Civilizing Peripheries: Polishness, Jewishness, and “Modern” Urban Spaces in Interwar Eastern Poland

Nestled in one of the most “backward” parts of the Second Republic, the small towns (miasteczka/shtetlekh) of the province of Volhynia (województwo wołyńskie) appear, at first blush, to be geographically, culturally, and politically peripheral to the “main” Polish story. And yet it is precisely their perceived peripherality that makes them ideal sites in which to explore the complexities of Polish-Jewish history (and, more broadly, the kresy’s matrix of national, linguistic, and religious groups). Moving beyond Warsaw-based discussions of official policies, legislation, and minority rights, I trace how self-identified modernizers—mainly, although not exclusively, those on the supposedly more tolerant wing of Polish nationalism—attempted to transform the physical geography, demographic makeup, and historical narratives of these predominantly Jewish towns.

The story evolves on multiple planes. For one, I highlight the global context, as Europeans bolstered claims to contested regions at home and abroad by constructing civilizational hierarchies (using indices like paved roads, toilets, and water-supply systems); for another, I show how the state’s civilizing mission reflected a national context in which Poles sought to transform kresy towns simultaneously into more “Polish” and less “Jewish” places. Finally, I show how the local context mattered: In what ways did debates over the location of urban-rural boundaries draw on perceptions among townsfolk and peasants alike about where Jewish space ended and non-Jewish space began? How did attempts to direct tourists toward particular sites of Jewish life, while avoiding or criticizing others, reflect the exclusions inherent in discourses of diversity? To what extent did visions of urban modernity compete with those of rural modernity?

Using a range of archival and published “texts,” including administrative correspondence and reports, newspaper and journal articles, tourist guidebooks, photographs, postcards, and town maps, I explore how we might connect the global, national, and local planes outlined above into a meaningful set of stories. More broadly, I challenge the strict dichotomy between “inclusive” (civic) and “exclusive” (ethnic) nationalism that has become a staple of the historiography; show how Polishness and Jewishness came to be embodied in local spaces; and suggest that we cannot view Polish-Jewish relations without taking account of a third group: the non-Polish Christians (whether Germans, Czechs, or Ukrainians) who lived on the towns’ geographical and cultural fringes.

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