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[Page 185]

Part III

Przemysl Jews


Chapter 1

Przemysl Passes Under Polish Rule

Yosef Altbauer

The period of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during November of 1918, was also a disastrous period for the Jews of Przemysl, because the Przemyslers could already sense the imminent revolution.

As early as October, an underground organization of Zionist officers who were posted in the huge garrison in town, began discussing the necessary steps to be taken in preparation for the imminent storm. Out of fear of riots, the first concern was for obtaining sufficient weapons for self-defense. The complicated political situation was caused by the fact that the two nations – the Poles and the Ukrainians – were demanding control of the town, which placed the Jews in a difficult position. The Jews decided, therefore, that they must avoid involvement in the conflict, and maintain the welfare of the Jewish population as an independent national sector.

At the end of October, 1918, a number of Jewish officers, as well as Julek[1] Scharf, Tzvi Luft and one of the editors of this book, Dr. Knopf-Nitzani were invited to a congress. Also present was Dr. Herman Lieberman (the Jewish representative in the Austrian parliament, a Przemysl resident, and one of the leaders of the Polish Socialist Party – the P.P.S). Dr. Lieberman attempted to ascertain what the Jewish position would be once there was a change of powers. The decisive answer given by Julius Scharf was: “We shall act as national Jews, according to our best interests.”

The long-awaited day, November 1, 1918, arrived. Armed forces of Polish and Ukrainian soldiers, adorning red-white and yellow-blue emblems on their hats, appeared in the town's streets. They began to disarm the Austrian officers and removed the royal emblems from their caps. The Jewish soldiers were not far behind[2].

Hundreds of Jewish officers and soldiers in town wore the blue and white armband instead of the emblem of the last emperor, and demonstrated in this way that “we too are a nation as all nations, we too have heard the bells of national liberation toll.” In the meantime, the initial preparations of the Jewish officers' organization had been fruitful. A council of Jewish soldiers was established (Yiddisher Soldatenrat), which began to operate immediately. They took advantage of the chaos in town to purchase large amounts of arms. The Jewish soldiers and gymnasium students from the 11th and 12th grades, and the members of the Hashomer movement, took some 200 rifles and thousands of bullets from the weapon warehouse on Mickiewicza St., which was under the authority of Jewish officers, according to the preliminary plan. This solved the problem of arming the Jewish militia, which had been organized by the Jewish soldiers' council.

The first revolutionary act in the life of Jewish Przemysl, performed by the officers, was to dismantle the community committee, which was comprised of gabbaim[3], and to establish a popular committee instead (der Yiddisher Volksrat[4]). According to the testimony of Dr. Hertzbaum, one of the founders of the militia (who now lives in Tel Aviv) and journalist Benzion Pet[5], of blessed memory, who served in the army in Przemysl, it was the overleintant Keiser who entered at the head of a group of Jewish officers, into the assembly hall of the community, drove away the committee members, and declared: “from now on, the Volksrat will act as the community committee, lead by Dr. Maks Rosenfeld.” Rosenfeld was a well-known Poalei-Zion[6] activist and author of political books about the autonomy of Jews in Poland.

The 19 members of the Volksrat who were appointed by the officers' committee, were:
Zionists – 6: Dr. I. Steinhardt[7], Dr. A. Schutzman, Dr. D. Knopf (Nitzani), H. Klagsbald, M. Honigwachs[8] , eng. M. Jawetz.

Poalei-Zion – 3: Dr. M. Rosenfeld, Gut-Rosenblatt (Y. Fruchter).

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Yad-Harutzim – 2: L. Nessenfeld, Taubenfeld.
P.S.S[9] – 2: M. Estreicher, Y. Sigman.[10]
Z.P.S[11] – 2: Dr. Leib Landau, A. Salzberg.
Non-partisan – 2: Dr. Peiper, Dr. Probstein.
Yitzhak Thumim, from the religious circles, Rabbi G. Schmelkes.

