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[Pages 9-10]

I.

Jewish Plonsk from its
beginnings to WWII

 

History of the Jews of Plonsk and its Surroundings

by N. M. Gelber

Translated by Aryeh Wanderman

 

The beginnings of the city

Plonsk, on the River Plonka, for which it is named, was founded in the early Middle Ages as a fortified city of the Duke of the region. In it was a wooden palace in which he resided when he stayed in the city. The homes of the residents of the city were built around the fortress. Most of the residents initially engaged in agriculture. As time went on there were added a few merchants and artisans.

Plonsk is mentioned as a fortification in a document issued by Boleslow Kedzierzawy in the year 1155. In 1400 the Duke Mazowsze and the Duke Siemowit granted a written declaration of the existence of the city under the Chelmno Law, in which is written that of every “Lan” there must be paid a rental fee of 48 Grush. The residents of Plonsk were exempted from all services, payments and taxes. Only in the case of the marriage of the Duke or his sons or daughters, or if a member of his family was taken in captivity, or when the Duke wanted to redeem some portion of his Land, were the residents of Plonsk taxed as were residents of every other city. This declaration was reconfirmed in 1527 by King Zygmunt I.

Plonsk belonged to the Duchy of Plock, which was annexed to the Kingdom of Poland in 1495 together with part of Mazowsze. The Duchy of Plock was one of eight provinces, one of which was Plonsk.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Plonsk developed into a city of commerce and its inhabitants grew continually. The inhabitants of neighboring cities came to Plonsk to sell their goods, something which caused the inhabitants to complain to the King about unfair competition since the merchants of other cities would come to Plonsk not only on market days but also on Sundays and holidays to sell their goods and their drinks. In 1612 the inhabitants of Plonsk were granted a special privilege by Zygmunt III in order to protect them from the competition from the inhabitants of the neighboring cities, and all commerce was prohibited on Sundays and holidays. Even selling of bread and meat was absolutely prohibited. These prohibitions applied not only to the Christian inhabitants but also to the Jews and if anyone violated the prohibition his goods were confiscated – bread, meat, wood – in favor of poor Catholics, and other goods for the municipality. Saturdays were set as the market days, on which liquor, beer, candles and any other goods which are produced in Plonsk were not allowed to be brought from neighboring cities. Textiles, cotton, feathers were also not allowed and if the prohibition is violated he was fined and his goods were confiscated.

In 1616 the report of the periodic survey (“Lustracja”) which was made about Plonsk and its surroundings stated:

“Plonsk belongs to “Starostbu”(?) Plock, and it has good land in addition to the farms (“folwark”). There is 33 “wlok”, which includes 3 “wlok” of the head of the city with a built house, gardens, a bath house, for which the head of the city does not have to pay taxes but, instead, he has to serve in the war.”

“The municipality has an income of 59 Florin, 6 Grush, according to the old procedure, from houses, residences and taverns, workers and stores. The shoe makers claim they have to pay only no more than 3 Florins, 10 Grush. Chimney cleaners pay 22 Grush. City residents give14 pails of oats for each “wlok”. Market days are on Tuesday and Saturday. In addition, three fairs take place every year, during which horses, cattle and other goods are sold. Money from the fairs provides 50 Florins a year for the castle of Plock.”

“In Plonsk there is a custom that those who sell herring contribute 30 fish from every barrel. The butchers of the towns and city contribute the meat and bones of the shoulder section (“lopatki”) of every animal they sell, which contributes 40 Florins a year. Duty is paid for the use of the road to Prussia. Jewish tenants pay a rental fee of 30 Florins a year. There are four Jewish houses

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in the city whose owners must give 1 liters of saffron a year. Beer brewers are flooding the city with beer.”

According to this report Plonsk at that time was a poorly populated city and the source of income of its residents was commerce, beer production and agriculture. The crafts were not yet developed.

Werdum, a German who visited in Plonsk from 1670 to 1672 wrote “Plonsk is an open city with two entrances, one of which is completely destroyed. The city itself is also half destroyed.

The residents of Plonsk gradually recovered from the destruction of the wars which took place in that period and they rebuilt the city.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Plonsk was a small city of no outstanding importance in the Provence of Plock. Most of its residents engaged in light agriculture and some of them in the crafts.

Some change took place after the Vienna Congress in 1815 following the relief provided by the government which made possible its development into a real city. A basic improvement in the appearance of the city took place, however, only in the 70's and 80's of the 19th century. Aside from the Catholic and the Pravoslavic churches, which were stone buildings, the city also had a shelter house for the poor, and a meteorological station with an observatory which was established in 1874 by the local physician Dr. Yandziavitch on a hill on the outskirts of the city. It published the results of its observations in professional journals in German and Polish.

There were two elementary schools in the city, a Court House, a Post Office, and several other public buildings. In 1830 there were 241 houses but only a few of them were stone buildings. The number of inhabitants in that year was 3,618. In 1862 there were 312 houses, most of which were wooden houses, and the number of inhabitants reached 4.261. In 1886 Plonsk had 122 stone houses and 241 wooden houses, and there were several work shops and a few factories. The city was prosperous and in 1881 its earnings reached 11,848 Rubles. Roads and paved sidewalks were built as well as public buildings which gave Plonsk the appearance of a well organized city.

Financially the city advanced considerably in 1867 when a new administrative organization was formed for the district and placed in the city. The district had 80,609 inhabitants, of them 57,656 Polish Catholics, 5,441 German Protestants, 3,179 Russian Pravoslavics, and 14,333 Jews. The towns in the district provided Plonsk a stable financial backing.

 

The first reports about the Jews of Plonsk

We have the first reports about the Jews of Mazowsze, which includes the Jews of Plonsk, from the records of the Courts of Law.

The first recording that mentions the Jews of Plonsk is from 1446. During this period, which was a period of peace with the Crusador regime, the rulers of Mazowsze were interested in developing their Land and therefore allowed Jews to enter the cities. Jewish communities were also formed in Warsaw (1414), Wyszograd (1422), Plock (1425), Zakroczym (1449), Sochaczew (1463), Pułtusk (1480) and Ciechanów (1488). The Jews worked in commerce and in finance.

The main route of commerce in those days was the Wisla River and the towns and cities along the river.

In the 15th century Mazowsze was divided into the districts of Warsaw and Plock. In 1462 Plock became part of the Warsaw dynasty. It was not politically united, however, with the Duchy of Mazowsze.

After the death of last Duke,Yanush II (1495), the Duchy of Plock was finally annexed to Poland. Mazowsze was not annexed until 1527.

The Head of the Jewish community of Plock in the 15th century was a Chief Rabbi (senior doctor?) named Kimchi who lived in Lanchicha. The Jews paid taxes in the sum of 1 to 6 Florins.

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The community of Plock was the richest and most famous of the communities in Mazowsze. It was, in essence, the “patron” and protector of the other communities. It was given the authority by the community of Plonsk to represent its interests before all the municipal and government bodies. The Jews dealt mainly in financial matters, money lending and commerce.

The competition with Christian merchants led to the expulsion of the Jews from Warsaw and Wishograd and the declaration “De non tolerandis Judeis” (1527).

In the beginning of the 15th century the Plock province consisted of Plock, Bilsku, Sharpatz Shransk, Melaba, Ratchonz, Niadzver and Plonsk.

Later in the 15th century, as previously mentioned, Jewish communities were founded in the other cities.

Many cases of money lending transactions resulted in controversies which were brought to municipal and federal courts of law. There is a known case in which a resident of Plonsk, Jan Czarny, relinquished his rights in the municipal court in an agreement with Moshe, the Jew who had lent him money, because the Jew had insured himself against the authority of municipal courts.

The wholesale commerce of the Jews of Plonsk consisted mainly of wood, potash and tar and the products were sent by means of the Wisla River to Danzig.

The Jews of Plonsk also visited the fairs in Posen, Gniezno and Torun. They had constant commercial connections with Plock and individuals used to go from Plonsk to Plock. Thus, for example, Shimon of Plonsk married the daughter of Yisrael of Plock and moved to the home of his father–in–law.

The ant–Semitic author Sebastian Mitinski, in his book “Zwierciadio Korony Polskiej (1618), complained that the Jews in the cities, including Plock, brought poverty to other residents of the cities (“przez cdjecie handlow”) and towns, evidently including Plonsk, and the Jews took control of and monopolized all the commerce.

In the first half of the 17th century the Jewish community of Plonsk grew due to the influx of Jews from the surrounding cities. But their lives did not remain peaceful for long. In 1655 the second war between Sweden and Poland broke out. The armies of Posen and Kalisz, about 15,000 men, went over to the Swedish side. The Protestants and the Jews were punished for this treason. The Jews were accused of spying for the Swedes.

The commander of the Polish army, Stefan Charnetzki, decided to take revenge on the traitors. In April, 1656, he travelled through Poland for this purpose, and it was primarily the Jews who suffered. His soldiers plundered and destroyed Jewish property and many Jews were massacred in many Jewish communities. Most of the Jews of Plonsk were killed, their houses plundered and burned down. In Gombin, the father (Rabbi Chaim Halevi) and mother of Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner – the “Magen Avraham” – were murdered. The Tzemach family of Plonsk are descended from them.

