Between the years 5532/1772 and 5555/1795, Poland was brutally sliced up between Austria, Prussia and Russia and ceased to exist as an independent state until after World War I. During this century and a half of foreign domination, patriotic Poles strove repeatedly to throw out their hated overlords. Each attempt was a miserable failure.
Meanwhile, the Jews had to walk a narrow bridge. Show sympathy for the Polish and you risked Russian resentment; side with Russia and you risked getting knifed by a Pole. In general, the Jewish populace was not overly eager in shedding Russian, Austrian and Prussian blood for the Polish cause, and Jews in some locales positively preferred the Russians. Two noted exceptions were a Jewish father and son infected by the insurrectionary zeal sweeping Europe at that time.
The story begins in 5554/1794, when General Tadeusz Kosciusko, freshly back in Poland after helping the United States win its independence from England, figured the time was ripe for Poland to follow the young country’s example.
On March 24th, after Kosciuszko was appointed head of Polish insurrection in Cracow, he announced: “I swear to the whole Polish nation that I shall not use the power vested in me for private oppression but that I shall exercise this power only in the defense of the whole of the frontiers and to regain the independence of the Nation and to establish universal freedom.” Caught up in the excitement, Jewish businessman Berek Yoselovich begged and received Kosciuszko’s permission to raise a Jewish regiment. In Europe of those days, this was almost unprecedented, because its denial of Jewish citizenship in every country except France generally precluded Jews from fighting alongside their non-Jewish neighbors. Even Russia’s compulsory conscripting of Jewish youngsters only started later in 5587/1827. However, having just come in from the United States where Jews had taken a major role in the revolution, Kosciuszko had more liberal ideas and gave Berek the green light.
Berek energetically gathered funds in Warsaw for his enterprise, and then plastered the Jewish streets with Yiddish posters shrilling his plea for volunteers at every corner. They comprised a strange mix of piety and patriotism.
“Hear O Israel! All Jews who have G-d in their hearts and who want to help in the war for the Fatherland, should gird themselves with courage because the hour has struck at last. Love for the Fatherland commands you to produce fresh, healthy blood in the place of the blood that poisonous snakes have sucked out of your veins. This is made easy for us because our G-d sent leader, Tadeusz Kosciusko has, out of the great goodness of his heart, occupied himself with the organization of a Jewish regiment.
“And why shouldn’t we, the most oppressed people in the world, take up arms to free the Fatherland? Why shouldn’t we, by participating in the struggle, help achieve liberty, which ever after we will enjoy with all others… Awaken dear brothers! Be like lions and leopards and, with G-d’s help, we will drive the enemy from our land!”
Berek wasn’t the last Jew to forget or ignore the fact that he was taking a big gamble. If the Poles lost the revolution and the Russians won, the Jews might be in hotter water than ever.
Apparently, only the simpler elements of the Jewish community were roused by Berek’s tirade because the 500 volunteers he scraped together were almost exclusively plain working people such as tailors, butchers, wagon drivers, and blacksmiths. To give them credit, Berek’s men kept halacha faithfully, davening three times a day, eating kosher food, and resting on Shabbos, and thanks to their long beards and peyos, they are eternally remembered as “the Beardlings.”
Berek’s main contribution to the doomed Polish revolt was the hopeless defense of Praga next to Warsaw, which Russian General Suvarov attacked with a huge professional army on November 4.
When the Jewish volunteers saw Suvarov lining up a hundred cannon against their positions on Shabbos they realized that a battle was imminent and immediately sent a sha’alah to a rav in Praga, asking whether they could desecrate the holy day to defend themselves. His reply that they could did not help them much, as almost all of them were slaughtered during the repeated attacks of the Russian regulars.
The only ones to escape were Berek and twenty survivors who managed to escape to safety. The Russians concluded the battle by massacring Praga’s citizens and Jews.
Berek’s battalion, the fi rst such phenomenon in modern times, may have been Napoleon’s inspiration when he organized two Jewish battalions in the Netherlands in 5567/1807.
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
Poland’s next insurrection took place in 5590/1830. The first people to agitate for Jewish participation were a group of assimilationist Warsaw Jews labeled the “Old Testament Believers,” whose goal was to destroy the autonomy of Jewish communities (the kahal system) and place Jews under the jurisdiction of municipalities like everyone else. They resented the power of Jews to raise their own taxes and impose cherems whenever they saw fi t. Integrating Jews with Poles would, they imagined, contribute to equal rights for Jews.