Later, representatives of the haredim[12] were added: Moshe Katz (from Mizrachi[13]), A. Hertzig, Abraham Fried Leizer Bombach (Aggudah[14]). Of the Zionists: A. Schechter. Dr. Knopf, who left town, was replaced by Dr. Moshe Richter (May 1919). Before the elections held in 1924, some slight alterations were made in the makeup of the committee.

It should be emphasized that although the Volksrat was founded rebelliously, by means of appointment and not legal elections, it was recognized, de facto, by the authorities during the 6 years until the elections.


Copy of a Volksrat identification card for Dr. Berish Knopf


In the meantime things were developing rapidly in the town. On Friday, November 1, 1918, the Poles and the Ukrainians signed an agreement which stipulated that the town would temporarily be under joint control. A national counsel was established, comprised of 5 Poles, 5 Ukrainians and one Jew, Dr. Leib Landau.

Each national sector was allowed to establish a militia and employ their national colors.

However, this idyllic situation lasted only three days. On the morning of the third day, November 4, 1918, the Ukrainians violated the agreement by taking control of the southern part of the town (the center on the right bank of the San River), and took over the Polish headquarters, lead by General Puchalski. The northern part (Zasanie) remained in the hands of the Poles.

The Ukrainian command upheld the agreement regarding the Jewish militia, which continued to operate in the center of town. A new agreement was signed on the 5th of the month, which began a ceasefire between the Poles and the Ukrainians and established a division of control over the town. A delegation from the Jewish militia was then sent to the Polish part in Zasanie, lead by Dr. Luft, and Jewish patrols were permitted in this part of town too. However, when they held their patrols, they were often fired on by Polish soldiers. The division of the town remained in effect until November 11, 1918, the day on which the Poles once again captured the entire town.

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The soldiers began by looting the Jewish-owned stores on the main street, Franciszkanska, and killing Jakob Rotter, an old Jewish man who they came across on the street. The Jewish militia was dismantled and its commanders were imprisoned.

A curfew was imposed on the town. The town's rule was transferred to a military commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tokarzewski, who was assisted by members of the Polish National Council, who were elected on November 1, and which also functioned as the civilian authority for a long while.

There were many cases of anti-Jewish terrorism: attacks, cutting off of beards, and other assaults became the daily bread of the Jewish population. The Volksrat had no power to do anything except protest. The military authorities spread false accusations against the Jewish militia for allegedly fighting alongside the Ukrainians against the Poles, on the day the Poles occupied the town.

The purpose of this accusation was to function as a justification for imposing a public fine (“Contribution”) of 3 million crowns on the Jewish population. The Jews were required to pay the fine by November 21, 1918 at noon. If they did not pay it, the soldiers would take the money themselves. The Volksrat took steps to have the decree cancelled. The news was transmitted by a messenger to the Jewish National Council in Vienna, which had been organized in order to protect the rights of Jews.

In Wiener Morgentzeitung, from 11/20/1918, we read the following:

“Krakow 20 November 1918[15]

The Polish Telegraph Agency reports:

The Polish Liquidation[16] Committee received the following telegram today from the Jewish National Council in Vienna:

The Commandant in Przemysl, Oberstleutnant[17] Teodor Tokarzewski, issued a proclamation to the Jewish population and demands the surrender of 3 million kronen by 12 noon on the 21st of this month, failing which he threatens a plundering of the Jews by his soldiers.

We protest most strongly against this shameful outrage and are concurrently informing our organizations in Switzerland, The Hague, Copenhagen, London and Washington. We expect to hear by return that this decree in Przemysl will be revoked in good time and that all steps will be taken so as to avert this Pogrom.

Jewish National Council in Vienna”

The following answer was received in reply to this telegram:

“Oberstleutnant Tokarzewski did in fact demand 3 million kronen from the Przemysl Jews as a bond against the eventuality that the Jews, hitherto engaged together with the Ruthenians in hostilities against the Polish Armed Forces, will not continue their hostility after the departure of the troops to Lemberg. As a result of the immediate intervention of the Polish National Council in Przemysl, following assurances of complete neutrality on behalf of the Jewish representative, this decree was withdrawn early on the 19th of this month, thus 36 hours before the arrival of this telegram from the Jewish National Council in Vienna. We wish to communicate that we protest most strongly that such uncontrolled rumors were immediately passed on without questioning their authenticity and that thereby such terms as shameful outrage and plundering were applied to the name of the Polish Army.”

