The Polish Women Who Saved Jews in WWII, Only to Be Called 'Russian Prostitutes' in Israel

Israel's Law of Return, now 70 years old, allowed thousands of non-Jewish Polish women to come over with their Jewish husbands. Some wished they had never come

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An immigrant from Poland working in the metal factory at Kibbutz Ma'abarot in the 1950s.
An immigrant from Poland working in the metal factory at Kibbutz Ma'abarot in the 1950s.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israel's first years were filled with challenges and difficulties that the newspapers examined every day; the headlines tell of the fragile economy and security threats. But alongside these worries was another perceived menace: the immigration of male Holocaust survivors and their non-Jewish wives who had saved them from death.

“A surge of mixed marriages and uncircumcised boys,” Yedioth Ahronoth proclaimed, while Maariv described how “hundreds of complicated human problems, created as a result of mixed marriages, have swept to Israel’s shores.”

These reports tell of thousands of non-Jewish women, the majority of them Polish, who after risking their lives to protect their men during the Holocaust married them and linked their lives to the Jewish people.

But some Israelis likened the newcomers to the “plague of foreign women” described in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

“The number of articles and range of periodicals that published them point to an anxiety about Israel’s character that cut across all groups,” says Prof. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, the head of the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Rosenberg-Friedman studied these articles that filled the country’s newspapers during the ‘50s. She says the anxiety was rooted in the threat to Israel’s identity as the state of the Jewish people as expressed in the Law of Return.

The law, enacted in 1950, stipulates that a Jew born abroad who seeks to settle in Israel is considered a member of the Jewish people returning to the homeland.

New immigrants from Poland in Pardes Hannah in the 1950s.Credit: Hugo Mendelson / GPO

And what about the (non-Jewish) wives of Jewish men who claim the right of return? The law as passed on July 5, 1950 made no mention of them. The fact that they came over proves that the authorities interpreted the law liberally.

This interpretation received the force of law when it was amended in 1970 to extend the right of return and the rights following from it to the non-Jewish spouse, children and grandchildren of a Jewish immigrant.

This week, MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Yamina party introduced an amendment that would prohibit the non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews from immigrating under the Law of Return, preventing, as he called it, the immigration of “goyim with no ties to Judaism.”

Smotrich withdrew the bill when he realized he was the only lawmaker who supported it, but his fear of non-Jewish grandchildren is the direct continuation of the 1950s newspapers’ anxiety about “mixed marriages.”

Both the grandchildren and the marriages were a threat to the foundational principle of Israel as the Jewish state. In both cases, women were the main source of the perceived danger.

“In Israel, the unity and the continuity of the Jewish people is the responsibility of the women,” Rosenberg-Friedman says. “ Non-Jewish mothers are seen as a threat to the Jewish collective. In Jewish religious law, the identity of the mothers defines the national identity of their children.”

Did the non-Jewish wives of Jewish Holocaust survivors convert to Judaism in order to “solve” the problem? Did their non-Jewish children do so? The current study doesn’t answer these questions, it focuses on the women’s struggle to adapt to life in Israel.

New immigrant Etka Berman, right, buying vegetables in the 1950s. Credit: Hugo Mendelson / GPO

‘Russian whore’

Alongside their love for their Jewish husbands, these women had practical reasons for immigrating to Israel. Some sought refuge from a communist regime, others were enchanted by the stories of the Promised Land.

A woman named Grazyna, for example, whose life in Poland was bitter and difficult, was very excited when her Jewish husband raised the idea of immigrating to Israel. She was promised “a warm, exotic land, luxurious villas, attractive offers,” as Maariv reported in 1958 under the headline “The Double Life of Grazyna.”

Another woman, Maria, was told about “Israeli democracy and the free life in the Jewish country,” while “the people here live as they do in fairy tales.” Jadwiga, meanwhile, fantasized about “heaven on earth” under the sun that shines nearly every day, as the newspaper Haboker reported in its 1959 article “The Jewish Easter.”

But after they arrived in the Holy Land, many were disappointed to discover that in Israel they were viewed as a great threat, not the rescuers of their Jewish partners in the Holocaust.

The disapproval for these non-Jewish women was apparent already in Europe as the emigrants prepared to leave for Israel. “Why are you so stupid as to drag a goya with you to the Holy Land instead of bringing a kosher Jewish woman?” someone asked the bewildered husband of Helena, who had rescued him in the Holocaust, causing her to burst into tears. The story was reported in Davar in 1957 under the headline “A Tragedy Called Mixed Families.”