The many wars with the Swedes and with the Cossacks which swept over Poland in the 17th century resulted in the collapse and complete destruction of the Jewish communities in Poland. When the wars were over the Jews gradually rebuilt their homes, stores and workshops. On returning to Plonsk, the day before the new month of Sh'vat was established as a day of fasting and reciting penitential prayers (“Slichot”) in memory of the holy martyrs who had been murdered by the army of Charnetzki. The burial society (“Chevra Kadisha”) of Plonsk formulated special prayers, known as “Slichot Plonsk”. (The “Slichot Plonsk” were published in the year 1927 by the Jewish Judge of Plonsk Tzi Moshe the son of Shmuel. Plonsk was the only city in Poland which eulogized in this way the massacres which took place in the years of the Swedish Wars.)

King Jan Kazimirz granted, in 1657, permission for the Jews to rebuild their homes and stores. In 1670 King Wishnioviatzki gave renewed permission to the Jews to settle in Plonsk, to own homes, to engage in commerce, to produce liquor and beer, to buy and sell drinks, to slaughter cattle and to sell the meat. All this work was permitted only on weekdays and not on Sundays. The Jews were also permitted to rebuild their synagogue and to have their own cemetery. There subsequently developed

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conflict between the Jews and the Christians who considered them competitors. Complaints were sent to the King that the Jews were stealing their livelihood and undermining their financial existence.

As in Plock, the Jews of Plonsk had already been permitted in the 16th century by King Zigmund I to have market days in the city square only for wholesale trade with cotton goods, fabrics and spices, but were not allowed to carry on retail trade which was in the hands of the Christian merchants, as was the sale of meat on the market days.

*

In 1519 King Zigmund I organized all the lands of the country and Plonsk, as well as other communities, including them in Greater Poland. Representatives of Plonsk were included in gatherings of the country's Council. At the Council's first meeting, on November 19, 1519, the sum of 200 “gold coins” was set as the tax for the years 1519 – 1521. Representatives of Plonsk participated in that meeting, together with heads of 11 communities. The Council was made up of 16 members, 11 of which were assessors (“taksatorze”) and 5 were collectors (“egzekutorzy”). The task of the assessors, which included Shlomo from Plonsk, was to determine how much tax was to be collected from each community. The task of the collectors was to collect that sum from each community. The seat of the Council was in Valotzlabk.

In 1560, by decree of the King, the sum (“census annuus“) of 50 “gold coins” was transferred to Stanislow Olshovski, the King's deputy.

This was a special tax (“szos krolewski”) that the Jews were obliged to pay every year. In addition to this, the Jews of Plonsk paid a property tax (“szos placowy”). Part of this was for the”Starosta” and the Palace, and part of it for the municipality. The tax on Jewish houses on the Palace grounds was paid until the end of the 16th century. It was paid in cash or in goods such as half a liter of pepper or a liter of spices. Later it was paid only in cash. The municipality collected from the Jews, in addition to the property tax, also a special tax for their right to live in the city.

According to the written declaration of existence of the city from 1612 the Jewish and the Christian merchants had to give to the Palace the first 30 herrings (“rozen sledzi”) out of every barrel of fish, and the butchers had to give the shoulder bones (“lopatki”) worth up to 40 florins a year. A survey (“lustracja”) in 1612 showed that there were only four Jewish houses on the land of the Palace in Plonsk which were obligated to give to the “Starosta” one and half liters of saffron a year. In addition one Jew paid a rental fee of 30 florins a year for the road to Prussia.

Starting in 1549 the Jews in Poland paid a tax for each person in the population of each Jewish community amounting to 60,000 gold coins. In 1717 the sum was 220,000 and this remained in force until 1746. In 1717 the Jews of Plonsk paid the sum of 600 for the months of January, May and August alone. The same sum was paid by the Jews of Plock. The Jews of Vishogrod paid 800.

In the 17th century the Jews of Plonsk suffered from many fires after which they had to request special permission to rebuild their homes. They did not, however, benefit from this for very long. In 1669 the Council of the Four Lands reminded them that it had been previously decided that the Jews of Mazowsze must leave. The Jews of Plonsk left the city and did not return, together with all the Jews of Mazowsze, until this decree was abolished.

In 1678 the Jews of Mazowsze were threatened with expulsion from their cities and towns. The Council of the Four Lands, after considerable effort, succeeded in preventing this.

Plonsk was attached administratively to the community of Chikhanov. The administrative connection continued until the 50's of the 18th century. Around 1753 the connection was abolished, including the Rabbinic Court of Chikhanov and taxes on the population. The community of Chikhanov did not agree to the abolishing of the connection and its representative in the Council of the Four Lands, Avraham ben Layzer, brought up the matter at the meeting of the Council in July 1753. He also complained to the governor of the Province, Kazimir Granovski from Radom, who had been appointed

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by the Polish Minister of Finance to be the Commissar of this meeting and who was given authority to decide in all controversies. Granovski appointed, in 1753, Avraham ben Chaim to look into the dispute between Chikhanov and the communities, including Plonsk, which had abolished the connection.

In a Document for Settling Disputes (“Instument do rozsadzenua spraw”) there was written: “A complaint was also raised with Avraham ben Layzer that the towns which had always belonged to the community of Chikhanov, where they always paid taxes, have now abolished their connection for no reason. Avraham ben Chaim, leader of the Jews of Poland, must send Rabbis or appointed leaders who will pass judgement on this matter after hearing both sides and after they have brought reliable documents. You must give, without delay, a written report to each contestant, so that your arbitrators will be able to finally settle these matters. I command this in all seriousness and personally sign it". The matter, however, was not settled because it was decided that the Council of the Four Lands had no jurisdiction in disputes between communities and the matter must be settled in court.

We have no information about the financial and social conditions during this period. In the census conducted in 1764 Plonsk and the villages associated with it had a population of 455. In the region of Plock, which included Plonsk, there were 3,960 Jews.

In those years of invasions by foreign armies, of confederations and complications within Poland, the Jews suffered greatly. Interestingly, in the Plock area the Jews aided the confederation which was “ultra– Catholic” and hostile towards the Jews.

During the reign of Stanislow Poniatowski the condition of the Jews improved for a short time thanks to the quiet which existed in the country, especially after the first division of Poland.

*

During the second half of the 18th century Baruch Charif served as the Rabbi of Plonsk. He died in 1791. After his death, Rabbi Avraham Yekutiel Zalman ben Moshe Yosef Lichtstein came to Plonsk. He was one of the greatest Rabbis of his generation –“Harav hagadol, hagaon hakolel v'hamuvhak m'fursam b'doro”. He composed a detailed commentary on the “Sifri” (“Dvey Rav”, in two parts). The first part, on “Bamidbar”, was published in 1811. The second part, on “D'varim”, was published in 1820. In his commentary he wrote lists of references called “Mikra M'forash” and “Mavo Hatalmud”. His work, which he finished in 1788, was published by his son Moshe who added explanations from an old sage from Jerusalem whose name is not known. Rabbi Lichtstein also wrote an introduction to the book “Shoshanat Amakim”, called “Divrey Kohelet”, of his son Shlomo Sokolover, who died young. The book was published by his brother Moshe in 1785. Lichtstein also gave written approvals to the books “Binyan Shlomo”, “Birkat Avaham” and “Midrash Tanchuma”.

Rabbi Lichtstein died in Plonsk in 1810. His older brother, Klonimus Kalman, was Rabbi in Bialistok and was one of the best preachers (“Darshanim”) of his generation. He gave written approval to the book “Zera Avraham”.

During this period there was a Jewish physician in Plonsk named Dr. Shlomo Yaakovs.

*

During the Prussian conquest, in the years 1794 – 1807, the Jewish population grew in the Provence of Plock, including in Plonsk. Many Jews moved to Poland from the area that was previously Polish and became part of Prussia.

In 1808 the population of Plonsk was 3,807, of which 2,801 were Jews (73.6%). Compared to the year 1764, when the Jewish population was 455; this is an increase of 2,346.

The Jews began to own houses, although without official permits. In the area of Plock 373 houses were sold to Jews without official permits, only 3 of them in Plonsk.

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The Jews worked in retail business and in peddling, in addition to trading in grains, wood, eggs, cattle and agricultural produce. The goods were sent on the road Plonsk–Zakrochin–Warsaw, and on the roads in the direction of Plock. Wagons loaded with grain and other goods went every day to Plock and Modlin. There were some Jews who had connections with land owners in the area and who dominated the export business of agricultural produce. In those years there were quite a few Jews who leased land and who ran the farms themselves. Among the artisans there were tailors and furriers who worked for large firms, and this field rapidly grew and developed.

 

The settlement project in Kokhari

The settlement project in Kokhari is part of the history of the Jews in Plonsk. It was carried out by Shlomo Zalman Marcus Posner. He was born in 1766 in Warsaw to a family of wholesale merchants who carried out widespread trade with Germany and Austria and who were regular visitors in the Leipzig, Breslau, and Frankfurt–on–Mein fairs. In his youth, Shlomo Zalman Marcus Posner engaged in communal activities and he was one of the most severe critics of Chasidism and its Rabbinic leaders. He came out very much against them on every possible occasion. His aim was to eliminate the ignorance among the Jewish masses. He succeeded in both increasing his wealth and the extent of his activities.

Shlomo Posner himself, who was known as a wise and diligent Jew, did not limit himself in being only a well known retailer in Warsaw, the owner of a house on Nalbaki Street, but also to become big in the field of industry and agriculture. Posner, who wore Jewish clothing and had a beard and “payot” all his life, was faithful to tradition and was a scholar. He excelled in his extensive knowledge of Talmud and of the Hebrew language, but also had an interest in science and general secular knowledge, although he did not belong to the “Haskala” movement.

