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Jewish life in Poland between the two world wars was characterized by political, economic, and cultural change in both the Jewish world and the country as a whole. The Jewish ideological movements that had formed in the Russian empire before the First World War–Zionism, socialism, and their many variations and combinations–became mass movements in the interwar period. These new secular foundations existed alongside and often found themselves in conflict with traditional Jewish religious and communal life.
This dynamism took place within the context of a Polish society seeking to determine the character of the newly independent state, which had been partitioned among its neighbors since the end of the 18th century.
The Jews of Poland comprised the largest Jewish community in Europe in the interwar years, second in the world only to American Jewry. A 1921 Polish national census recorded 2.86 million Jews in a population of 27.2 million; a decade later the Jewish population had risen to 3.1 million in a country of 31.9 million people. Jews urbanized as a result of industrialization that began in the 19th century, so that by the late 1930s, nearly one-third of Polish Jews lived in the 12 largest cities, and 40 percent lived in towns of at least 10,000 people.
The Jewish economic structure was significantly different from that of the surrounding population. While a majority of ethnic Poles were employed in agriculture, in 1931 about 96 percent of Polish Jews worked in non-farm occupations, mainly as artisans, traders, or small shopkeepers. Small minorities were industrialists or members of the liberal professions, though they comprised a higher percentage of these professions than the percentage of Jews in the population. In 1931, 56 percent of doctors and one-third of lawyers and other legal professionals were Jewish.
The partitions of Poland among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires created regional differences in Jewish life in the newly constituted Polish state. The experiences under the partitions resulted in differences in relations between Jews and the other ethnic groups of each region as well as varying degrees of acculturation and Jewish national sentiment.
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