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Ghetto benches or bench Ghetto (known in Polish as getto ławkowe) was a form of official segregation in the seating of students, introduced in Poland's universities beginning in 1935 at Lwow Polytechnic. By 1937, when this practice became conditionally legalized, most rectors at other higher education institutions had adopted this form of segregation. Under the ghetto ławkowe system, Jewish university students were forced, under threat of expulsion, to sit in a left-hand side section of the lecture halls reserved exclusively for them. This official policy of enforced segregation was often accompanied by acts of violence directed against Jewish students by members of the ONR (delegalised already after three months in 1934) and other extreme right and anti-Semitic organizations.
The "bench Ghetto" marked a peak of antisemitism in Poland between the world wars. "It antagonized not only Jews, but also many Poles." "Jewish students protested these policies, along with some Poles supporting them...[i.e. the Jewish students]" and stood instead of sitting. The segregation continued in force until the invasion of Poland in World War II and Poland's occupation by Nazi Germany suppressed the entire Polish educational system.
The percentage of Poland's Jewish population increased greatly during the Russian Civil War. Several hundred thousand joined the already numerous Polish Jewish minority living predominantly in urban environments. They were considered foreigners in Poland, especially that they were among the least assimilated of all European Jewish communities of that time while, at the same time, forming the second largest minority at up to 10% of the total population of the Polish Second Republic. Jewish representation in educational institutions started to increase already during World War I and, since Jewish culture highly supported education, the Jewish student population of Polish universities was out of proportion with that of gentile Poles during the Interbellum. In the early 1920s, Jews constituted over one-third of all students attending Polish universities. At the same time, Polish universities had become the stronghold of the nationalist, antisemitic National Democracy supporters. Proposals to reinstitute the numerus clausus, which would restrict Jewish enrollment to 10% of the student body (roughly the percentage of Jews living in Poland) were made as early as 1923. However, as this would have violated the Little Treaty of Versailles, the proposals were rejected. In spite of these earlier objections, Poland later renounced the Treaty in 1934. Polish nationalism and hostility towards minorities, particularly Jews, increased. Discriminatory policies regarding Jews in education in Poland continued the practice of the Russian Empire's numerus clausus policy, implemented by the Empire during Poland's partitions, which restricted, by means of quotas, the participation of Jews in public life. Issues that had earlier been resolved by the Russian Empire were now decided locally, uniting the Poles while dividing the nation as a whole.
Various means of limiting the number of Jewish students were adopted, seeking to reduce the Jewish role in Poland's economic and social life. The situation of Jews improved under Józef Piłsudski, but after his death in 1935 the National Democrats regained much of their power and the status of Jewish students deteriorated. A student "Green Ribbon" League was organized in 1931; its members distributed anti-semitic material and called for the boycott of Jewish businesses and the enforcement of the numerus clausus. In 1934 a group of rabbis petitioned the Archbishop of Warsaw, Aleksander Kakowski, to stop the "youthful outbursts"; Kakowski responded that the incidents were regrettable, but also stated that Jewish newspapers were "infecting public culture with atheism."
Agitation against Jewish students intensified during the economic recession of the 1930s and afterwards, as unemployment began to affect the Polish intellectual strata. There were growing demands to decrease the number of Jews in science and business so that "Christian" Poles could fill their positions. In November 1931, violence accompanied demands to reduce the number of Jewish students at several Polish universities. The universities' autonomous status contributed to this, as university rectors tended not to call in police to protect Jewish students from attacks on the campuses, and no action was taken against students involved in anti-Jewish violence.
Attempts to legalize segregated seating
In 1935, students associated with National Democracy and the National Radical Camp, influenced by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, demanded segregation of Jews into separate sections in the classrooms, known as "ghetto benches". The majority of Jewish students refused to accept this system of seating, considering it to be a violation of their civil rights. At some universities Polish students even attempted to forcibly move Jews to the ghetto benches.
Following Piłsudski's death in 1935, anti-Jewish riots broke out at the University of Warsaw and the Warsaw Polytechnic. The violence spread from the campuses to the streets of Warsaw. Subsequently violence broke out at other universities in Poland as well. The student riots and violence were however mutual. Especially Jewish students from Academic Zionist Association "Kadimah" (Akademicki Związek Syjonistyczny "Kadimah") were involved in violence against Polish students. An uninterrupted wave of anti-Jewish violence eventually led to the temporary closure of all of Warsaw's institutions of higher education in November 1935. The National Democracy press put the blame for the riots on Jews refusing to comply with special seating arrangements set by Polish students.