He appointed his friend Moshe Aharon Tziklov, who lived with him in Kokhari for many years, as the teacher of his children. After the children grew up, Tzilov served as director of the forest property until he was appointed, in 1854, teacher of Talmud in the Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw.

Another teacher of his children was R' Mordechai Hacohen Greenbaum, the Rabbi in Nashilsk and Sharpatz near Plonsk. Rabbi Greenbaum was persecuted by the Chasidim because he was a “Misnaged” (an opponent of Chasidism). The Greenbaun family had come to Poland at the end of the 18th century from Franfurt, together with a second family, Weisrosa.

Posner took R' Yisrael and Yehoshua of Kutna as the Talmudic–Rabbinic teacher of his children.

Posner could not tolerate the widespread ignorance of the Polish Jews due to Chasidism and he hated the rowdy facial expressions of the Chasidim. All his life he tried to improve the financial and social conditions of Jewish masses. The Chasidim looked upon these activities as sinful, and, in spite of his devotion to tradition, they even declared that he was an “epikorus” (non–believer). They never ceased to insult him and curse him and persecute him as much as they could. He, however, tolerated all this in silence and apathy, and whenever necessary he strove to better the conditions of the people and even cooperated with Chasidim, such as R' Yitzchak of Varka, against evil decrees.

Posner ran wholesale businesses and did much to develop trade and industry in Poland. Despite the order of November 19, 1808 which forbade the Jews from owning land, Posner succeeded, in 1817, in buying the land of Kokhari, in Plock, without any official approval and without any documentation.

Some time later he, on his own, informed the committee of domestic affairs and the police about it and asked the authorities to confirm the purchase and declare that the land belonged to him and to his descendants. His financial and social standing in those days was so strong and well known that the authorities were immediately in favor of approving his request, which they justified by saying that the law forbidding Jews from buying land was not published in the listing of laws and therefore had no

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validity. Accordingly, in 1817, General Zayonchik gave the command to approve the purchase of Kokhari by Posner until specific laws are enacted. The rational was that because the law of 1808 was not published it is possible that Posner did not know about the prohibition about Jews buying land. There is no doubt that Posner's financial and social standing were the decisive factors in his favor and the land remained in his possession.

On the basis of this decision Posner bought, in addition to Kokhari, also the towns Idzikovitza and Kadlovovka and, years later, settled 111 Jewish farmers there. This was approved by the administrative council in 1823. In Kokhari he built for himself a beautiful palace with a Yeshiva where well known scholars, such as R' Ze'ev Lifshitz, Dan Landau and others taught. There was a group of scholars called “Kahal Katan” who studied reference and research literature there, and each one had to learn several Talmudic tractates a year. The reputation of this “Kahal Katan” spread throughout the area and they were greatly honored, especially in Plonsk.

Posner spent every weekday running his business in Warsaw, and when he returned home on the Sabbath Eve he would immediately go to talk to each one of the students about what they had learned during the week. If he discovered that one of them had been lazy and was not really learning earnestly, his attitude towards him completely changed.

As one who encouraged agriculture among the Jews, Posner was one of the first who planned the “Association for the Support of Poor Jewish Farmers” which was founded with his help during this period. In 1822 he erected a factory in Kokhari for spinning and weaving cloth for the Polish army. This factory was not meant to be profitable but to train Jewish industrial workers. The factory was also permitted to mint copper coins on which was imprinted “Fabrika S.M.P.” (Salomona, Markusa Posnera). In 1826 there were 30 looms, a Dutch spinning apparatus and a curing machine. Different kinds of cloth were produced.

In 1831 there were 502 residents in Kokhari, 258 of them artisans and workers in the factory. There were 40 looms, 55 spinning machines, 13 machines for “scraping”, a water press, a printing house for cloth, 20 machines and 10 tables for cutting. The yearly production reached 25,000 cubits of delicate shawls and 900 of lower quality. After the destruction caused by the Polish rebels Posner received a large loan from the government and in 1832 work was resumed in the factory. The production increased greatly and the produce was sold to the Russian market. In 1842 there were 244 workers; in 1843 only 149 workers and 46 looms which produced 60,000 cubits of fabric a year. The yearly value of the produce reached 200,000 units of the local currency. The factory was among the largest in the Plock province and in this Posner was successful.

Posner lived mostly in Warsaw. In 1817 he was granted the lease on the tax of meat, together with Yechiel Michal Etinger, Yitzchak Rosen, Levy Shaulsohn, Shlomo Eiger and Chaim Davidsohn. In 1826 he also founded in Warsaw a fabrics factory. He held important public positions in Warsaw. He was one of the first to initiate the founding of elementary schools for Jewish youth, with the support of the Baron Stanislav Grabovski. He was appointed by the head of the city of Warsaw as a member of the administration of the Jewish community, and in 1821 when the government established the first supervisory committee of elementary schools Posner was chosen as chairman of the committee, a position he held for several years.

In 1825 a Rabbinical Seminary was established in Warsaw and a Council was formed to supervise the progress of the work. Alongside the Council there was also an advisory committee of five members of which Posner was one of them. Possibly due to his influence, 9 students from the surrounding cities, sons of distinguished men and Rabbis of Lifna, Suchatchov, Tchanstochov, Lentchistsa and Plonsk, were admitted to the Rabbinical Seminary. Yaakov Rotwand, a graduate of the Seminary, wrote in his memoirs that from 1826 Yitzchak Meir Greenbaum from Kokhari studied there. He had literary talents which were manifested especially in the Polish lesson, under the guidance of the teacher Jachovski. Greenbaum excelled in his excellent phrasing and the ease with which he wrote rhymes. Rotwand was convinced that if Greenbaum had continued to write poems he would certainly

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have been one of the known Polish poets. Greenbaum died at a young age in 1836. Rotwand published his poem “Do przyjazni” which he had dedicated to him out of friendship.

In 1825 Posner also was active in the Jewish Community Council and its advisory committee, especially concerning amendments in the meat tax. He was appointed as a member, along with Yechiel Michel Etinger, Avraham Stern and David Theodore Teplitz, in the sub–committee dealing with kosher meat. When the first Jewish Community Council was established in Warsaw, after the rebellion, Posner was among its members, along with Shlomo Etinger, Shaul Herzfeld, Shlomo Zalman Abramsohn, the three of whom belonged to the group of “Misnagdim”, and along with Yaakov Epstein who belonged to the group of “Maskilim”.

Posner , who was well acquainted with financial conditions in Poland, knew that the Jews of Poland will not have a strong standing as long as they are connected only with commerce. His entire aspirations were to get Jews to work in agriculture. He was one of the first who planned a group to help support poor Jewish farmers, which was established by him at that time.

In 1823 an ordinance was issued which allowed Jews to settle on land for agriculture. Those Jews were given certain privileges, such as exemption from taxes for a period of 3 to 12 years, providing them with wood to build houses, etc. In 1825, Moshe ben Meir Lasky, a resident of Warsaw, who was very much in favor of the Jews returning to agriculture, was encouraged by that ordinance and published a book named “Ma'amar Siyach Hasedeh”–“in praise of the merits of working the land and of labor in general for the good of our fellow Jew who live in Poland, as can be seen in the introduction and in the chapters.”

Lasky, in his book, preached the idea of productivity and tried to “reach the hearts of my fellow Children of Israel and tell them of the greater merit of working the land rather than dealing in trade and business, so that they will abandon such occupations, which do harm to this Land and Kingdom, and rather work the land or work in the crafts so that they will earn their bread with the work of their hands….and thereby remove from themselves the shame which the people attribute to them by saying that these people are too lazy to do work…”. The outlook of the author of this book was that the condition of the Jews and the makeup of the population necessitates a basic change in the way they earn their living, and there is no choice but to work the land.

In the report of 21 March 1825 which was submitted by the Jewish Council to the chairman of the government committee on religions and education, it was stated specifically that working the land is likely to improve the condition of the Jews and that it is necessary to provide them easier conditions than are provided other settlers and remove the burden of taxes from them.

Posner was aware of this state of mind and these aspirations. He saw this as the right time to carry out the idea which he had for several years and started to act with all his energy. He prepared a detailed plan, together with Yitrzchak Yunash and Michael Ettinger for the settlement of Jews on the land. The plans, however, were never carried out and the settlement of Jews on the land did not take place as he planned.

Posner, together with Michael Ettinger and Rabbi Davidsohn, participated in the debate which arose in 1830 about the book written by Luigi Kiarini, “Theorie de Judaisme”, in which he brought a blood libel against the Jews. He demanded that Ministry of Religions and Education ban the book.

In the early days of the rebellion, when the formation of a National Guard, in which Jews would participate, was discussed, representatives of the opponents in the Council of Communities, Chaim Davidsohn and Michael Ettinger, in cooperation with Rabbi Zalman Lifshitz, exerted influence on the government to assure that the volunteering of Jews to serve in the National Guard will not harm their right of freedom of religion. Posner was very helpful to the Council in this matter. When the rebellion broke out in November 1830, Posner, Chaim Davidsohn, Michael Ettinger and Rabbi Zalman Lifshitz opposed the ruling of the National Guard which permitted only shaven Jews to be accepted. He signed, on Feb. 11, 1831, the request that all Jews, including those with beards, be allowed to serve their country.

