Were Jews included as part of the Polish nation or were they excluded from it? This was one of my driving questions when I started to uncover the Jewish roots of my (Polish) mother’s family. I wondered if I might find my ancestors in some kind of hybrid Polish-Jewish space in which they identified as both Polish and Jewish. Or perhaps they lived in a world that ran parallel to that of their non-Jewish neighbors, with limited points of interaction. What I have found so far is neither straightforward nor consistent. It doesn’t fit entirely nor unambiguously into a narrative of hostile separation nor of peaceful coexistence. I’ll be focusing here on my ancestors’ lives before World War II. The Holocaust was such a devastating event that it needs to considered in its own terms, something I’ll try to do in another post.
The Polish lands were hospitable to my Jewish ancestors, allowing them to prosper for generations. My grandfather Jacob Rotblit owned a Ford dealership in the 1930s, and before then he was a manager of an international trading firm. Or maybe he sold jewelry. It’s hard to find absolute proof, but either way, he maintained important business interests.
My grandmother’s father Hil Majer Piwko was in the lumber trade. Documents from the National Archive in Włocławek show he owned a building supply store in the 1920s, and according to Aunt Pat, he owned a sawmill before then. Pat also writes that he was recognized as an “honorary citizen of the Russian Empire” for his service during a cholera epidemic. This was sometime before 1918, when the region near Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire. Apparently, the title “honorary citizen” came with some of the rights that were normally reserved for the nobility.
So there was separation but also opportunity. It was not very easy for Jews to become gentry, unless perhaps through marriage, but there were other means by which they were granted special honors and rights. By comparison, different social classes faced road blocks against entering the gentry, regardless of ethnicity or religion. For instance, most peasants lacked the financial means and cultural capital to gain such social standing. At least in some times and places, wealthy, educated Jews would have had more avenues to social advancement.
More about my family’s prosperity can be read from the family portrait that was taken around 1916. Hil Majer and his wife Hinda had many children. They were wealthy enough to dress in fine fabrics. Hil Majer’s traditional clothing suggests that he had the freedom to practice his faith and customs, while his children were free to assimilate, as indicated by their modern clothing. Separation wasn’t just enforced by the majority, but also sometimes chosen to preserve cultural and religious distinctiveness.
Why did the family move from Hil Majer’s native Skierniewice to the village of Sobota, before settling down in Brześć Kujawski and then Włocławek? It seems likely they were following economic opportunities, but also possibly they were seeking a place more hospitable to Jews. This fits a common narrative about the Jews as wanderers. They arrived in Eastern Europe as tradespeople, financial advisers, and estate managers, and eventually established settled communities. But I’ve also been told that by the 19th century, most Jewish families stayed put. That’s why knowing the place of origin of one relative usually leads to many more relations.
Włocławek hadn’t always welcomed Jews. Until the end of the 18th century, it was a Church town, home to a bishop’s cathedral, with restrictions against Jewish residents. But then the city secularized, and as it industrialized and became an engine of commerce, the Jewish population also grew. Located as it was between Warsaw and the Baltic Coast on the Vistula River, Włocławek became an important port, and home to paper, ceramic, metal, chemical, and food processing factories.
In addition to economics and religion, political factors shaped the degree of inclusion available to Jews within the broader society. Antisemitism grew in the 1880s throughout the Polish lands, as Polish nationalists became more active in their pursuit of national sovereignty. Once Poland gained its autonomy in 1918, tensions deepened. Some political forces, led by Józef Piłsudski, argued for a broad definition of citizenship within the new Polish state, insuring equal rights for the 1/3 of the population that was Ukrainian, German, Jewish, and other minorities. Another political faction, led by Roman Dmowski, advocated for a narrower definition of Polishness, based on an idea of “pure blood,” by which he meant shared descent that also tied the nation to Catholicism. At the same time, Jewish nationalism grew, and took on a number of forms, leading some to embrace Yiddish culture, and others to espouse Zionism. Some Jewish nationalists dreamed of a safe place within the countries in which they lived, while others turned their eyes toward Palestine.
Włocławek became a crossroad for different varieties of Judaism, including Zionism, Hasidism, and Reform. Around the time that my great grandfather moved there, a new rabbi, Jehuda Lejb Kowalski, also arrived. He was very popular, and succeeded in reconciling the factions within the Jewish community. In 1902, Kowalski helped found the Mizrahi Party, and was a key leader in this Orthodox Zionist organization. Perhaps Kowalski is what drew the family to Włocławek? I’m not sure of Hil Majer’s affiliation, but his son-in-law, Rachel’s husband Pinkas, was a member of the Mizrahi Party in Włocławek, and a representative of the governing board of the city’s Jewish Community in 1931. Hil Majer’s oldest son Jacob represented the Zionist Party on the governing board from 1917 until 1922, and he was on the City Council from 1917-19. In other words, Jacob wasn’t only involved in Jewish political life; he also held a position in city government.
So there were opportunities to integrate into the broader society, to pursue economic and political goals, and to flourish as a distinct religious and cultural group.
But clearly there were problems that caused my relatives to leave for other countries, long before the German occupation and Nazi assaults against Jews. One of Hil Majer’s brothers went to Canada in the 1880s; the son of another went to Switzerland. In 1906-7, two of Hil Majer’s sons went to New York. Over the years, Philip sponsored many of the next generation who started out in the US at his bakery. Four more sisters, including my grandmother, also came to the US. Jacob’s children, as well as Rachel and her children, went to Palestine starting in the 1930s. Still, choosing, or even being forced, to leave didn’t necessarily signal a lack of attachment to Poland. For over a century, there have been mass migrations from the Polish lands by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews who, regardless of their national or ethnic affiliation, chased after their dreams in distant lands.