For them, the 1830 revolution was a perfect opportunity to show the Poles that the Jews were an integral part of general society, and in December one of their leaders, Stanislav Hernish (fi rst Jewish-Polish poet in history), informed Polish dictator Khlopitzki that he had at hand a group of Jewish youngsters who were anxious to free their beloved fatherland. These were mostly students of the assimilationist “Rabbinical School of Warsaw” founded in 5586/1826. Their message was, “As sons of the land of Poland, we are ready to give our lives and spill our blood for the freedom of our homeland!”
The dictator retorted with the oftrepeated dictum that as the Jews were not citizens they had no right to serve in the army. Or, as Minister of War Moravski put it: “We cannot allow that Jewish blood should mingle with the noble blood of the Poles. What will Europe say when she learns that in fi ghting for our liberty we have not been able to get along without Jewish help?”
However, one person refused to accept the Polish rejection – Joseph Berkovich, Berek Yoselovitch’s son. (In old time Poland, people cobbled makeshift surnames out of their fathers’ first names). Like his father, Joseph issued a proclamation to the Warsaw Jews calling on them to rise up in the national cause. The government now turned to the kehilla leadership of Warsaw, asking its members what they thought of the idea of creating a Berek-style Jewish regiment, and they convened a giant meeting to consider their response. Not over eager to side with Poland against Russia, the kehilla’s first statement was they felt they had expressed sufficient ardor for the cause by the 40,000 gulden they had already contributed. (This was forty percent of the funds collected from the entire Warsaw populace.)
Concerning the forming of a special regiment, they had several objections. First, as the Poles regarded the Jews as militarily incompetent, if the Jewish regiment was beaten the Jews would be blamed. Furthermore, no country organized its soldiers according to religion, and this would only emphasize that the Jews were aliens in Polish society; it would be preferable for volunteers to enter regular army units. Among the signers of the response were Rav Chaim Davidson, leader of the kehilla, and Rav Shlomo Eiger.
In the end, the Poles inducted the Jewish volunteers not into the regular army, but into a national guard defending Warsaw. At first, the Polish insisted that the volunteers shave their beards and peyos in order to conform in appearance to their comrades. Rav Chaim Davidson and 37 communal leaders shot off a petition against this condition, arguing that, “Shaving one’s beard is not a sign of patriotism and does certainly not add to one’s courage.”
Unwilling to renege, the Poles made a compromise. The Jews could keep their beards by making a special regiment of their own. Because of their refusal to detach their beards, the 850 volunteers of this group became famous as the “bearded” detachment. Like the earlier defenders of Praga, they too davened three times daily, ate kosher and were shomrei Shabbos.
About 250 youngsters, mostly students of the Warsaw Rabbinical School, joined regular units at the cost of shaving their beards if they had any in the first place. The Jews’ enthusiastic defense of Warsaw against the Russian troops inspired the militia commander Ostrovski to write, “This spectacle could not fail to make your heart ache. Our conscience bade us to attend to the betterment of this most down-trodden part of our population at the earliest possible moment.”
And concerning Jews outside Warsaw who aroused Polish resentment by taking no active part in the rebellion, Ostrovski wrote, “True, the Jews of the provinces may possibly be guilty of indifference towards the revolutionary cause, but can we expect any other attitude from those we oppress?”
Russia crushed this revolt and sent 25,000 rebels to Siberia; thousands of Poles fl ed to the West to escape imprisonment or worse.
Although the Poles were generally hostile to the Jews during the next decades, they temporarily changed their tune when revolt broke out again in 5600/1860, realizing that half a million Polish Jews might be a valuable asset in their struggle.
At this time, the Warsaw Jews were led by Rav Dov Berish Meisels, who had served in the provincial government while rav in Cracow and became rav of Warsaw in 5616/1856.
He encouraged the Jews to side with the Polish cause. As a result, they participated in street demonstrations during the next two years, some of them cut down by Russian bullets in the process. However, the Jews took no part in fighting that erupted in 5623/1863. Thanks to his patriotic attitude, the Russians (victorious as usual) threw Rav Meisels into prison for several months and temporarily expelled him from Poland.
Three times, the Warsaw Jews had striven to show their allegiance to the Polish cause, and three times their outstretched hand was thrust aside once the bullets stopped flying. Indeed, this chapter of history remains a poignant lesson in the delicate position of East European Jews who lacked citizenship yet abounded with patriotic passion.