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Posner contributed considerable sums of money for the needs of the Polish army and gave them fabrics he produced for them. These actions, however, did not prevent serious troubles from which he suffered. In the beginning of March, 1831, he was arrested on his property in Kokhari by Polish soldiers who accused him of being a traitor to Poland and of helping the Russians. This arrest, and all the consequent troubles he had, are detailed in the book written by his brother–in–law Yosef Ha–Levi Levine.

After the suppression of the rebellion during the rule of Russian representative, the Prince Ivan Paskivitch, Posner continued his activities as the representative of the opposition in the advisory committee of the Community Council. In1842 the members of the Board of Directors of public schools suggested appointing him Chairman of the Board of Directors, but the authorities had already approved another list.

Posner had a special role as a forerunner of agricultural settlements in Poland. In 1840 he asked Paskivitch for a license to establish a Jewish agricultural settlement for the purpose of teaching the Jews to work the land. In July 1840 Paskivitch submitted a statement in which he noted his activity in the field of education, namely establishing elementary schools, and, in the economic field, the establishment of a factory in Kokhari which employed 400 men, all for the purpose of making his fellow Jews productive. In order to encourage the Jews to work the land he decided to give the Jewish settlers land he possessed in Kokhari without demanding from them any payment or work. In a second statement in July Posner detailed his program, as follows:

The land which will be given to the settlers will not be inherited by their descendants but will remain in the possession of all the Jewish settlers of the land for the purpose of agricultural education in order to train them in working the land and to increase the number of Jewish farmers in Poland.

The lands are to be divided into three equal sections in which 12 to 15 Jewish families are to be settled, according to the size of the areas.

After the contracts with the Christian farmers who previously worked the land expire in the coming Spring (1841), 12 to 15 Jews will replace them, will receive the lands, work them and will be given the necessary equipment. For three years they will be exempt from any payment. They will therefore be able to save money and be able to obtain their own supplies. After the three years they will be given the lands for another three years without payment but will be obligated to sow the area of the second section and to return the equipment to the second group of Jewish settlers. The same conditions will apply to the second and third sections. In this way, every three years 12 to 15 experienced Jewish farmers will be trained.. Every settler who excels in his work will be entitled, when he leaves his work, to recommend his son or son–in–law for settlement.

Posner, as the owner of land, does not demand any profits other than the use of the lawns for his visits. He does not want to allow the settlers to sell beverages. The children of the settlers will study in the elementary school which he built for the children of his factory workers. The doctor of the factory will be available to treat the settlers.

His program, when carried out, will apply also to his heirs, according to the conditions described in the program. He asked that the settlers be given discounts on the taxes levied on the Jews, especially the tax on kosher meat. In the end Posner asked to appoint an official, or a member of the agricultural institute, who will available to the heirs for advice and for planning and making internal arrangements for the settlements.

On October 19, 1840, Posner's program was approved, and it was promised that after three years the settlers will be relieved of the tax on kosher meat, and a representative of the agricultural institute will help on organizing the settlement. On April 24, 1841 Posner signed the first contracts with the settlers in which there were 10 paragraphs detailing their rights and obligations.

[Pages 17-18]

Contrary to the program, the settlers will be settled not for three years but for nine years with all the equipment. To be noted are paragraph 4 which forbade the settlers from carrying out any business, paragraph 5 which forbade selling equipment or property without permission of the owners, paragraph 6 which forbade selling beverages and food which are not needed by the farmer, paragraph 8 which forbade hiring foreign workers without the permission of the administration, and paragraph 10 which Posner promises to provide the settlers with wood for heating free of charge.

Posner established a synagogue, a study hall and yeshiva, a Mikveh (ritual bath house), and a threshing floor and barn for every family. In the spring of 1841, twelve families came to settle and they received sown fields and working equipment. The land was rented to them, without applying to them the laws of serfdom, for their lifetime. They took upon themselves to pay the cost of the house and the farm over a period of 25 years.

R' Yehudah form Kutna relates that he, together with Zalman Posner, were present on the occasion of the Jews plowing the land for the first time. On that occasion Posner said: “Behold, Poles are plowing there and Jewish farmers are plowing here They are both praying to God The Poles are praying that God will grant them success in their work and will send them rain in its time and will protect them from blight and its likes, and that they will reap in joy. My fellow Jews are praying: O' God grant me success, that my plow will uncover for me a treasure hidden in the ground and that I will be freed from this despicable work …”

Despites his fears, due to the great difficulties which came his way, a Jewish settlement was established on his properties. Between 1841 and 1844, 27 families, comprising 81 individuals, settled there. Six families, comprising 18 individuals, settled in Kokhari. They had 6 homes and 18 farm houses and 176 threshing tools. Nine families, comprising, 31 individuals settled in Kadlubovka, with 9 homes, 18 farm houses and 125 threshing tools. Twelve families, comprising 32 individuals, settled in Idzikovitza, with 12 homes, 22 farm houses and 210 threshing tools. In 1843 the time for providing wood for heating expired, but Posner continued giving wood to the settlers in Kadlubovka. The settlers in Idzikovitza paid for the wood with their work. In 1844 there were 100 men doing agricultural work in the three towns. Thanks to Posner's efforts the settlers were exempted from military service and they were recorded as farmers in the list of residents. During this period Posner was given the important task of settling Jews on the land.

In 1841 the leaders of the Warsaw community appeared before the Commissioner Paskivitch on the occasion of the birthday of the Emperor Nicolai the 18th, to bring their blessings and to express the faithfulness of the Jews. They pointed out the poor financial condition of the masses of Jews who were sentenced to expulsion from their towns. The Commissioner answered them that the only solution was that the Jews become farm workers rather than dealing in trade and brokerage. After that meeting the leaders of the community found it necessary to begin to be very active in this field. Zalman Posner was invited to advise them in this matter since he already had experience in settling Jews in his towns and he also had connections within the government. This consultation showed that, in spite of the prohibitions and limitations, there were Jewish owners of land in Poland and Jews who were working the land in the towns. It was therefore decided to take action to cancel the limitations which had prevented the Jews from working in agriculture. It was also decided to give to Yaakov Epstein and Zalman Posneer the task of publishing an appeal to the Jews to return to working the land which they were obligated to do according to the Torah. Zalman Posner was appointed to a committee which was established for this purpose. He and Rabbi Chaim Davidsohn wrote this appeal, named “Moda'ah” in Hebrew, which was translated into Polish by Yaakov Togendhold. It was signed by all the different circles of Jews, starting with the Chasidic rabbis Yitzchak of Varka and Yitzchak Meir of Gur, the leaders of the Warsaw community, and ending with the “Misnagid” Shlomo Zalman Posner and the assimilated Jews Yaakov Togendhold, Yaakov Epstein, Matityahu Rosen and Chaim Yonah Yanash. It was distributed to all the communities of Poland. Many Jews, and even communities, turned to the Warsaw community to obtain for them a license to buy land on which to settle Jews.

[Pages 18-19]

Actually, Posner was the only one of the rich Jews who really did anything to bring his people closer to working the land, and for this he gained the appreciation and honor of the authorities. He took upon himself to encourage the rich Jews to cooperate with and to give money to the settlement project which needed to be carried out. He also tried to get the authorities to rescind the limitations on Jews working the land and to obtain discounts for them, and also to free them from obligatory military service. The latter applied only to the Jews of Kokhari, Kadlovovka and Idzikovitza. Like all the settlers in these places, the Jewish settlers and their children were listed in the population and on their passports as farmers. He succeeded, together with the rich Jews of Warsaw and of the other cities of the country, in obtaining considerable sums of money and obligations to establish a settlement, but all those efforts failed. Obstacles, both on the inside and on the outside, caused the idea to fail. The negotiations which had begun in 1843 ended up with no real results.

In 1844 Posner was called upon to arrange for the approval of a certificate of appropriation. The procedure lasted three years, and only in 1847 Posner gave to the government representatives a declaration in which he obligated himself to give the lands in Idzikovitza and Kadlovovka, together with all the buildings, work tools and the support which were given to the settlers, to an agricultural school for the Jews. He retained for himself the rights to the trees in the forests, the provincialism of the two towns, with the buildings and the areas of land which belonged to him, and the use of the water as space for tying up the trees which were sent on the river. The farmers pay all the taxes which apply to the land. The supervision of the Jewish settlement was given over to the government and he would receive no payments from the settlers. This appropriation was recorded in the land registry in Kokhari in July 1848.

Posner died in 1848. Because of irregularities in his inheritance, the authorities did not agree to approve the appropriation. On the contrary, his sons did not want to carry out the appropriation and they completely changed their attitude towards the settlers. David Posner, the executer of the heirs, demanded that the settlers work the owners land. Conflicts arose and the police became involved. A protest was filed in the name of the settlers against Peretz Posner demanding an investigation and demanding fulfillment of the obligations of Shmuel Zalman.

Since Posner had not succeeded in obtaining legal approval of the certificate of appropriation, it expired in 1862.

In 1861 six families, with 18 men in them, lived in Kokhari, in 6 houses and 18 community buildings, on an area of 176 Morag. of which 147 Morag was land for sowing , 22 was greenery land and 7 was shrubbery. In Kadlovovka there were 9 families with 31 men and 9 houses, 18 community buildings, on an area of 125 Morag, of which 97 was land for sowing, 19 was greenery land, and 9 was shrubbery. In Idzikovitza there were 12 families with 32 men and12 houses, 22 community buildings, on an area of 219 Morag, 186 of which was land for sowing, 12 was greenery and 12 was shrubbery. Altogether, there were 27 families, with 81 men, 27 houses and 58 community buildings on an area of 511 Morag.