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It should be emphasized that, in addition to the protest expressed by the Jews, the cancellation of the contribution can largely be credited to Dr. Lieberman and Dr. Leonard Tarnawski, the Polish National Council member and Sejm representative of the National Democratic Party (Endecja [18]), who told commander Tokarzewski: “over my dead body will you collect the contribution.”

The gloomy atmosphere in town increased a few days later, when news arrived of the terrible pogrom in Lvov. Many angry people gathered in the Great Synagogue for a memorial prayer. Rabbi Schmelkes eulogized the victims who gave their lives as martyrs, in a speech filled with national pride.

The Jewish press was also affected: Nowy Dziennik, the Zionist paper which appeared in Krakow, and published articles describing the real situation in town, was banned. The academic societies, “Agudat Herzel”, “Yehudiyah”, “Heirut” and academics from Z.P.S. presented a protest to the National Counsel regarding the infringement of freedom of speech.

As a response to the protest, the presidents of the societies were charged with insulting the authorities. The trial was held in April of 1919, when the National Council was no longer in existence (following the elections for the Sejm in November 1919). The members: Luft and Gottfried from “Agudath Herzel”, Goldfarb from “Yehudiyah”, Dr. Gottdank from Z.P.S., and Teich from “Heirut” were fined 210 crowns or three weeks of imprisonment.

After the contribution was cancelled, the Volksrat began to work on a variety of tasks. A soup kitchen was established for the needy in the “Eisnerowka” houses, and tea was distributed. Likewise, all the welfare establishments began to be rehabilitated. The economical conditions of the population were deteriorating from day to day. The sources of income, many of which had come from the Austrian army, dried up and new opportunities were not created. The trade, which was connected to the metropolis of Vienna, was in a crisis. There was no relationship with Warsaw at that point, and the Committee for Aid and Relief of the Joint only began to operate in May of 1919.

The battles around the town between the Poles and the Ukrainians had not ceased, but even so, elections were announced for the first Sejm. The leaders of the Jewish community called on the Jewish population not to participate in the elections as long as the political status of the town had not been determined, and there was therefore no Jewish list of candidates.

In the elections held in February, 1919, the farmers' party received 27,975 votes and 3 mandates, the P.P.S. received 10,669 votes – one mandate (Dr. Lieberman), and the Endecja received 10,423 votes (Dr. Tarnawski). It transpired that despite the calls against voting, some 3000 Jews had voted for Dr. Lieberman, in keeping with a long tradition and out of loyalty to the man who had been the Przemysl representative in the Austrian parliament.

The ramifications followed shortly. The Polish authorities concluded that “if you enjoy the rights, you must also bear the obligations. Until now you were not required to be drafted to the army, now you must do so.”

A short while after the elections, there began to be kidnappings in the town. A few hundred young Jewish men, between the ages of 18 and 24, were arrested in the town streets, given a medical examination and transferred to the barracks on Czarnieckiego St., where they were required to swear allegiance. The vast majority refused, but sadly some gave in. Over several long weeks, they attempted to brainwash the young men and convince them to enlist. Sometimes they were beaten. Every day they were lead to forced labor. Some managed to escape, but some were unable to withstand the suffering and gave in.

Finally, they had to release the remaining ones, as a result of their courageous persistence, which lasted several months. The Noar ha'Lomed was not spared either.

On February 1, 1919, the Jewish high-school students in the 12th grade in the two public gymnasiums[19] – in the center of town and in the suburb of Zasanie, were given an ultimatum, phrased in the following way:

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To the Jewish students of the Polish gimnazjum in Przemysl:

Polish youth is deeply shocked by the recent behavior of the Jewish students, specifically by:

  1. their affiliation with the Ukrainian bands
  2. their collective refusal to join the Polish army, to defend the borders of the [Polish] Republic
[We therefore] urge the Jewish students of this institution to leave this institution within 48 hours and no longer to participate in classes with us, otherwise the Polish youth will undertake the necessary action.[20]

The implication of the ultimatum was that the Jewish students would be expelled from school. On the face of it, grades 6 to 8 in the gymnasia in the town center, and 7 to 8 in the gymnasia in Zasanie, were dismantled. However, in practice, classes were set up for the Polish students in the same gymnasium, with the same teachers, and they continued their studies undisturbed.

