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Hygiene and Integrationism among Polish Jews

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The feuilleton begins with references to well-known contemporary Polish novels which mention poverty among Jews. Writer Leon Lichtenbaum uses these texts to discuss the poor hygienic standards among Jews. It is a reference to a wider discussion happening at the time about relation between the spread of diseases and lack of hygiene. It is also a reference to the antisemitic stereotype of the dirty, stinky Jew. The feuilleton exhibits a paternalistic approach towards lower Jewish classes. It is also a mixture of different topics, hints, cultural references, and satire.

Title (English)

Hygiene and Integrationism among Polish Jews

Title (original)


Date Issued

March 14, 1902

Place issued



Content type



Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała


Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała

Copyright status

no known copyright



Jewishness, antisemitism, modernity, poverty, hygiene, fiction

Original Text


Ln Lm [Leon Lichtenbaum], “Hygiene and Integrationism among Polish Jews,” 1902. Translated by Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała

“Do you know that tale? – We do. –

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So, let’s listen.”1 I use this paraphrase of the immortal Jowialski to ask you, gracious readers, a question: Do you know Ludzie bezdomni by Żeromski? Do you know Z minionych dni by Daniłowski? – We do. So… read them again.2 Because these are really valuable pearls of contemporary literature. They can definitely be described by the beautiful aphorism of the author of “Quo vadis”: “Sensitive souls of artists are like a pearl shell, when a grain of sand falls into them, they give it back in the form of a pearl.”3 Yet, in the souls’ shells of the abovementioned novelists, by God’s grace the real masters of the word, fell many grains of human pain. But only one of the grains, the little one, was sorrow and compassion for the poor and backward masses of the chosen people. When you read those novels for the first time, you experience aesthetic pleasure, thanks to their highly artistic form. Yet, when you read them for the second time, this feeling fades into the background, while in the foreground a reflection appears and thoughts that were deeply hidden in a corner of our souls are awakened. Żeromski gives a full image of Dante’s inferno of metropolitan poverty. Daniłowski, quite the contrary, gives a rather impressionistic, poor in details, sketch of Jewish masses from a small town, immersed in backwardness and stagnation. “A different world! An unknown world!” – shouts the deeply-touched-by-the-view protagonist of Daniłowski, who is an involuntary onlooker of a scene with a “tzadik” (the author calls him “magid,” which means a preacher rather than a miracle worker). Sadly, those words are painfully echoed in our hearts as well, because we don’t know this separate world that isolates itself from us with a wall of backwardness and superstition. Oh, will ever a Röntgen of spirit appear, who will discover yet unknown rays of light that can penetrate that wall?4

But “worms are breeding also in lush flowers.”5 Who knows, maybe the backwardness, though not dirty, but clean and elegant, nests in spheres considered to be intelligentsia, blooming from civilization and progress? When a tzadik-miracle-worker promises a patient he will pray for them, most often he also sends them to a doctor, who is thought to be a middleman between a patient and God’s healing grace. The prayers, then, are aimed at God to inspire the doctor and show him the best healing method. How far such an understanding of a prayer is from a charlatan’s Eddism? The newest mania (I’m sorry for the phrasing) simply contradicts any need to skillfully treat patients according to medical rules. Just like that, it has a proper prayer (in books that cost so and so), that itself is meant to heal any illness without exception, without limiting itself to neurotic indispositions, in which case faith can work miracles. And it is really hard to believe that Eddism6 sat back in Berlin, the city which makes a claim to be the “New Athens.” It is just unbelievable that such a phenomenon can exist in a country proud of its culture, where you have to look for illiterate people with a candle, no – with an electric lamp!7 And those are Germans who boastfully claim that it was not Bismarck8 nor Moltke9 who defeated the French in 1870, but a modest “Schulmeister.” Was this “teacher” supposed to have a special power to destroy “eternal enemies,” and, well, torture helpless children from Września, but was he too weak to fight superstition and backwardness?10

“Light, more light,” the great Goethe was presumably shouting just before his death. And his followers claim that by “light” he meant education as the basis for progress and improvement of the human race. It would be equal to the words from Słowacki’s Testament: “But I beseech you — there is hope while there is breath. Do lead the nation with a wisdom's torch held high.”11

There are, though, skeptics who claim that before his death Goethe was blind and that he begged for more light in the room quite literally... It seems to me that such a misunderstanding is not possible with the slogan “Water, more water!” that the Department of Folk Baths announced recently in our town.12 I don’t think anyone would say that it was about more water for journalists, in order to dilute their elucubrations, because they are already like a bottomless sea in which logic and sense are often lost. More water (and soap) is needed by the Department for children from poor strata of the society. For now, it tries to organize at least one bath a week for children from orphanages, nurseries, and classes held by Warsaw Charitable Society.13 When we consider that a clean body and skincare are some of the crucial conditions for the normal physical education of children, and the health of future generations, we must be sorrowful and sad when we see the many dirty, unwashed children among our fellow believers. It must be said that financial issues are not the most crucial element here. Quite the opposite, it is just so that admiration for cleanness is lesser among poor Jewish masses than among others on the same financial level. It is obviously easy to indicate the reasons for such an indifference to order, cleanness, and tidiness. And just one word – ghetto – explains a lot… Sometimes when I recall how much emphasis was put on baths and cleanness of the body in Moses’s rules, and how this hygienic institution, though linked with ritual goals, degenerated later, I am truly upset.14 It is a feeling I cannot quite name, but it seems to me that it must be the same feeling that an aesthete, sensitive to beauty, feels when they see a flower…in a patch of mud. Such a glorious and hygienic rule of washing one’s hands before a meal has degenerated so that the concern for cleanness disappeared from it. Now, in view of senseless ritualism, rubbing a damp wall with the top of one’s fingers means washing one’s hands!