Immigrants from Poland and Hungary in the 1950s.Credit: Hugo Mendelson / GPO

In a different piece in Davar, a woman was quoted as saying through her tears, “I’m not happy here. I face discrimination everywhere. People constantly remind me that I’m Polish.”

One woman, a professional midwife, said an employment agency official told her, “A non-Jew can settle for working as a house cleaner, you don’t need to work as a nurse.” Paulina, who lived with her disabled husband in a transit camp near Netanya, was fired from her factory job filling bottles of wine as a result of pressure on religious grounds.

“Have you ever heard such a thing?” asked the husband in a 1958 article in Hatzofeh. “Jews who always and rightfully fought against being hurt and humiliated are now doing the same to others? Is such a thing proper in a democratic country in the second half of the 20th century? Is such a thing humane?”

According to some of the reports, the women were often called derogatory names such as “goyish fool,” “Russian shiksa” or “Russian whore.” Minor spats such as a disagreement over a loaf of bread in the corner grocery sometimes took an ugly religious-ethnic turn, with remarks like “Have you ever seen a Polish pig get so brash?” and “Look at her, if she doesn’t like it here she can go, the goya.”

The desire of some of these women to preserve their traditions seems to have exacerbated the tensions. Some, for example, put up crucifixes or pictures of Jesus and Mary in their homes, not to mention the Christmas tree.

Chaim Mitzenmacher, a new immigrant from Poland, in Israel's early years. Credit: David Eldan / GPO

Memories of the bloodlands

But there was more to the angst than a fear of Jews' assimilation into the larger Christian world. For some new Israelis, mainly Holocaust survivors, these women were a reminder of Nazi-occupied Europe. “The non-Jewish women, most of whom were from Poland, reminded them of the terrible trauma of the injustices in their homeland,” Rosenberg-Friedman says.

The women “came from Poland to a society where many people had lost their families in Poland in a particularly cruel way. These women, in their appearance, language and manners, were an immediate reminder of these injustices. The Israelis couldn’t bear this. It wasn’t fear but a kind of revulsion, even hatred.”

Rosenberg-Friedman published an article on the issue in the latest issue of The Journal of Israeli History: “Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Gender: The Integration of Non-Jewish Polish Women into Israeli Society as Documented in the Hebrew Newspaper, 1956–1960.” She also mentions the historical context.

She notes “the first decade of the state that had just been established and was dealing with a myriad of problems, the greatest of which, after a bloody war, was the integration of huge numbers of immigrants, doubling the [Jewish] population in a very brief time from a wide variety of countries, worldviews, values and social norms.”

Against this backdrop was the need to reinforce the collective identity to increase Israel’s social solidarity, she says. There was thus a need for an “enemy at the gates” or at least an Other that could help shape a new identity.

“There was no possibility during that period to accept Others,” Rosenberg-Friedman says. “They were needed to draw the boundaries of national identity. Israeli society, which was in a struggle for survival, wasn’t available practically, psychologically and emotionally to create an appropriate relationship with the Other.”

Still, most of the non-Jewish women “were fully integrated into the Israeli reality and eagerly accepted its customs, like Ruth the Moabite,” a Davar op-ed put it, despite its sinister title: “The Aryan Side of Israel.”

There were even instances when the newcomers’ integration was portrayed as idyllic. “In most cases, the non-Jewish woman in Israel is a better Jew, a better Zionist, a better citizen than her Jewish husband,” according to one Davar writer. These descriptions stressed that unlike the husband who was born into the faith, the non-Jewish wife made a conscious decision to join the Jewish nation.

And even today, 70 years after the Law of Return was passed, the topic makes headlines.

Rosenberg-Friedman mentions two famous mixed couples today. The first is a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish man, the Israeli news anchor Lucy Aharish and the Israeli actor Tsahi Halevi. The second  features a Jewish woman, the Israeli singer Daniella Pick, and her Catholic-born American husband, Quentin Tarantino.

In the first case, in which the “future mother” is Muslim, even in the 21st century many people warned about the alleged danger to Jewish identity. In the second case, where the mother is Jewish, “there’s no threat,” as Rosenberg-Friedman says.

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