The Volksrat attempted to assist the youths who had been expelled from school and opened courses for the Jewish students, on March 28, 1919. However, due to a lack of resources they were forced to shut them down after two months. Some of the expelled students transferred to the Ukrainian public gymnasium, and most endeavored to study on their own and take the external[21] examinations at the end of the year.

Dr. Maks Rosenfeld, the Volksraft chairman, did not reap the fruits of his efforts. A short while after he had been elected as the Sejm representative for the Chelm district, he died a sudden and untimely death, in Vienna (February 9, 1919). He was only 35 years old at the time of his death. Upon learning of his death, the town went into heavy morning and grief. Dr. Leib Landau, the well-known attorney, was elected to replace him as chairman of the Volskrat.

As the supplies dwindled, the black market began to thrive in the town. Prices rose and large portions of the Jewish population could not afford even the bare minimum of food. The Volksrat took drastic steps to control the black market.

The Rabbinical court in town, with the authorization of the authorities, declared a boycott on the profiteers. The boycott announcements were published both in Hebrew, which had been declared the official language of the Volksrat, and in Yiddish. Along with the announcements, Rabbi Schmelkes published a proclamation in which he expressed his hope that the boycott would not be necessary for long and that it would soon be removed. There was a boycott committee, whose members were M. Schatzker (chairman), Dr. Morgenstern, Dr. Schwartz, Dr. Richter and Yitzhak Thumim.

These were the stipulations against anyone who violated the boycott:

a. it is prohibited to eat or talk with him or dine with him
b. no one besides his wife and household members is permitted to sit close to him
c. he is not to be invited anywhere
d. he is not to take part in minyan
e. he is not to have his hair cut or shoes fixed
f. no one is to converse with him unnecessarily
g. his coffin is to be stoned after death
h. after his death, clothes are not torn over him[22] and he shall not be eulogized. The court may also decree
    that his sons not be circumcised and that he not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
The publication of the threat of boycott resulted in a curbing of the black market, and only a few cases were brought forward for investigation, and after expressing remorse, [the offenders] were given large fines which benefited the town's needy people.

These were troubled days, and the assaults did not cease (among the victims were the honorable rabbi Gedalia Schmelkes,

[Page 190]

the quarters of the “Zion”[23] company, and the activist Lipa Galler who was slapped by an officer because he dared to enter the train carriage where the officer was sitting.)

There were also a few positive aspects of life in the town. The Balfour Declaration and the signing of the Mandate in Eretz Yisrael gave some encouragement to the Jewish population and raised hopes of future salvation. At the end of March, 1919, a festive prayer service was held at the Great Synagogue in honor of the Paris Peace Conference, and its decision regarding Eretz Yisrael. Many people took part in the prayer.

The academic societies “Agudath Herzel” and “Yehudia” held a festive banquet in the halls of the workers' house in Zasanie. The invitation to the banquet read:

“On the occasion of the transferring of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, there will be a celebration banquet on April 9, 1919.” According to the permit of the military authorities, the invitation served as permission to be out after curfew, which was still in effect (since November 11, 1918).

The Zionist organizations began to reorganize.

The commander of purchasers in the town was announced, and the local United Zionist Histadrut was established, headed by Dr. Schutzman.

The society of Zionist women, Hadassah, renewed its activities. In its meeting, in which 200 women participated, a new board was chosen, lead by Mrs. Haber and Mrs. Krochmal.

Ha'Ivria began to offer courses in Hebrew, and the sounds of the Hebrew language were heard in the streets of the town. In the Gans Passage, a library was established, which also handled theatre and produced the play “Days of Messiah.”