In 1864 the law recognized the settlers as farmers who were entitled to benefit from the reform provided by this. Kokhari was also given the right to choose a Jewish leader. The reform of 1864 brought completely negative results. The settlers began to sell the lands and engage in trade, crafts and to have stores. Many left the settlement and moved to the city. And immigration to America and England began.

Jewish settlements ceased to exist. Posner's vision was not fulfilled. The arguments among his heirs had a catastrophic effect on all his property and paralyzed the factory from 1851 to 1865. In 1865 the value of the produce was 50,000 rubles and his heirs sold the factory to a group of Jews from Chemilnik.

[Pages 19-20]

The fame of Shlomo Zalman Posner, including his tales, his sayings and his innumerable jokes, was widespread among the people for many years after his death and attested to the great admiration in which he was held by the masses of Israel.

 

The Libel of Shlomo Plonski

Shlomo Plonski was born in Plonsk. He and his father worked there as merchants. In 1789 he left Plonsk with his family and moved to Warsaw. He worked there as a merchant for several years and then worked in the hospital. In the fall of 1819 he went to the Land of Israel with a passport which was given him by the administration of the Police and Postal Service in the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Warsaw. He went from Warsaw to Odessa and from there he went by boat on the Black Sea to Constantinople and to Jerusalem.

In September 1821 he wrote from Constantinople to his son–in–law in Warsaw that he visited the Land of Israel and that he intends to return to Poland soon. He described his pilgrimage to the Land of Israel in very flowery language.

He remained in Constantinople longer than he initially intended and spent all his money there. In a second letter, which he sent from Odessa, he asked to send him 50 Docats for his travelling expenses. In this letter, which was also written in flowery language, including verses from the Bible, he used terminology, as was common in those days, referring to his son–in–law in such terms as “sir”, “nobleman”, “prince”, etc. In this letter Plonski mentioned four others who had arrived in Odessa from the Land of Israel with him, one of whom was a resident of Vilna. At the end of the letter Plonski tells his son–in–law that he brings with him “news from the Land of Israel which will bring hope and happiness in the hearts of our people that Kingdom is not far off and that the youth of Jerusalem and its inhabitants will help in building Zion”. Both of these letters reached the investigative department in the office of the chief of the military staff of the great Prince Constantine, General Korota. This department, which was headed by General Segtinski, constantly opened letters which arrived in Poland. He saw two letters written in Hebrew which were sent from Turkey to the Jews of Warsaw and this aroused his great suspicion.

In 1821, the year of the war by Greece, assisted by Russia, against Turkey, there was considerable tension between Russia and Turkey. The Jews were viewed by the Russian authorities as supporters of Turkey which ruled over the Land of Israel. Ever since the days of Napoleon the Russian authorities were convinced that the Jews were not loyal to the Czar. Segtinski therefore saw these suspicious letters and was convinced that they consisted of spying. He gave the letters to the office of the Commissar of the Czar in the Polish government, the Senator Novosiltzov, who gave them to a Hebrew censor, Yaakov Togendhold, to translate into French. The translated letters were then sent by Novosiltzov, with his comments, to Prince Constantine. Novosiltzov, who was a famous extortionist in those days. He immediately recognized that these letters were an excellent means of extorting money from the Jews. His comments on the letters served to inflate the contents of the letters to a first class political sensation and increased the suspicions of Constantine to such an extent that he ordered that they be handed to Czar Alexander I who also was the King of Poland.

Constantine informed Czar Alexander in his report as follows: “Two letters from Constantinople have recently been sent to a Jew who is a resident of Warsaw. Their content, a translation of which from the original Hebrew into French I enclose, show that they were written by a Jew who, together with four others, have some role in the Holy Land. The emphasized expressions in the second letter show that he fulfilled a mission to the satisfaction of those who sent him and that he is very hopeful that Jerusalem will be built and a new nation will arise there. As soon as this Jew who wrote the letters will enter the country I will give an order to arrest him and to confiscate all the papers in which there may be hints of the existence in Odessa of friends who are connected to him, “

[Pages 20-21]

On December 27th, 1821, Shlomo arrived in Warsaw and was immediately arrested and was brought to the Palace of Brihal and imprisoned. All the belonging and papers in his possession were taken from him. A total of 61 letters written in Hebrew or Yiddish were taken and handed over to the office of Novosiltzov and were translated there into French. The letters were from people who lived in the Land of Israel, asking him to give them to their families in Poland. The letters described their conditions and inquired about the health of their relatives, about any births or weddings or deaths, and sent greetings to their children and grandchildren. The letters also gave information about charitable institutions in the communities which collected contributions for the poor in the Land of Israel and would send the money through Shlomo Eiger who was the collector, in Warsaw, of money for the Land of Israel. Among the letters there was one from Menachem Mendel Borochovitz from Shklov who was living in Jerusalem. The letter was signed by Jerusalem synagogue directors and was sent to Be'er ben Shmuel, one of the rich men of Warsaw, who was the son of Shmuel Yaakobovitz, the banker of King Stanislav Poniatovski and a well known activist. Be'er ben Shmuel was asked to collect money in Warsaw for building an Ashkenazi synagogue in Jerusalem, after permission for building it had been given from Constantinople. This letter, which contained flowery language and verses, aroused suspicion, especially the verse wishing the Jews to be strong and brave and help to return the crown to its original glory.

Constantine, when he read the letters, wanted to cancel the whole matter concerning Plonsk, but in the end he accepted the opinion of Novosiltzov.

Novosiltzov saw these letters as an opportunity to use them to declare that there is a political campaign on the part of the Jews which favors Turkey against Russia, and when he will be asked to silence the matter he will be able to extort a lot of money from the Jewish leaders in Warsaw. With this in mind he sent the following special report to the Czar in March, 1822: “Aside from the various countries, the Jews have a secret government of their own comprised of Rabbis and synagogue leaders in the Land of Israel to whom the rich Jews in various countries owe their allegiance. These rich Jews have the title “Princes of Israel”. Clearly, a connection has arisen between the Jews and their ancient Homeland. They build synagogues there and pray at the graves of the holy prophets, and expect their Messiah to come there. Many of them go to the Land of Israel, as a result of which large sums of money are being brought to the Land of Israel from the countries which have a large Jewish population. Due to these connections the Jews become estranged from the countries in which they live and their aspirations are to establish a country of their own. The most dangerous thing about this matter is that in Asia there is being created a group of secret agents who, when the appropriate time arises, will turn into spies working for the good of Turkey. The letters tell that for money they received a permit from Constantinople to build a synagogue in Jerusalem. Thus, the Jews, citizens of Poland, living in the Land of Israel, carried on negotiations with a foreign country behind the back of their own country (Poland–Russia). This presents a political danger and indicates the lack of loyalty of the Jews to their own country. The 2,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel are to be seen as dangerous spies for Turkey.”

In the meantime Shlomo underwent intense investigation while in prison, led by the head of the Russian secret police. The investigation lasted more than two years, until the end of February 1822. He was asked 155 questions composed by Novosiltzov himself. All this was, however, in vain because they couldn't get from him political answers as they expected. He told them he was 70 years old, born in Plonsk, the son of a merchant, and for 30 years he lived in Warsaw with his family and worked as a merchant. After that he worked in the Jewish hospital. In the autumn of 1819 he visited the Land of Israel to pray there. In answer to the question if on the way to Jerusalem he saw anything special, he said that during all of his journey he was immersed in prayer and was not concerned with anything else. In the end he said that after his release he intends to return to the Land of Israel in order to die there. In answer to the question when the Messiah is expected to come he answered that the time is unknown, but he could come at any time. In answer to the question if the ingathering of the Jews to Jerusalem is

[Page 21]

near, he answered that it is impossible to determine the time but it is nearing. By what means do the Jews try to hasten the ingathering? Shlomo answered “by prayer”.

The investigation did not achieve the desired results. Novosiltzov himself, after he received a large bribe from the Jews of Warsaw, decided to end the political suspicions. In the middle of March, 1822, Constantine informed Czar Alexander that there was no evidence against him and he requested his release. The request, however, did not arrive and Shlomo died in the prison.

Plonsk was therefore privileged to be, according to the assimilated historian Professor Shimon Ashkenazi, the first Zionist entity in Poland!!

*

The Jews of Plonsk suffered greatly in the days of the Polish rebellion in the years 1830, 1831. Rumors were spread, already in the beginning of the rebellion, about the Jews being spies and informers for the Russians.

One of the saddest chapters in the persecution of the Jews was the imprisonment of Shlomo Zalman Posner, his wife's brother Yaakov Halevy Levine, and his son Shaul Peretz Posner (1804 – 1857). Posner was accused of spying for and aiding the Russians. After having repeatedly been moved around in the prisons he was finally brought to Warsaw. Thanks to the efforts of his brother, Leibel Mordechai Posner, a permanent resident of Warsaw, with the government, they ordered an investigation of the case. In the report given to the government by the committee for internal affairs and the police it was stated that no evidence was found to show any guilt of Posner or the five others. On April 18, 1831 the government ordered his release and ordered an investigation to be made of the accusations which had been made and to publicize a statement after the completion of the investigation. The results of the investigation were given to the criminal court in Plock and in the same month a public announcement was made stating that the court found no proof of the accusations which had been made. This officially ended the affaire concerning Posner which had created a public storm and served as proof of the lack of intelligence on the part of the military authorities in their attitude towards the Jews in the days of the rebellion. Actually it was the people who were hostile to Shlomo Posner because of his property possessions and his richness who caused this affair to take place, by means of their slander and their false accusation of treason and spying which almost resulted in his financial collapse.

