Church and Jews
Christianity was initially regarded as a Judaic
sect. Jews could not accept it, however, because it was regarded as a
heresy, and Roman officials persecuted its adherents because the new
religion was in conflict with the official state cult.
The position of Christianity changed when it was recognized as the
official religion by Theodosius I in 380 and 390, which meant its
influence spread quickly; this also intensified its conflict with
Judaism. From the second century A.D., representatives of the Church and
Synagogue debated about the principles of faith.
In the fourth century, the Church was able to conduct extensive
missionary activities, one of whose aims was to gain Jewish converts.
Jews often appealed to the Pope for protection against forced baptisms.
Pope Gregory I issued the first such document in the late sixth century.
According to the teachings of St. Augustine, the Church allowed Jews to
have contact with Christians, and even required that they be protected
against persecution. The largest anti-Jewish waves came in the late
tenth and early eleventh centuries.
A fundamental change in Christian-Jewish relations occurred during
the Crusades, however, when pogroms ravaged many Communities; at this
time, many Jews were forcibly baptized. Church propaganda saw Jews as
the killers of Christ, which made it impossible for members of the two
religions to live side by side peacefully. Council legislation aimed to
limit their contact.
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, in which Archbishop Henryk
Kietlicz participated, called on the Christian population to sever
credit and trade contacts with Jews. The Jews were ordered to wear
special clothing that would make it easier to distinguish them from
Christians. Jews were banned from appearing on the streets on
Fridays--the day that Christ died. Monarchs were urged to introduce a
ban on the appointment of Jews to public offices and functions.
The decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council were implemented in
Poland as well. The Episcopal synod in Wroclaw in 1267 dealt with the
matter in detail. Christians were banned from feasting with Jews, and
from buying food products from them. It was suggested that there should
be separate Jewish neighborhoods, in order to limit their contact with
Christians, who were also forbidden from working in Jewish households.
These decisions were renewed in the diocesan synods, and the parish
priests were required to teach the faithful how they should treat Jews.
In 1420, in Kalisz, Archbishop Mikolaj Traba denounced Jewish usury.
At the sixteenth-century synods, bishops called on limits to be placed
on Jewish immigration to Poland. They noted that the restrictions on the
number of Jewish buildings and synagogues were not being observed, and
that Jews were still being appointed to public functions. The
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century synods demanded that further
restrictions be put on Jews' means of livelihood, accusing them of
pushing Christians out of trade and crafts. The employment of Christians
by "infidels" was condemned many times, and the Chelm synod in 1604
required parish priests to summon Jews employing Christian servants
before the wojewodzi�ski court.
The synods intervened in Communities' internal
and religious affairs, forbidding the printing of the Talmud, as well as
some ceremonies and rituals, such as those associated with the holiday
of Purim (purimshpil). The Church's views were reflected in anti-Jewish
literature, whose authors were for the most part clerics. The Church
initiated theological disputes between priests and rabbis, intended to
demonstrate Christianity's superiority over Judaism and help convert the
In Poland, such disputes took place in the sixteenth century, but
their aim was primarily to serve as a forum for the exchange of opinions
and views (Yitzhak of Troki, Jakub of Belzyce).
The disputes in Kamieniec (1757) and Lwow (1759) between Jews and
the Frankists (Frankism) were of a different nature. The Frankists tried
to prove, for example, that the "ritual murder accusations" were true.
The bishop of Kamieniec ordered the Talmud to be burned. As a result,
many Hebrew books and manuscripts were destroyed.
Nevertheless, everyday contacts between the Jews and Christians,
including clergymen, developed differently than what was officially
required by synod legislation. Many priests entrusted their savings to
Jewish merchants, who, like banks, would pay them yearly dividends on
those sums of money. In the eighteenth century, Communities with
financial troubles took loans from monasteries. From the second half of
the seventeenth century, Jews were settling on Church lands more often
(such as in Pultusk and Lowicz), and were granted privileges similar to
those they enjoyed on private noble estates (such as Kamionka, owned by
In Wielkopolska, Jews and parish priests jointly ran manufacturing
enterprises in the eighteenth century. Though such cases were rare, the
social isolation imposed by synodal legislation was nevertheless not
observed-neither by the majority of the faithful, nor by the clergy.
In Poland, missionary work among Jews was relatively weak;
conversions were few, and were for the most part took place under duress
as the result of religious persecution. Closed ghettos were not
established there, and many Jews held prominent positions in the economy
and frequently hired Christians.
In the late nineteenth century, the Polish Catholic clergy began to
be influenced by nationalism and anti-Semitism. During the interwar
period, many Church publications promoted the model Polak-katolik
[Pole-Catholic, i.e., Catholicism is inextricably linked with being
Polish - Ed.]; animosity towards Jews and Judaism was an integral part
of this model.
The Episcopate clearly supported the ideology of the "national
camp". Writing in a pastoral letter in 1936, the Primate of Poland,
Cardinal A. Hlond, accused Jews of having a "demoralizing influence" on
Poles, and recommended that Jews be socially and culturally isolated,
though he condemned racism and the use of force against them. In
practice, however, the anti-Semitic writings that expressed hatred of
Jews did encourage violence. The writings of Father S. Trzeciak are an
example of this.
During the Second World War, as the Holocaust
was underway, some orphanages run by convents hid Jewish children, and
priests issued forged baptismal certificates. Because aiding Jews was
punishable by death, such acts were clearly heroic, though sometimes
motivated by the hope that the children could be raised as Catholics. In
1944-1947, people were seized by a fear of "ritual murders"-a fear that
was encouraged by some priests. This undoubtedly contributed to the
many anti-Jewish attacks perpetrated by mobs that ended in tragedy, such
as those in Rzesz�w and Krak�w in 1945, and in Kielce in 1946.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Polish Church did not
immediately implement the changes in attitude towards Judaism and Jews
that it had recommended. In the 1980's, Clubs of the Catholic
Intelligentsia in several cities organized "Jewish culture weeks". As
part of the events, young people would help clean up Jewish cemeteries
and become acquainted with Jewish culture. In 1986, the Episcopate
created a Commission for Dialogue with Judaism, which led to the
foundation of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. It prepared a
program for religious education that reflected the achievements of
interfaith dialogue. The Church hierarchy, including Pope John Paul II,
officially asked Jews for forgiveness for the injustices the Church had
inflicted on them. Some Catholic priests in Poland nevertheless continue
to spread anti-Semitic views.