On February 7, 1919, the first issue of the weekly “der Przamisler Yid” appeared. The paper was the organ of Zionist Przemysl, and provide a platform for complaints against the oppressive regime. The first steps were taken to organize a Jewish educational network, for both elementary and secondary education.

The youth movements, Hashomer and the academics, reached the peak of their activities at that time. Agudath Herzel initiated a congress of the Histadrut of the academic society (H.A.Z.)[24] in Galicia, which was held in Przemysl in February, 1920. At these types of congresses in Przemysl, which became a tradition after a while, the course of action for the academic youth was set out, in light of the changes in Zionism.

Dr. Maurycy Richter, the Zionist activist, initiated the first steps for the foundation of the economical organizations of the Jewish tradesmen and artisans. Preparations were made for establishing a Jewish sports society.

These activities were stopped for a short while when the danger of Russian invasion to this part of Galicia increased.

After the Polish victory in August 1920, life began to slowly return to its normal course.

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Chapter 2

Dr. Maks Rosenfeld

M. Henish
The first chairman of the Volksrat in Przemysl[i]

Dr. Maks Rosenfeld belonged to the small intellectual circle in Galicia who supported socialist Zionism. Rosenfeld received his Zionist education in the youth movement, and became a socialist as a result of what he observed in his own surroundings. As a native of Drohobycz, the Galician petroleum center, during his youth he was able to comprehend closely the class differences and the severe disparities in social conditions between the oil magnates and the masses of exploited proletariat. Undoubtedly, this was the main source of his early awakening, which lead him to become one of the first founders for the Poalei Zion movement in Galicia. He quickly stood out in this young movement, as a spokesman and spiritual leader. Thanks to his knowledge and literary talents, he played a large part in formulating a scientific basis for the movement's agenda. In his articles and lectures, he stood out as a socialist thinker, however he also displayed a warm attitude and an awareness to issues of Jews and Zionism. It was only natural, therefore, that his attentions were later given to the Jewish national problems in the diaspora, and to creating the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael.


Dr. Maks Rosenfeld


In his scientific method of investigating the national problem, Rosenfeld published at first a biting essay addressing the question of national autonomy for the Jews, in the Zionist journal Heimkar (“returning home”). He later published a series of articles in Ha'olam, on the roots of Jewish nationalism. His conclusion was that Jewish nationalism is actually a unique sociological vision, and being that the Jews are externally distinguished and internally united by blood, religion, tradition and culture, they are thereby a unique and unified group in economical terms as well. As for the nation's management, it is organized in small communities which represent isolated ghettos in the general population, but they join together into one complete, large unity, which overlaps and controls them all.

These ideas were developed later by Rosenfeld in a comprehensive program for building the Jewish community based on democratic and national foundations, as the seed for Jewish autonomy in the diaspora. A man of learning and theory, he also became a man of action, attempting for the first time to implement this program in real life, when he was appointed head of the Jewish Volksrat in Przemysl, which was established by his initiative. His first act was to win over the community and, as its head, he also acted energetically to turn the community into a community of the people, which according to his theoretical books, must be the cornerstone of Jewish autonomy.

Rosenfeld expressed his ideas on the social foundations for the building of the country in a clear and vibrant way in his article “Social Tablets of Stone”, in the monthly “Der Jude”, edited by Martin Buber, which later appeared as a pamphlet in Yiddish. In this framework, he appears as the pioneer of the social aspirations of classical Jewry. He had the courage to explicitly express his belief that it is not the ten commandments which are the height of Jewish contribution to the world, and not even the height of Jewish religious thought, but rather “the social tablets of stone, with which Moses and the prophets passed the fundamental laws which set forth the social orders and customs of the people of Israel. And now, as we return to our country,

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we must make these social tablets our guiding light.” Because we aspire – as Rosenfeld said – “not only to a territorial solution for the Jewish question, but also to the redemption of the Jewish people.”

In his two books, which involved fundamental and deep inquiries, “The Question of Jews in Poland” and “Jews and Poles”, Rosenfeld lays out a wide historical canvas of the relationship and conditions between the two people and penetrates the problems which have troubled the Jews and which demand solutions.

