the Second World War while the Nazi Holocaust was decimating the Jewish community in Poland. At the same time, Polish cultural and intellectual life was being eliminated and the interplay of Jewish and Polish tragedies was to have ramifications well beyond Poland’s boundaries. They met each other in Scotland mainly in the Polish Army in exile, but also in the Polish School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
The Polish Army in Scotland
Following the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk units of the Polish Army in west joined their British allies. Poles living in France and Belgium had enlisted to aid these countries in their fight against Nazi Germany and in time they were joined by soldiers who had managed to travel, by various circuitous routes passing through Hungary and Romania, to reach Western Europe before the fall of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. After the invasion of Russia by the German Army in 1941, interned Polish soldiers were released from captivity in the Gulag, and were able to make their way through Iraq, Iran to British Palestine from where lengthy travel routes to Britain were available. All of these groups of soldiers contained some Jews.
A further, and much smaller, group of Poles who had served with the Wehrmacht and were captured in North Africa at the end of November 1941 were allowed to join the Polish Army in Britain rather than become prisoners of war. Their nationalist ideology was often blamed for exacerbating what was already a tense situation between Poles and Jews in the Polish ranks. However, complaints about Polish anti-Semitism in the military based in Britain began almost as soon as the first units of the Polish Army arrived in Scotland.
The Polish Army was in Scotland to defend the North Sea coast from hostile enemy activity. In practice, there was little to do but drill and prepare for the eventual invasion of Normandy and the liberation of occupied Europe, which did not occur until 1944. These four long years of training took their toll. One of the first Jews to complain of anti-Semitism in the Polish Army was the writer, journalist and left-wing political activist Isaac Deutscher who was in Britain when War began. In 1940 he joined the Polish Army in Scotland, but most of his ‘army life’ was spent in the Polish detention camp on the Isle of Bute near Rothesay. He was classified as a ‘dangerous and subversive element’ – what his wife described as the return for his unceasing protests against ‘the anti-Semitism rampant in that army’.
Tensions between Poles and Jews rose during 1943 and 1944 with serious concerns about anti-Semitism in the Polish Army. By this stage there were around 1,000 Jewish soldiers out of a total of about 30,000 Polish servicemen based in Scotland. The Jewish soldiers had reached the Polish Army from Russia, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland and South America. Jews, serving in the Polish Army, were also becoming a noticeable part of the Jewish community in Scotland.
During 1943 various claims of anti-Semitism in the Polish Army were brought to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Board leaders held regular meetings with British officials as well as the most senior members of the Polish Government-in-Exile armed with details of specific complaints made by individual soldiers. The Board felt that the accusations need investigated and this was carried out by Ignacy Schwarzbart, one of two Jewish representatives on the Polish National Council of the Polish Government-in-Exile.
Schwartzbart took evidence from all the complainants but found little substance in them with only one case that could be substantiated. He followed this up by asking the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council to investigate. Statements were made by the Jewish soldiers that they had been told by their comrades that when the war was over ‘they would finish Hitler’s job and cut the throats of the rest of them.’ The conclusion from Glasgow was that most of the evidence they received was unsubstantiated hearsay though they did feel that there were units where anti-Semitism was significant while there were others where no problems had emerged.
The Polish military authorities did have some significant sanctions they could impose on miscreants. Their bases were sovereign Polish territory and a detention camp was set up, as noted, to hold political prisoners, petty criminals and so-called ‘undesirables’. Conditions were harsh and punishments often severe. Further centres were established at Auchterarder and Tighnabruach, and later also at Inverkeithing, and it was claimed that many of the inmates were Jewish. Simon Webb described these detention centres and army prisons as 'concentration camps' in his book British Concentration Camps: A Brief History from 1900 – 1975, published in 2016, but most reviewers have considered that the case for the term was not proven, citing the absence of slave labour and policies which promoted starvation and disease.
Schwarzbart commented, during a visit to Glasgow in April 1943, that the information given by the Jewish soldiers was, in the main, fairly reliable though some of it seemed likely exaggerated. There is clear archival evidence that Schwarzbart was prepared to stand his ground in the Polish National Council when Jewish concerns were raised. At the same time, he regularly counselled Jewish soldiers to give him time to sort out the issues which were troubling them. The situation changed with a wave of Jewish desertions from the Polish Army as Jewish soldiers sought to enlist in the British Army. In January 1944, a group of 68 Jewish soldiers, visiting London on a weekend break from bases in Scotland, demanded to be transferred to the British Army. A quiet transfer took place as did a further transfer after the desertion of a further 136 soldiers in February 1944. The Jewish bodies were divided about what action to take: returning the men to their units was not a practical suggestion. When a third group, of 31 soldiers, deserted the following month the Polish Army took action and the men were tried, convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment. The sentencing caused an outcry both in Britain and America.
