This Day in Jewish History

1936: Pogrom Erupts in Przytyk, for Which Jews Would Be Blamed

A Jew fired the first shot to ward off Poles attacking his home, and would be sentenced to 8 years.

Jewish graves in the Polish town of Przytyk, where Jews would take the brunt of blame for the pogrom that erupted on March 9, 1936.
Rafał Terkner, Wikimedia Commons

March 9, 1936, is the date on which intercommunal violence between Jews and non-Jews in the Polish town of Przytyk led to the deaths of three people and the wounding of more than 20. Two of the dead were Jews, and one was a non-Jew.

The incident is generally referred to by Jewish historians as the Przytyk Pogrom, although riot may be more fitting. Anti-Semitism was behind the series of events that led to the violence, but the violence itself was spontaneous, rather than a planned attack. Some contemporary Polish historians have even suggested that the violence was initiated by Jews, and thus that they were responsible for the loss of life.

Whatever one calls it,  the event in Przytyk, which took place more than three years prior to the German occupation of Poland, was hardly a solitary event. Historian Joanna Michlic, author of Polands Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present (2006), has identified four waves of anti-Jewish violence in Poland during the interbellum period.

In the fourth of these waves, between 1935 and 1937, the Jews of 150 different towns and villages were victims of aggression. In Polish universities, as well, there was an ongoing effort – by students – to isolate and even banish the Jews among them, and several political parties purveyed a steady anti-Jewish message, with the overall goal being to hasten Jewish emigration from the country. During the same period, between 20 and 30 Jews were killed by racial violence, and some 2,000 were wounded.

Rising tensions between 'Poles' and 'Jews'

Prior to World War II, Przytyk, a village in Radom County, in central Poland, had some 3,000 residents, 90 percent of them Jews. Despite its small size, it was a regional trading center. On the day of the pogrom, Przytyk hosted a large fair, an annual event that drew some 2,000 peasants to the village.

Tension had been rising between Poles and Jews (who, though they had citizenship, were usually not referred to as "Poles"). The Endecjna (National Democracy) party was encouraging people to boycott Jewish-owned businesses, and to set up alternatives to them that would be owned by non-Jews. In response, some Jews flooded the market with products, pushing prices down to a level that made it hard for the newcomers to compete.

In Przytyk, Jews had also recently organized a self-defense organization, arming themselves and training with weapons.

Anticipating friction, the police beefed up their presence in Przytyk on March 9. They did manage to prevent significant confrontations throughout the morning, though there were cases of the market stalls of Jews being overturned. 

By afternoon, however, matters got out of hand. A number of Jewish businesses were attacked, the Jewish defense group responded, and three non-Jews were wounded. Skirmishes turned into riots, and crowds began to attack Jewish-owned homes.

At one point, when a mob began shattering the windows of a residence at 53 Warszawski Street, a defense league member living there fired into street from his window, killing a non-Jew, Stanislaw Wiesniak. In the ensuing chaos, a Jewish couple, Josek and Khaye Minkowski, were killed too.

'Moral responsibility'

The bloody events led to numerous arrests and in June to the trials of 14 Jews and 42 non-Jews. The Jew who shot Stanislaw Wiesniak was sentenced to eight years in prison, and two others convicted of using firearms received sentences of five and six years, respectively while the non-Jews charged with the killing of the Minkowskis were acquitted.

In general, the court was much harder on the Jewish defendants than on the non-Jews, and in its decision, it also placed moral responsibility on the towns Jews for what happened that day.

Yet, in the wake of the Przytyk Pogrom, Polish authorities began to respond more forcefully to attacks on Jews, and the number of such incidents declined – until the Nazi onslaught began a few years later. According to the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Europe, the creation of a Jewish defense group played the role of deterring future assaults.

The 1938 song Our Town Is Burning, by Mordechai Gebirtig, was written in response to the Przytyk pogrom, and during the Holocaust, became an anthem sung by Jews in the Nazi ghettoes.