 

Veteran Families

Prominent families in the community were the Tzemach and Frankel families.

The origin of the Tzemach family was Gombin in greater Poland. The patriarch of the family was Avraham Avly (?), the son of Chaim Halevy Gombiner (1635 – 1682), the well known commentator of the Shulchan Aruch and auther of works on Halacha and Agada, and one of the great Rabbinic authorities of his generation. He was born in the city of Gombin , and the family name Gombiner comes from this. His father, Chaim Halevy, who was a learned man and one of the dignitaries of Gombin, was killed in 1655 by the military forces of Tchernitzky.

After his parents were killed he moved to Kalish where he served, initially, as a teacher for children, and shortly after that was accepted, despite his young age, as head of the Yeshiva of Valdein/ He was proficient in all of Torah learning, knew by heart chapters of Mishnah and Talmud and excelled in his expertise and keenness. He was not yet 30 when he began to write his commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, which he called “Ner Yisrael” and was published under the name “Magen Avraham”. He completed it in 1671. It was written in response to requests of his friends who urged him to fill the need for a commentary on Shukchan Aruch, Orach Chaim. This commentary was granted approval by all the scholars of Poland who greatly praised this work. He and his brother,

[Pages 21-22]

Yehudah Halevy Gombiner, one of the important men of Krakow, tried to have this work printed but did not succeed. It was printed after his death by his son, Rabbt Chaim Gombiner in 1692, with help of the leaders of the “Four Lands”. Since then his commentary has been attached to publications of the Shulch Aruch Orach Chaim and has considerably influenced the religious life of the Jews of Poland. The commentary excels in its clear language, profound interpretations and its new halachic rulings. Avraham Gombiner considered the Shulchan Aruch to be the accepted halachic ruling which is not to be questioned. Eventually an interpretation of his commentary, named “Machatzit Hashekel” was written by Rabbi Shmuel Keln of Boskovitz.

Aside from “Magen Avraham”, his son Chaim Gombineer and his son–in–law Moshe Yekutiel Koifman of Kutna printed:

  1. “Zayit Ra'anan”, a commentary on the Yalkut Shimoni”,
  2. “Shemen Sasson”, on the portions of the Torah,
  3. A short commentary on the Tosefta on Seder Nezikin
  4. A treatise on Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer
  5. A collection of halachic innovations on the other parts of the Shulchan Aruch
  6. Halachic innovations of the tractates Z'vachim and M'nachot
Avraham Gombiner was also a poet and he wrote a lamentation which had 92 verses which started with “The Land of Israel had ten portions of holiness”, on the holiness of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. It is recited on the Tenth of Av.

He died in 1682, at the age of 47. Before he died he expressed his wish not to inscribe a lot of titles on his gravestone but simply to inscribe: Here lies Avraham Avly(?) the Levy, author of “Magen Avraham” and “Zayit Ra'anan”.

According to the accepted tradition in the Tzemach family, the son of Avaham Gombiner settled in Plonsk where he raised the Tzemach family which became one of the pillars of the Plonsk community. The family got the name “Tzemach” from his great grandson, Tzvi Hirsh, whose book was called “Tzemach Avraham”.

The members of the family were wholesale merchants and were well known scholars. Tzvi Hirsh, at the end of the 18th century, was especially prominent in the life of the community. He was a wholesaler who was known not only in his city but also throughout Poland. His father, Chaim, also leased land surrounding Plonsk. His mother was a descendant of Natan Neta Shapira, author of “Megilla Amukot”.

Tzvi Hirsh spent his free time learning Torah. He named his book “Tzemach Avraham” in order to show that he is descended, like a “growth”, from the author of “Magen Avraham”. [The word Tzemach means a plant or a growth.] Also, the numerical value (“gimatria”) of the letters of the word “tzemach” (tsadik, mem, chet) is 138, which is usually written with the Hebrew letters kuf, lamed, chet which spell out the word “kelach” which means a stem or stalk of a plant, thus indicating that he “stemmed” from Avraham the author of “Magen Avraham”.

The “Tzemach Avraham” book is a commentary on the treatise “Yalkut Shimoni” for the first two books of the Torah, Genesis and Exodus, and the last portion of the book which is called “Giduley Tzvi Zuta” includes commentaries on the other three books of the Torah, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, as well as the books Ecclesiastes, Ruth and Esther. The book was published in 1796 in Warsaw.

In 1804 his second book, “Gidulay Tzvi Raba”, a commentary on the “Yalkut” for Leviticus, appeared.

His sons, Chaim, Meir and Avraham Abba (who was one of the vehement opponents of the Hasidic Movement) were merchants and land owners. They were men of great influence in the Plonsk community and no actions were taken without their approval, especially the appointment of a Rabbi and of others who performed religious functions. Because of this there often were controversies with

[Pages 22-23]

different groups within the Jews of Plonsk, especially those who were under the influence of the Hasidic movement.

The son–in–law of Chaim Tzemach, Yosef Frankel, the son of Rabbi Baruch Frankel of Leipnik, was a wholesale merchant and landholder. He was a great scholar and was proficient in all aspects of Torah learning. He taught Torah in Plonsk and taught in the Yeshivah. When he married the daughter of Chaim Tzemach his father–in law took as a teacher for him the great scholar Aryeh Leib, son of Moshe Tzins–T'omim, who had a great influence on him in the spirit of the Misnagdim (opponents of the Hasidim). Despite his devotion to tradition he also devoted time to secular studies, under the influence of the circle of “Maskilim” in Plock where he would come for business. This circle existed since the days of Yehudah Leib Margaliot (author of “Or Olam”) who served as Rabbi in the years 1798 to 1805.

Frankel settled in Plock for several years and was the head of a circle of Maskilim who opposed the spread of the Hasidic movement and demanded the establishment of Jewish schools.

Frankel was a rich man and he contributed a lot in the development of the community. When, due to a drought, there was no flour and the population suffered hunger, he brought food from Russia to give free to the poor people every week, according to the number of members of the family. To the middle class food was distributed at a low price, and to the rich at the price he paid for the food in Russia. He thus supported the population for a whole year.

His sister Yocheved Rivka was married to Yechiel Michel Kaminer, the grandson of Avraham Abba Halevy Tzemach, the father–in–law's brother of Yosef Frankel. In his business Frankel was connected with Zalman Posner and his brother–in–law with whom he also had friendly ties.

When Posner was imprisoned in the days of the Polish rebellion, 1830 – 1831, Frankel stood by him and tried to help him. Yaakov Levine tells in his memoirs that when they brought Posner, his son and Levy as prisoners on the way to the prison in Warsaw, they arrived to the town Sheramin, near Polnsk. Levine reports that “Yosef Frankel, of blessed memory, soon came in the wagon, cried and pleaded with Hieneral Dialanovsky on his behalf and told how much Posner did for the country, for which the noblemen of the land praised him, thanked and glorified him in writing, and for this he alone among his brothers was allowed to own land in your midst; now open your eyes and see what he received instead of reward.” Frankel succeeded in changing the mind of the general and he allowed the prisoners, who until them were force to go on foot, to continue to Warsaw in Frankel's wagon. He arranged for them in every city that they went through wagons and horses which would take them to Warsaw. Frankel continued further in his efforts with the authorities because he was loved by the residents and sympathized by everyone for the good deeds he did on behalf of the city. Yosef Frankel died in Plonsk in 1838.

His son–in–law, Simchah the son of Shmelka Horowitz from Lvov, also was involved in the life of the community in Plonsk. He owned land and helped the merchants of Plonsk with a “G'mach” (charity fund). He was loved by the farmers in the area because of his good relations with them. The Hasidim tried to win him over without success and he remained a “Misnaged”. In the end of his life he left Plonsk and settled in the city Tehoren.

His second son–in–law, Zvi Hirsh Padva, son of Yaakov Meir of Brisk also lived in Plonsk. He was a very learned man. He was engaged in the wool trade. Whenever he sold wool he always would lend the money to residents in the city through the G'mach until the time came to buy more wool.

A relative of the Tzemach and Frankel families, the brother–in–law of Zvi Hirsh Tzemach, Yeshaya, son of Meir Rachlis, was a rich man. He came from Tiktin. He was a wholesale merchant and was known for his charity. In 1862 he built a large Beit Midrash (study hall) in Plonsk. It was named “Beit Torah L'talpiot”, but was popularly called “Yeshaya's Beit Midrash”. He supported with his own money ten learned men who studied there, in shifts, night and day. He sent Avraham Charif, Yosef Frankel's brother–in–law, to Warsaw to buy a large collection of books, among them 300 books

[Pages 23-24]

of rabbinical responsa and various books which had the corrections of Zvi Hirsh Halevy, the author of “Tzemach Avraham”.

Yeshaya would bring cakes and candy every day and give them to the children who would say Yehay Sh'may Rabba Mvorach (may his great name be blessed). He died on the 22nd of Iyar, 5576 (1816) and was buried, as he wished, in the middle between two of the learned men from his Beit Midrash.