Schwartzbart recorded in his diaries his feeling that the Poles actually preferred to have the Jews leave the Polish Army while giving the impression that they did not want them to do so. Schwarzbart, like the Board of Deputies, was unhappy that the matter was taken up in Parliament by left-wing MPs led by Tom Driberg as they were worried about the effect of publicity on already troubled relationships between Poles and Jews. The Polish Foreign Minister, Tadeusz Romer, known for his positive attitude to Poland’s Jews, tried unsuccessfully to get some of the anti-Semites tried.
General Marian Kukiel promised the deserters that the charges would be reduced to absence without leave, which carried a much smaller penalty, but in the end the men were amnestied. There had been previous Jewish desertions from the Polish Army before, especially as the troops of Anders’ Army passed through Palestine after leaving Russia. Many Jewish soldiers had experienced anti-Semitism on the journey from Russia and felt that they should remain in Palestine. Poles saw these desertions as a lack of loyalty to Poland.
The Jewish Polish Army chaplain Rabbi Heszel Klepfiscz’s memoir made no mention of anti-Semitism recalling the provision for Jewish observances at the Army bases and the role of the Jewish soldiers in the liberation of Europe. One of them, Henryk Seid, was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest decoration for bravery on the battlefield.
The Polish School of Medicine (PSM)
There had been a strong culture of anti-Semitism at the Polish medical schools in the inter-war years. Jews particularly favoured careers in medicine and law but the increasing anti-Semitic atmosphere led to quotas on Jews studying medicine and those that were admitted were submitted to humiliating conditions, such as the ‘ghetto benches’ in lecture halls and sometimes exposed them to violence from racist gangs on campus. Many Jews enrolled in medical schools abroad.
The University of Edinburgh agreed to the formation of a Polish Medical School in November 1940, organised according to Polish university regulations, taught substantially in Polish. Accordingly, the Polish Army transferred around 22 professors and their assistants along with 25 medical graduates and 15 undergraduates to inaugurate the School. There was a significant Jewish presence at the PSM, both in the student body and in the faculty members. One of the leading figures was a Jewish convert to Christianity, namely Jakub (Rothfeld) Rostowski (1884-1971), Professor of Neurology and the last Dean of the PSM. The staff of 24 teachers at the PSM included four Jews, namely Jerzy Figler, Henryk Reiss, Leon Lakner, and Antoni Fidler. Of the 361 students at the PSM 34 were identified as Jewish and a further six had Jewish origins, making a proportion similar to the Jewish proportion of the Polish population at the outset of War in September 1939. One of the outstanding graduates of the PSM was Hannah Segal (nee Poznanska) whose background exemplifies the Jewish assimilation in Poland. Her father, Czeslaw Poznanski, officially converted to Catholicism in 1905 to prove his Polish loyalty during the 1905 Revolution and her mother, Izabella Weintrob, who came from a more traditional Jewish family, converted before their wedding.
Accusations of anti-Semitism at the PSM began to appear in 1943, and Michal Palacz found that some Polish post-war memoirs do provide some indications of possible trouble with students who had been active in student racist groupings in pre-war Poland. It was also claimed that Jewish students had to sit at separate tables at mealtimes, echoing the ghetto benches at pre-war medical schools in Poland. The Board of Deputies and Ignacy Schwartzbart followed this up and could get no confirmation of the story. The further allegation of a Jewish quota was clearly untrue, but it was confirmed that an anti-Semitic, and illegal, journal called Walka was circulating.
These claims led to a letter being sent by some 21 Jewish students to the Dean of the PSM specifically denying all these charges, saying that relations between Polish students were ‘friendly and frequently cordial’. Other students remembered things differently and acknowledged the presence of anti-Semitism at the PSM, though accepting that it was usually not direct as the Poles were aware that this was frowned upon in Britain.
The relations between ethnic Poles and Jews were, as noted, complex, ranging from friendly to accusations of anti-Semitism, some possibly of a violent nature. Most of the accusations were hard to substantiate, despite detailed investigations. The perception was, for many, of an uncomfortable atmosphere, which led to almost a quarter of the Jewish soldiers enlisting in the British Army.
The watchful eye of the British authorities ensured that the Poles had to take their commitment to equality of treatment seriously. Concentration Camps entered the English language with the British treatment of enemy civilians during the Boer War, but it was murderous regime of the Nazi Concentration Camps which has coloured the use of the term.
There were no Polish concentration camps in Scotland but there were army prisons and internment camps where opponents of the regime, criminals, homosexuals and miscreants were dealt with, strictly sometimes harshly.
The following assisted in this research: the Centre for Research Collections at Edinburgh University Library; the Archives of the Polish School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh; Michal Palacz, doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh; the Archives at Yad Vashem; the Board of Deputies of British Jews archives; the Archives Section at the National Library of Israel; the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.