That is why we Jews have an even bigger duty imposed on us, to collaborate and to act individually in the direction indicated by the Department of Folk Baths, though – let’s say it in advance – one has to be prepared for huge problems. Apparently, people of goodwill, who were trying to introduce weekly baths in cheders, were confronted with accusations that the issue is unchaste and not innocent at all, and that it “must have been” an undercover attack on religion. It is sad, unspeakably sad!

So, let’s change the topic. A local Jew, who spent a long time abroad, met a friend from his hometown and he started asking him questions about Warsaw. He didn’t, though, hear anything good. He heard that a fellow fell down and cut his leg, and that the other also fell down, but he… cut and ran, etc. Our protagonist didn’t like sad topics and he usually tried to direct such smalltalk to happier matters. So, this time he did the same, asking the question: “What are they playing in the theater today?” – “Wallenstein’s death!”15 – the joker answered without hesitation. One can imagine the face of our nosy fellow with his long nose becoming even longer. Well, I’m afraid that a change of topic can end just as badly for you, readers, so I will limit myself to repeating a short conversation that I overheard. A. “Have you been to the synagogue today?” – B. “Oh yes, I have, and I’m telling you, I spent two fantastic hours there. Oh yes, two hours. Because it is just a real artistic feast, like theater…”

  1. Pan Jowialski (Mr Jovial) is a comedy by Aleksander Fredro, staged in 1832 (Alina Witkowska, Ryszard Przybylski Romantyzm, (Warsaw: PWN, 2002), 552). Lichtenbaum alludes to Jowialski’s storytelling, which is known for repetitiveness and not listening to his listeners’ answers. Even if they know the story, Jowialski tells it again. Aleksander Fredro presented Jowialski as an elderly, old-fashioned, jovial, and slightly childish protagonist. Henryk Markiewicz, “Lekcje Pana Jowialskiego,” Pamiętnik Literacki “XC, issue 3 (1999): 153-166, here 153. 
  2. References to the Polish novels Z minionych dni by Gustaw Daniłowski (1902) and Ludzie bezdomni by Stefan Żeromski’s (1900). 
  3. A Reference to Henryk Sienkiewic’s 1905 novel, Quo vadis, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1905.  
  4. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895 (The Nobel Prize, Wilhelm Röntgen biographical, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1901/rontgen/biographical/). 
  5. Antoni Malczewski, Maria: Powieść ukraińska (1825), I, verse 733-734. 
  6. This reference is unclear. 
  7. Lichtenbaum uses a word play with a Polish phrase: to look for something with a candle, meaning that illiterate people are few and far between. This word play emphasizes once again a high level of civilisation, with electricity used instead of candles. 
  8. Otto von Bismarck was the Prussian prime minister between 1862-1873 and 1873-90. He was instrumental in building the German Empire. In the context of Polish history, he became a symbol of Germanisation and anti-Polish policies. Britannica, “Otto von Bismarck”: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Otto-von-Bismarck/Domestic-policy. 
  9. Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke was chief of the Prussian and German General Staff, who reformed the army, making it extremely effective in the Franco-German war of 1870. Britannica, “Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke”: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Helmuth-von-Moltke/Chief-of-the-general-staff. It is probably a reference to the fact that the Prussian education system had a significant impact on the French education system, hence the term “schulmeister.” Eric Sangar, “Learning from the Prussian Schulmeister? German Influences on French Primary Education Before and After 1870,” in Diffusion in Franco-German Relations, ed. Eric Sangar (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 123-145. 
  10. In March and April 1901, children from Catholic School in Września started their protest against Germanisation and a new regulation that ordered schools to teach religion and music in the German language. Children answered in Polish and did not obey the teachers. They were punished by whipping and by an arrest. Their action became widely known and they became a symbol of Polish resistance to Germanisation. See https://muzeum.wrzesnia.pl/strajk-szkolny-1901-r.html. 
  11. Citation from Juliusz Słowacki’s poem My Testament, trans. Jarek Zawadzki, https://wolnelektury.pl/katalog/lektura/slowacki-my-testament.html.  
  12. Wydział Kąpieli Ludowych, one of the departments of Warsaw Charitable Society that was aimed at organising baths to the poorest members of society, especially children, was established in 1891; Dzieje Warszawskiego Towarzystwa Dobroczynności, 1814-1849, http://www.schorr.pl/images/wystawy/ressacramiser/PlanszeResSacraMiser.pdf 
  13. Warszawskie Towarzystwo Dobroczynności [Warsaw Charitable Society] was established in 1814 by Zofia Czartoryska and other members of Polish elites in order to fight poverty. With years it grew and had various departments dealing with different issues. (Bożena Urbanek, “Towarzystwa Dobroczynności na ziemiach polskich w XIX stuleciu”, Medycyna Nowożytna 10/1-2 (2003): 99-119). 
  14. By Moses’ rule [przepisy mojżeszowe] Lichtenbaum means the Talmud. 
  15. A reference to Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama Wallenstein. Wallenstein’s Tod [Wallenstein’s Death] is the last part of the three-part drama depicting the life of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a General in the army of the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War. Britannica, “Wallenstein”: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Wallenstein.  