 

Rabbis in Plonsk

After the death of Avraham Yekutiel Zalman Lichtstein, in 1810, the following rabbis filled the seat of the Rabbinate in Plonsk:

  1. Rabbi Yitzchak Auerbach, who was popularly called “Itzili from Plonsk”. He was the son of Rabbi Chaim, son of Yitzchak Auerbach (1755 – 1830), the rabbi of Lentshits and brother of Rabbi Avraham Charif (the rabbi of Sharpatz and son–in–law of Rabbi Chaim Tzemach). He was the author of the book “Divrei Chaim” on the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch which was published in 1850–1851. He left Plonsk around 1835 and became the Rabbi of Dabri, and after his father died he was chosen to be the Rabbi of Lentshits. His son, Meir (1815 – 1878), was the Rabbi of Kulo. In 1860 he settled in the Land of Israel where he founded the Yeshiva “Ohel Yaakov” in Jerusalem and he was chosen to be the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazim.
  2. Rabbi Yissachar son of |Rabbi Yehudah Leib from Kalish, author of “Pitchei Sha'arim” (1818). After he left the Rabbinate in Plonsk he served as the Rabbi in Tshantochov.
  3. Rabbi David Kanfei Yonah.
  4. Rabbi Shlomo Yissachar Dov. Before Plonsk he was the rabbi in Karb and Sacharov. After Plonsk he was a Rabbinic Judge in Warsaw. He was outstanding in the depth of his learning and in his sharpness.
  5. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel son of Binyamin Diskin, author of “Bnei Binyamin”. After Plonsk he was the Rabbi in Valkovitz.
  6. Rabbi Lipa Halvy son of Yaakov Yosef Tzemach–Kaminer. He left Plonsk because of conflict in the community and was accepted as the Rabbi in Vadizlov.
  7. Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Halevy. He was the son–in–law of Moshe Yehuda Leib, rabbi in Kutna, the author of “Zayit Ra'anan” (Warsw, 1851). He settled in the Land of Israel in the last years of his life.
  8. Rabbi Moshe Gershon. He died in Plonsk on the 11th of Cheshvan, 5653 (1892).
Rabbi Zvi Moshe Croin was one of the Rabbinic Judges.

Rabbi Eliezer Sapir was a preacher in Plonsk during this period. He was the author of “Ma'asei Rokeiach”, a commentary on Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), “L'vav Chochma” in which are included 32 commentaries on Genesis, and “Even Sapir” on the book of Psalms. These remained as hand written manuscripts with his son and were not published. Rabbi Eliezer Sapir was considered in his time one of the famous “Darshanim” (preachers) in Poland and was an opponent of Chassidism. Before he came to Plonsk he was in Lask. His son, Sinai Sapir (died 1875), followed him in Lask. The latter was the author of “Olat Chodesh” (two parts), interpretations regarding the months of the year (Warsaw, 1847).

Rabbi Zvi Yechezkel Michelsohn served for 28 years in the Rabbinate in Plonsk, 1894–1922. He was related to the Tzemach and Frankel families, and with their help he was chosen as the Rabbi in Plonsk. The Tzemach and Frankel families were “Misnagdim” (opponents of Chassidism), and they tried to appoint Rabbis who were “Misnagdim” and this caused serious controversy with the community leaders who supported Chassidism. The first ones of the Tzemach family who joined the

[Pages 24-25]

Gur Chassidim were Abba son of Aryeh Leib and Avigdor (son of Chaim ben Avraham Abba) of Radom.

 

The Economic Situation

In the first quarter of the 19th century there was a decline in the number of Jews in Plonsk, from 2,801 in the year 1808 to 2,304 (of 3,879 residents of the city) in the year 1827. The percentage of Jews fell from 73.6% to 59.4%. In 1830 there were 241 houses in Plonsk. Except for a few stone houses all were wooden houses.

There were no changes in the occupational makeup in the Jewish community. A small percentage, consisting of the Tzemach and Frankel families, were land owners or people who leased land and they controlled the wheat and wool commerce. Most of the Jews were retailers, shop owners or peddlers, and only a few were artisans.

In 1840 there were 1,139 Christians and 1,763 Jews in Plonsk. Compared to 1827 the population fell from 3,879 to 2,902 and the number of Jews diminished by 541.

The professional makeup of the Jewish community of Plonsk during this period is not known, but it is known for the whole province of Plock, which includes the city of Plonsk, for the year 1843. From the statistics in the archives in Warsaw of the tax on kosher meat, the Jewish historian E. N. Penk made the following calculations of the occupations of the 17,540 Jews in the province of Plock:

Bankers, home owners, land owners and capitalists 68
Contractors and landlords 441
Restaurant and bar owners 1,160
Shop owners and retailers 1,197
Brokers and suppliers 5
Artisans and owners of small factories 3,485
Laborers 2,926
Servants 134
Farmers 1,746
Free–lancers 65
Religious functions 192
Daily workers 5,716
Miscellaneous occupations 62
Lack of profession 42
Prisoners 283
Young students 967

Although the list above refers to the entire province of Plock it can be assumed that occupations of the Jews of Plonsk were similar.

In the 1840's the enlightened religious Jews formed an association of artisans called “Kolokotka”. The aim of the association was to teach Bible and grammar to the artisans and simple people. They would meet to study in the “Federshtern” study hall. This association existed until the end of the 19th century and played an important part in the enlightenment of the simple people.

In 1857 there were 3,959 residents in Plonsk, 2,630 of them Jews (66.4%). This is a growth of 334 Jews since 1827 (12.7%).

The city suffered from fires in the years 1840 – 1850, and this is apparently the reason that a number of Jews left the city. At the end of the 1850's the conditions improved.

[Pages 25-26]

Starting from 1861 the attitude of the Poles toward the Jews improved. The Jews took part in the activities in the city and in the Polish–Jewish brotherhood movement. There was a considerable change in the 1860's. The relations between the Jews and the Poles were good thanks to slogans of Polish–Jewish brotherhood which were declared on the eve of rebellion in 1863. In 1861 a loan fund (Pozyczkowa) was set up by V. Siekkucki which was mutual for the residents of all religions in the city.

The Jews of Poland were given voting rights for the local and national Councils, in keeping with the law in 1861, and one Jew from Plock, Ozer Levita, out of 15 members and 15 replacements, was chosen for the Council of the Provence of Plock, as well as two Jews (Yaakov Levin from Plock and Sinai Tzemach from Plonsk) as replacements. No Jew was chosen for the Council of the city of Plonsk. Two Jews out of 12 were chosen for the Council of the city of Plock, and 5 Jews out of 12 as replacements.

 

During the Polish Rebellion of 1863

As is well known, the Jewish students in Warsaw were the very lively element which promoted the brotherhood of the Polish Jews. These students were mostly sons of progressive Jews who were educated among the Poles and who considered themselves Poles. They participated with their Polish friends in all the nationalistic activities, they organized demonstrations and they travelled to outlying cities in order to preach in favor of the nationalistic movement. They organized the workers and farmers and also raised money for the movement, not only among the Jews but also among the Poles. In short, they were faithful partners in all the underground activities of the students. The students in the Academy of Art, in the Faculty of Medicine and in the Rabbinical Seminary were particularly active.

Yosef Shteinhaus, Moritzi Shtifson, Isidor Heilpren, Isidor Kamioner and Vitman, who was born in Plonsk, were particularly prominent among the students of the Seminary. In the records of the investigation by the Russian police authorities it is only known that he was born in Plonsk, was 26 years old and at the time of his imprisonment and he was a student in the 4th class in the Rabbinical Seminary. He was accused of conspiratorial activities, participation in demonstrations in 1861 and of distributing illegal literature. He was imprisoned for a long time but it is not known if he was convicted.

A state of emergency was declared in Poland in 1861, even before the rebellion broke out, and seven war zones, each with its headquarters, were created and existed until 1866. The province of Plock was one of these seven zones and Plonsk was under its jurisdiction. This resulted in considerable suffering in the city, especially in 1863 when the Poles formed a fighting unit from residents of the city. In Plonsk there were Jews who were active in preparing for the rebellion. A Jew named Itzik Charnovski was arrested in Warsaw, as cited in the case file “Jewrej” of Plonsk, in connection with “organizing the revolution and participation in the rebellion”.

The residents of Plonsk formed a special squadron (“Oddzial plonski”) consisting of 500 local volunteers and volunteers who arrived from Prussia. The commanders were Kolba, Majer Romuald Palacyk and Bronislav Gasztowt. There also was a firing squad headed by an Italian volunteer, Ludwig Navonne. On the 23rd–24th of January, 1863, the squadron attacked Plock but did not succeed in conquering the city. They then turned in the direction of Plonsk. The squadron of 25 men attacked the Russian squadron and 40 Cossacks who were stationed in Plonsk. They killed two Russians and wounded 14, and they captured 43 rifles with 2,800 bullets and then were forced to retreat, leaving behind 3 dead and 4 wounded.