Introduction of ghetto benches
While the Polish government initially opposed the segregation policies, the universities enjoyed significant level of autonomy and were able to impose their local regulations. Ghetto benches were officially sanctioned for the first time in December 1935 at the Lwów Polytechnic. Following several violent attacks against the Jewish students, school officials ordered that they sit in separate sections, under threat of expulsion. Penalties were imposed on those who stayed away from classes in protest against segregated seating. The move to legalize ghetto benches was contested by the Jewish community, which saw it as a dangerous precedent. Ghetto benches were criticized by Jewish deputies to the Sejm (Polish parliament). In January 1936, a delegation of representatives of the Jewish community of Lwów (Lviv) met with Poland's Education Minister, who promised to discuss the issue with school administrations, and in February 1936 the ghetto-bench order was cancelled by the Lwów Polytechnic's academic senate.
This setback for the segregationist cause did not stop attempts to establish ghetto benches in other Polish universities. Demands for segregated seating were again raised by the OZON-led Union of Young Poland (Związek Młodej Polski), the ND All-Polish Youth, and other nationalist youth organizations. The Ministry of Education in Warsaw was opposed to the ghetto benches, declaring numerus clausus a violation of the constitution, and Polish Minister of Education stated that: "Student ghettos would not be introduced at the Polish Universities". However in light of the continuing serious riots at the university, which the Ministry condemned as "zoological patriotism", the Ministry slowly gave in and decided to withdraw its opposition, hoping that the introduction of the ghettos would end the riots. The ethno-nationalists finally won their campaign for ghetto benches in 1937 when by Ministry decision universities were granted the right to regulate the seating of Polish and Jewish students. On October 5, 1937, the Rector of Warsaw Polytechnic ordered the establishment of the institution of ghetto benches in the lecture halls. Within a few days, similar orders were given in other universities of Poland. Over 50 notable Polish professors (for example, Marceli Handelsman, Stanisław Ossowski, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Manfred Kridl) criticized the introduction of the ghetto benches and declined to enforce either a quota or the ghetto bench system, but their voices were ignored; together with a few Polish students that objected to the ghettos, they would protest by standing in class, refusing to sit down. Rector Władysław Marian Jakowicki of the Stefan Batory University in Wilno (Vilnius) resigned from his position in protest of the introduction of the benches. The only rector that refused to establish ghetto benches in his university was Prof. Stanisław Kulczyński of Lwów University. Facing the decision to sign the order introducing segregated seating, Prof. Kulczyński resigned from his position instead of signing it. Nevertheless the instruction ordering special "mandatory seats" for all Jewish students still was issued by the vice-rector of Lwów University the next morning. The only faculty in Poland that did not have ghetto benches introduced was that of the Children's Clinic in the Piłsudski University of Warsaw led by Professor Mieczysław Michałowicz, who refused to obey to the Rector's order. Some fifty-six professors of Warsaw, Poznań, and Wilno universities signed a protest against the Ghetto benches in December 1937. The list included the "elite of Polish scholarship", signatories such as Tadeusz Kotarbiński, sociologists Józef Chałasiński, Stanisław and Maria Ossowska and Jan Stanisław Bystroń, biologists Stanisław Kulczyński and Jan Dembowski, psychologist Władysław Witwicki, physicist Konstanty Zakrzewski, and historians Seweryn Wysłouch, Tadeusz Manteuffel and Natalia Gąsiorowska.
The introduction of ghetto benches was criticized internationally. Over 300 British professors signed an anti-ghetto bench manifesto. The International League for Academic Freedom in New York published an open letter signed by 202 professors condemning ghetto benches as "alien to the spirit of academic freedom."
Despite the arguments by Sanacja government that introduction of ghetto benches would stop the disturbances, anti-Jewish violence continued, resulting in clashes between Jewish and Polish students organisations which even resulted in two fatalities among the Jewish students and assaults or even assassination attempts on Polish professors critical of the segregation policies.
The ghetto bench system and other anti-Semitic demonstrations of the segment of student youth inspired vengeance among some Jewish students of Lwów Polytechnic upon the arrival of the Soviet authorities, following the Soviet invasion of Poland.
The practice of segregated seating for the Jewish students in Poland ended with the demise of the Polish state in the beginning of the Second World War. After which most Polish educational institutions were shut down (see Education in Poland during World War II) although Lwów Polytechnic remained. Most Polish Jews perished during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the Holocaust.
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