Ln Lm [Leon Lichtenbaum], “Hygiene and Integrationism among Polish Jews,” 1902. Commentary by Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała

This feuilleton was written by Leon Lichtenbaum and published in the Polish-Jewish newspaper Izraelia in 1902. It is structured around a series of references to well-known contemporary Polish novels which center on poverty among Jews.

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In the opening, Lichtenbaum asks his readers: “Do you know that tale?” and, despite their answer, he retorts “So, let’s listen.” This is an allusion to Mr. Jowialski, a comedy by Aleksander Fredro that was staged in 1832.1 Here, Lichtenbaum recalls Jowialski’s way of story-telling, which is known for repetitiveness and disregard for his listeners, so that even if they already know the story and inform Jowialski, he tells it once again anyway. In doing so, Lichtenbaum plays with the reader, asking a rhetorical question like the fictional character, but unlike him, he does not just repeat the story. Rather, Lichtenbaum requires the reader to read it again, suggesting that the reader did not properly understand the story. The reference to the well-known play by a renowned author draws the reader’s attention to the matter at hand. Lichtenbaum, thus, uses a light tone to discuss a serious issue.

Lichtenbaum proceeds by inquiring if his readers are familiar with two additional novels. Stefan Żeromski’s Ludzie bezdomni (Homeless People), published in 1900 to an enthusiastic critical reception, explores whether it is possible to be socially and ideologically engaged while maintaining a happy private life at the same time. His protagonist’s answer was that one should privilege ideology over private life. The novel became a model for social and political activists in the early twentieth century.2 Another novel is Z minionych dni (From the past days) by Gustaw Daniłowski, published in 1902. A bildungsroman of a fighter for independence, the novel centers on a protagonist that was based on Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), a statesman and leader of the Polish Socialist Party who was dubbed “the father of the Second Polish Republic.” Like Ludzie bezdomni, it questions the relationship between personal happiness and the fight for “the cause.”3

There are many other intertextual allusions throughout the feuilleton. Lichtenbaum refers to Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), a prolific Polish novelist. Sienkiewicz wrote primarily historical novels that were meant to provide encouragement and inspiration for Poles suffering from repression by the Russian and Prussian authorities. For Quo vadis, which Lichtenbaum cites, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1905.4 He also recites the line “worms are breeding also in lush flowers,” which is a quotation from the poetic novel Maria: Powieść ukraińska (Maria: A Ukrainian novel) by Antoni Malczewski, published in 1825.5 Adding to the array of Polish literati, Lichtenbaum also refers to German authors Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Mixing different topics, cultural references, and satire, Lichtenbaum discusses poor hygienic standards among Polish Jews. The feuilleton participates in broader discussion occurring at the beginning of the twentieth century about the relationship between the spread of diseases and lack of hygiene. Importantly, it also deals with the antisemitic stereotype of the dirty, stinky Jew. However, Lichtenbaum’s satirical writing also exhibits a paternalistic and denigrating approach towards lower Jewish classes and is critical of the ways religious observance obstructs attempts at improving hygiene. In his closing remark, Lichtenbaum’s anecdote about the synagogue being “a real artistic feat” posits the traditional space which Jews inhabit as a site of performance, a venue that is not strictly religious but also allows for socialization and even entertainment. Lichtenbaum’s milieu of integrationists saw the poor hygienic conditions of the Jewish masses as one of the obstacles towards Polish and Jewish peaceful coexistence. Characteristic of this milieu and of the time of publication, the feuilleton presents critique from a position that is seemingly external to the Jewish community, embracing the antisemitic stereotype of the dirty Jew and the moral panic about Jewish pimps. These positions were integrated into the program of Jewish intelligentsia almost without any critical reflection. Thus, Lichtenbaum’s feuilleton serves as a powerful example of integrationists’ propaganda and may account for the hostility towards that milieu expressed by Zionists and Bundists.

  1. Alina Witkowska, Ryszard Przybylski Romantyzm, (Warsaw: PWN, 2002), 552. 
  2. Artur Hutnikiewicz, Młoda Polska (Warsaw: PWN, 2002), 271. 
  3. Ibid, 307. 
  4. Henryk Markiewicz, Pozytywizm (Warsaw: PWN, 2002), 212. 
  5. Antoni Malczewski, Maria, I, verse 733-734.