During the elections to the first legislative institution of liberated Poland, Rosenfeld answered the call of his party and offered himself as a candidate in the district of Chelm, where he was elected as the first and only representative of the Zionist-Socialist movement to the Sejm in Warsaw.

A few weeks before his death, Rosenfeld came to Vienna from Poland, on his way to Switzerland as a representative to the Socialist Congress in Bern and to the congress of the National Jewish Councils, which was to be held in Zurich. During his stay in Vienna, he took part in the National Jewish Council discussions, where he consulted with its leaders regarding formulating the demands of the Jewish people at the Peace Conference. He also wrote a draft, in his final days, for a platform concerning the protection of national minorities.

His plans and hopes for the future came to an abrupt end, as he died suddenly in Vienna, on February 9, 1919.

The sudden death of Maks Rosenfeld at the age of thirty-five represented a loss to the Zionist workers' movement of one of its finest creators and activists, a talented and cultured man, widely educated, who reached great achievements in his short life, and of whom much was expected in the future.

Original Footnote

  1. From an article published in Davar, March 3, 1959 Back

Editor's and Translator's Footnotes

  1. Julek is a diminutive form of the name Juliusz in Polish (ed.) Back
  2. The Hebrew syntax of this sentence is somewhat ambiguous: the literal translation is “the Jewish soldiers were also not far behind.” Given the context, this presumably means that the disarmament of the Jewish soldiers was carried out not long after the Austrian officers had been disarmed (tr.). Back
  3. Gabai: the manager or treasurer of a synagogue. (tr.) Back
  4. Volksrat: “people's council” (tr.) Back
  5. Pet or Pett (ed.) Back
  6. An organization promoting Zionism and Socialism, established in the late 19th century.(tr.) Back
  7. This refers to Dr. Aleksander Steinhardt. His Hebrew name was Israel, hence the initial “I.”. Thank you to Mr. Alfred Steinhardt for clarifying this (ed.) Back
  8. Honigwachs. This name is spelled “hey, vav, nun, yod, gimmel, vav, kof, samekh”. (ed.) Back
  9. It is difficult to determine what the authors meant by this abbreviation (PSS –“pe, samekh, samekh”), or if this was just an error. Dr. Waclaw Wierzbieniec in his book about the Przemysl Jewish Community between the wars (Spolecznosc zydowska Przemysla w latach 1918-1939) mentions a Michal Estereich [sic] as an activist of ZPSD (Zydowska Partia Socjalno-Demokratyczna – Jewish Social Democratic Party) (ed.). Back
  10. This name is spelled with a “zayin”, which would suggest that it should be spelled “Zigman”. However, other Przemysl sources show this name spelled as Sigman. Zigman is a possible alternative spelling (ed.). Back
  11. ZPS – Zydowska Partia Socjalistyczna (Jewish Socialist Party) (ed.) Back
  12. The ultra-orthodox Jews. (tr.) Back
  13. An international religious Zionist movement, founded in 1902. (tr.) Back
  14. Refers to Agudath Yisrael, a worldwide Jewish movement and political party promoting adherence to religious law. (tr.) Back
  15. 15. This text and the text following it were translated from the German by Mike Finlay. Consultation by George Rosenfeld. (ed.) Back
  16. As in “winding up” (Mike Finlay) Back
  17. Military rank of Lt. Colonel (Mike Finlay). Back
  18. Endecja – National Democratic Party (ed.) Back
  19. Gimnazjum – high school in Polish (ed). Back
  20. This letter was translated from the Polish by Barbara U. Yeager (ed.) Back
  21. One takes an exam as an “ekstern” (Polish) when one studies individually (i.e. outside of the classroom) and then, at the end of the semester or the year takes an exam which tests one's knowledge of the material (ed.) Back
  22. It is a custom in Judaism to tear one's clothing as a sign of mourning. (ed.) Back
  23. This probably means that the quarters of this company were vandalized or destroyed (tr.) Back
  24. H.A.Z. (heh-aleph-tzadi), Hebrew abbreviation for “Histhadruth Agudath Akademaim Zionim” (Zionist Academics
    Organization) (tr.) Back

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