It is not known how many Jews served in the Plonski squadron. It is only known that the commander of one squad, with the rank of Italian officer, was Shlomo Posner, the grandson of the industrialist and owner of the Kokhari estate. After the outbreak of the rebellion he came to Poland from Piatznatza. He was a painter and in 1855 he went to Frankfurt–on–Mein for advanced studies in

[Pages 26-27]

the Academy of Painting. When the war of liberation in Italy broke out he enlisted in Italian squadrons near Piatznatza and served in the cavalry. He excelled there and was appointed an officer. He remained in the army until 1863. When the Polish rebellion broke out he joined, together with several friends, the Plonsk squadron and participated in several battles. In the battle near Rozaoziny (in the province of Plock), between the Plonski squadron and the Russian squadron commanded by Captain Botkovski, the Poles were surrounded, and they then accepted Posner's advice to flee through the lines of the Russian army. He himself, with his squad, kept the Russians busy and allowed the other squads to flee. In that battle 15 of the rebels and he himself were killed. Forty Russian soldiers fell. The next day the local residents found his body and buried him in the Jewish cemetery in Zuromin. More than 2,000 participated in his funeral, thus emphasizing their admiration of his bravery.

The Jews of Plonsk, especially those with business connections as leaseholders of estates and wholesalers of farm produce, together with Polish aristocrats who owned estates and forests, contributed money to the Polish cause.

In March, 1863, 814 men were arrested in the province of Plock, which included Plonsk, for participating in the rebellion or supporting it. Among them were 197 Jews. Among the first arrested in Plonsk was Leibush Tzemach for his contributions to the rebellion. He was sent to Modlin fortress.

 

The Days of the Haskalah (Enlightenment)

In 1865 the “maskilim” (“enlightened”) of Plonsk and its surroundings established an association called “Association for Study of Torah and Wisdom”, a ”standard bearer of the Torah and of wisdom and a meeting place for the wise men”. The aim of the association was to make an effort to combine Torah and Wisdom together, as said by the Vilna Gaon: “The Torah and Wisdom are linked together”. Among its aims was the rejuvenation of the Hebrew language and literature. A reading room was provided which had all the Jewish periodicals written in Hebrew or in Yiddish and all the “Haskalah” books published. The association turned to all the publishers and authors and asked to send any new books published to Akiva Weinberg in Plonsk and they will be paid for.

Every evening, after the afternoon prayers, there were lectures on the book “Chovot Hal'vavot”, and, on the Sabbath and Holidays, on Torah with commentaries and Yiddish translation by Moshe Mendelsohn. Classes were held for the youth on “Haskalah” books and on philosophy books from the middle ages. A room was set aside for the study of Talmud, Bible and grammar. The Talmud was taught by Chaim Filifover from Suwalki.

The association was headed by Yehoshua Greenbaum the Cohen, Hirsh Zakheim, Avraham Yitzchak Gold, B. Kaminer, Natan Lichtman, Shalom Rabinowitz, Nachum Bukstein and Akiva Weinberg. The Hebrew teacher was Tzi Aryeh Green, together with Simchah Horowitz, born in Lvov and one of the first “maskilim” in Plonsk.

In 1868 the association sent a thank you letter to Sir Moshe Montefiore for his successful efforts on behalf of the Jews of Morocco and Moslem countries and in which they praised all the activities for the Jews.

From several short articles in “Ham'vaser” we learn that this association succeeded in surrounding itself with a circle of ”maskilim” and in bringing the young generation close to it. Yehoshua Greenbaum, Avigdor Green and members of the Tzemach and Kaminer families were active in this circle, especially in the 70's and 80's.

In this same period the economic conditions improved. Plonsk became a subdistrict which included 15 regions which were separated from the province of Plock as well as one from the province of Plotosk and one from Malaba. This administrative change increased the economic standing of Plonsk. Plonsk and its Jews widened the scope of its commerce and it began to establish industrial enterprises such as a factory for soda and other beverages, flour mills, a refinery, a factory for vinegar and for oil, and a brick factory. The wholesale )grain, wood and farm produce) and retail businesses

[Pages 27-28]

were mainly in the hands of the Jews. There were only 7 stores in the city owned by Christians. Most of the homes and the places of work were owned by the Jews, especially in the field of clothing and haberdashery which was sent to the Russian markets. Before 1914, Plonsk together with Warsaw and Lodge sent their goods to faraway places in Russia. In the province of Plock, to which Plonsk belonged, there were 8 factories, 6 of which belonged to Jews, with 111 workers. The total annual value rose to 78,634 Rubles. The largest factory during the 1870's and 1880's was an iron foundry owned by Kopelman which produced artillery shells and which employed 155 workers. The value of its yearly production rose to 25,000 Rubles. According to the census of 1881the Plonsk district had 7 plants which produced whiskey and beer, chicory, bricks, vinegar, honey, sawdust, and other products.

There were 80,609 residents in the district, of which 57,656 were Catholic Poles, 4,441 were German Protestants, 3,179 were Russian Provoslavians, and 14,333 were Jews. In the city of Plonsk itself there were 7,824 residents, compared with 4,261 in 1862. Of these, 2,930 were Poles, 304 were Russians, 60 were Germans and 4,500 were Jews. The towns Kokhari and Idzikovitza were still populated by Jews. Postal wagons were used to send merchandise via the Plonsk–Zakrochin–Warsaw road as well as in the direction of Plock, Wishograd, Modlin. From Modlin there was a railroad to Warsaw. In Kokhari Jews had the right to be chosen as the head (wojt) of the town, but after 1880 the town of Kokhari was annexed to Sukakhachin.

There was a crisis in agriculture during these years. The Polish aristocracy sold their heavily indebted estates, with their outstanding mortgages, to the Jews.

A school for Jewish children was established in Plonsk, under the initiative of the “maskilim” headed by Yehoshua Greenbaum, which acted to spread “haskalah” and revised education. The school was established in accordance with the law which required the educational authorities to establish a special school for Jewish children if a certain number of Jews who paid the education tax requested it. The Russian authorities, who preferred having a Jewish school rather than having a mixed school for Polish and Jewish children, fulfilled this ruling. In addition to the regular studies, religious studies and Hebrew were taught by teachers who were graduates of the Rabbinic Seminary, but these studies were provided in an insufficient amount. Yaakov Oshlag, who was a graduate of the Government Teachers Seminary, taught Hebrew in Plonsk toward the end of the 80's, and later joined the “Chibat Tzion” movement and intended to immigrate to the Land of Israel, but instead immigrated to America where he studied medicine.

In 1880 there were 80 students in the Jewish school. In the 4 “cheders” in the city there were 400 students. In the census taken in 1897, Plonsk had a population of 7,897, of which 4,447 were Jews (56.3% of the population). The population of the entire province was 91,000, of which 10,000 were Jews. It is interesting to compare this with the number of Jews in 1921 and their number in the industries in the city, and to further make the comparison with the years 1932 and 1937. In 1921 the population was 9,220 of which 4,460 were Jews (48.4%). There were 191 industrial facilities and workshops, of which 182 were active and employed 65 workers. In 117 of them only the owners and their families worked. There was a total of 373 workers, of whom 183 were the owners (49.1%), 45 were family members (12.1%) and 145 were hired workers of whom 133 were Jews (35.6% of all the workers) (96 men, 29 women and 6 children) and 12 were non–Jews (12 men, 3.2%). Of all the hired workers, 91.7% were Jews.

The industries, according to their products, were: clay, glass (1), leather (1), metal (11), machine parts (5), wood (11), fabrics (1), clothing (130), food (14), chemicals (2), building materials (7), graphics (2), cleaning (6).

In 1932 there were 238 stores in Plonsk, 174 (73.1%) of them in the hands of Jews. In 1937 there were 305 stores, but only 189 of them (62.5%) in the hands of Jews. In 5 years the total number of stores had increased by 67 and the number of Jewish stores by 15 (a fall from 73.1% to 62%).

*

[Pages 28]

In the 80's a group of Polish speaking intellectual Jews was formed which was delved in Polish culture and literature. This group included the teacher Shalom (Isadore) Greenbaum (the brother of Yehoshua), the medical assistants Drosdowitch and Finkelstein, Mrs. Gozik, Mrs. Shumacher and the wife of Yehoshua Greenbaum. The group would meet in her home and read together the letters of the best Polish writers.

With the awakening that appeared with the ”Chovevei Tzion” movement, a recognizable change took place in the life of the Jewish community. Those “maskilim” who were members of the “Association for Study of Torah and Wisdom”, namely Yehoshua Greenbaum, Avigdor Green and Yaakov Oshlag, joined the movement. An exciting mental and spiritual change began to appear among the youth which brought them closer to the nationalistic movement. A group of youths started to think of, and even prepare for “Aliyah” to the Land of Israel. A new chapter in the communal life was opened in all the communities in Poland, characterized by a renewal of the struggle for Jewish nationalism and for a change in the character of the Jewish community. It was this struggle which awakened the best of the Jewish youth in the beginning of the 20th century to make “Aliyah” to the Land of Israel and which created the “Second Aliyah”.

The Jewish Population of Plonsk, 1764 – 1921

Year Total
population
Jewish
population
Percent
Jews
1764     45.5
1808 3,807 2,801 73.6
1819 2,797 1,541 55.1
1827 3,879 2,304 59.4
1857 3,959 2,630 66.4
1838 3,605 2,223 61.7
1865 4,939 2,882 65.6
1897 7,897 4,447 56.3
1908 11,603 7,511 65.1
1921 9,220 4,460 48.4

 

plo028a.jpg
The Market Place in Plonsk

 

plo028b.jpg
The Market Place

 

plo028c.jpg
Cheknov Street in Plonsk

 

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