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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




jewish genealogy in Argentina

HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

5. THE JEWS AND THE POLISH INSURRECTION OF 1863

While the official world of St. Petersburg was obsessed with the idea of the Russification of Jewry, in Warsaw the tendency of Polonization, as applied to the Jews of the Western region, cropped up in the wake of the revolutionary Polish movement in the beginning of the sixties. At the inception of Alexander's reign the Russian Government set out to equalize the legal status of the Jews in the Kingdom of Poland with that of the Empire, and to abolish the surviving special restrictions, such as the prohibition of residing in certain towns, or in certain parts of towns, disabilities in acquiring property, and others. But the highest Polish administration in Warsaw was obstructing in every possible way the liberal attempts of the Russian Government. Prior to the insurrection of 1863, the attitude of Polish society towards the Jews was one of habitual animosity, and this notwithstanding the fact that by that time Warsaw harbored already a group of Jewish intellectuals who were eager to assimilate with the Poles and were imbued with Polish patriotism. When, in 1859, the _Warsaw Gazette_ published an anti-Semitic article in which the Jews were branded as foreigners, the Polish-Jewish patriots, including the banker Kronenberg, a convert, were stung to the quick, and they came forward with violent protests. This led to passionate debates in the Polish press, generally unfriendly to the Jews. The radical Polish organs, published abroad by political exiles, took occasion to denounce bitterly the anti-Semitic trend of Polish society. The veteran historian Lelevel, who had not yet forgotten Poland's historic injustice of 1831, [1] issued a pamphlet in Brussels, calling upon the Poles to live in harmony with the race with which it had existed side by side for eight hundred years.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 105.]

Lelevel's kindly words would scarcely have brought the anti-Semites to reason, had not the Poles at that moment embarked upon an enterprise for the success of which they sorely needed the sympathy and co-operation of their Jewish neighbors. The revolutionary movement which engulfed Russian Poland in 1860-1863 required the utmost exertion of effort on the part of the entire population, in which the half-million Jews played no small part. All of a sudden Polish society opened its arms to those whom it had but recently branded as foreigners, and out of the ranks of Warsaw Jewry came a hearty response, expressing itself not only in patriotic manifestations but also in sacrifices and achievements for the sake of the common fatherland.

At the head of the Warsaw community during this stormy period stood a man who combined Polish patriotism with rabbinic orthodoxy. Formerly rabbi in Cracow, Berush [1] Meisels had as far back as 1848 been sent as deputy to the parliament at Kremsier, [2] and stood in the forefront of the Polish patriots of Galicia. In 1856 he accepted the post of rabbi in Warsaw. When the revolutionary movement had broken out, Meisels endeavored to instruct his flock in the spirit of Polish patriotism. Revered by the Jewish masses for his piety, and by the intellectuals for his political trend of mind, this spiritual leader of Polish Jewry played in the revolutionary Polish movement a role equal in importance to that of the leading ecclesiastics of Poland. The harmonious co-operation of the orthodox Chief Rabbi Meisels, the reform preacher Marcus Jastrow, [3] and the lay representatives of the community lent unity and organization to the part played by the Jews in preparing the rebellion.

[Footnote 1: A variant of the name _Baer_.]

[Footnote 2: A town in Moravia, where, after the rising of 1848, the Austrian parliament met provisionally till March, 1849.]

[Footnote 3: After the suppression of the Polish insurrection, Jastrow went to the United States, and became a leading rabbi in Philadelphia. He died in 1903.]

The Jews of Warsaw participated in all street manifestations and political processions which took place during the year 1860-1861. Among those pierced by Cossack bullets during the manifestation of February 27, 1861, were several Jews. The indignation which this shooting down of defenceless people aroused in Warsaw is generally regarded as the immediate cause of the mutiny. Rabbi Meisels was a member of the deputation which went to Viceroy Gorchakov to demand satisfaction for the blood that had been spilled. In the demonstrative funeral procession which followed the coffins of the victims the Jewish clergy, headed by Meisels, marched alongside of the Catholic priesthood. Many Jews attended the memorial services in the Catholic churches at which fiery patriotic speeches were delivered. Similar demonstrations of mourning were held in the synagogues. An appeal sent out broadcast by the circle of patriotic Jewish Poles reminded the Jews of the anti-Jewish hatred of the Russian bureaucracy, and called upon them "to clasp joyfully the brotherly hand held forth by them (the Poles), to place themselves under the banner of the nation whose ministers of religion have in all churches spoken of us in words of love and brotherhood."

