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Uncertain Citizenship: Jewish Belonging and the Ethnic Revolution in Poland and Czechoslovakia, 1938-1948


This study explores how citizenship came to be defined in ethnic and national terms during and after World War II. Before the war, citizenship within east central European states stood above ethnic and linguistic categories yet, in an unstudied revolution that gripped the region after 1945, new political entities came into being that were predicated on homogeneous populations. I trace this process in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and use debates and laws regarding Jewish citizenship to understand the revolutionary changes of this time. The story begins in London and New York, where Poles and Czechs in diplomatic exile interacted with Allied governments and transnational Jewish organizations like the World Jewish Congress. Within these circles new ideas were forged concerning who constituted the Jewish people and where they belonged geographically.

By 1944 and 1945 two distinct developments impelled key Czech, Polish and Jewish authorities to consider emigration away from Europe and towards Palestine as the most desirable option for east central Europe's Jewish citizens. First, the deadly extent of the Holocaust became increasingly public. And second, two high-profile meetings of the United National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) failed to produce a plan helping three groups of "stateless" European Jews who could not return to their pre-war "homes": Czechoslovak Jews who opted for German nationality before 1938, Jews from Subcarpathian Rus, and Polish Jews in the lands occupied and later annexed by the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the second half of my dissertation follows these three groups after liberation and examines laws and social policies in the postwar era that codified ethnic difference and facilitated Jewish migration elsewhere. Notably, Czechoslovak officials played a key role in helping many east central European Jews leave Europe by fashioning their state into a major transit point en route to Palestine. In sum, my dissertation shows how a deeper transformation of ideas concerning who belonged to a given nation-state under-girded broader political, economic and societal changes thus enabling the emergence of three new ethnic polities: Czechoslovakia, Poland and Israel.

My dissertation makes important contributions to studies of the Jewish experience, east central Europe and the contours of citizenship in the twentieth century. First, it shows how an "ethnic revolution," that took place among Allied leaders in exile, inspired new ideas about the Polish and Czechoslovak body politic and Jewish/Gentile coexistence thereby mandating massive population shifts as World War II ended. Usually, scholars think of the revolutions gripping east central Europe after 1945 as being political or economic, but in fact wartime shifts in ideas about ethnic belonging greatly influenced the course of the socialist revolution. Second, I showcase how the bricha, or semi-legal movement of Jews towards Palestine, can be linked to broader stories about Jewish citizenship, postwar state policies encouraging ethnic un-mixing and the massive population transfers that transpired in the wake of Germany's defeat. Finally, by illustrating how the possibilities for Jewish belonging narrowed over a short period and how a triad of ethnically homogenous states materialized, my work helps us better understand the prevalence of ethnically-defined nation-states.

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