The whole year 1861 stood, at least as far as the Polish capital was concerned, under the sign of Polish-Jewish "brotherhood." At the synagogue service held in memory of the historian Lelevel Jastrow preached a patriotic sermon. On the day of the Jewish New Year prayers were offered up in the synagogues for the success of the Polish cause, accompanied by the singing of the national Polish hymn _Boze cos Polske_. [1] When, as a protest against the invasion of the churches by the Russian soldiery, the Catholic clergy closed all churches in Warsaw, the rabbis and communal elders followed suit, and ordered the closing of the synagogues. This action aroused the ire of Lieders, the new viceroy. Rabbi Meisels, the preachers Jastrow and Kramshtyk as well as the president of the "Congregational Board" were placed under arrest. The prisoners were kept in the citadel of Warsaw for three months, but were then released.

[Footnote 1: Pronounce, _Bozhe, tzosh Polske_, "O Lord, Thou that hast for so many ages guarded Poland with the shining shield of Thy protection!"--the first words of the hymn.]

In the meantime Marquis Vyelepolski, acting as mediator between the Russian Government and the Polish people, had prepared his plan of reforms as a means of warding off the mutiny. Among these reforms, which aimed at the partial restoration of Polish autonomy and the improvement of the status of the peasantry, was included a law providing for the "legal equality of the Jews." Wielding considerable influence, first as director of the Polish Commission of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Public Instruction, and later as the head of the whole civil administration of the Kingdom, Vyelepolski was able to secure St. Petersburg's assent to his project. On May 24, 1862, Alexander II. signed an ukase revoking the suspensory decree of 180 1808, [1] which had entailed numerous disabilities for the Jews incompatible with the new tendencies in the political and agrarian life of the Kingdom. This ukase conferred the following rights upon the Jews:

[Footnote 1: See Vol. I, p. 299.]

  1. To acquire immovable property on all manorial estates on which   the peasants had passed from the state of serfs into that of   tenants.

  2. To settle freely in the formerly prohibited cities and city   districts, [1] not excluding those situated within the twenty-one   verst zone along the Prussian and Austrian frontier. [2]

  3. To appear as witnesses in court on an equal footing with   Christians in all legal proceedings and to take an oath in a new,   less humiliating form.

[Footnote 1: See above, pp. 172 and 178.]

[Footnote 2: See above, p. 95.]

Bestowing these privileges upon the Polish Jews in the hope of bringing about their amalgamation with the local Christian population, the Tzar forbids in the same ukase the further use of Hebrew and Yiddish in all civil affairs and legal documents, such as contracts, wills, obligations, also in commercial ledgers and even in business correspondence. In conclusion, the ukase directs the Administrative Council of the Kingdom of Poland to revise and eventually to repeal all the other laws which hamper the Jews in their pursuit of crafts and industries by imposing special taxes upon them.

This ukase of Alexander II., though revoking only part of the insulting restrictions in the elementary civil rights of the Jews, was given the high-sounding title of an "Act of Emancipation." The secluded hasidic mass of Poland was glad to accept the legal alleviations offered to it, without thinking of any linguistic or other kind of assimilation. On the other hand, the assimilated Jewish _intelligentzia_, which had joined the ranks of the Polish insurgents, was dreaming of complete emancipation, and confidently hoped to attain it upon the successful termination of the revolutionary enterprise.

In the meantime the revolution was assuming ever larger proportions. The year 1863 arrived. The demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw were succeeded by bloody skirmishes between the Polish insurgents and the Russian troops in the woods of Poland and Lithuania. The Jews took no active part in this phase of the rebellion. As far as Poland proper was concerned, their participation was limited to the secret revolutionary propaganda. In Lithuania again neither the Jewish masses nor the newly arisen class of intellectuals sympathized with the Polish cause. In that part of the country the systematic Jew-baiting of the Polish pans, or noble landowners, was still fresh in the minds, and the Jews, moreover, were pinning all their faith to the emancipation to be bestowed by St. Petersburg. The will o' the wisp of Russification had already begun to lure the Jewish professional class. In many Lithuanian localities the Jews who failed to show their sympathy with the Polish revolutionaries ran the risk of being dealt with severely. Here and there, as had been the case in 1831, the rebels were as good as their word, and hanged or shot the Jews suspected of pro-Russian sympathies.

The reserved attitude of the Lithuanian Jews throughout the mutiny proved their salvation after the suppression of the rebellion, when the ferocious Muravyov, the governor-general of Vilna, took up his bloody work of retribution. As for the Kingdom of Poland, neither the revolution nor its suppression entailed any serious consequences for them. True, the fraternization of the Warsaw Jews with the Poles during the revolutionary years weakened for a little while the hereditary Jew-hatred of the Polish people, and helped to intensify the fever of Polonization which had seized the Jewish upper classes. But indirectly the effects of the Polish rebellion were detrimental to the Jews of the rest of the Empire. The insurrection was not only followed by a general wave of political reaction, but it also gave strong impetus to the policy of Russification which was now applied with particular vigor to the Western provinces, and was damaging to the Jews both from the civil and the cultural point of view.



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