Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures

Translated by Alex Shannon

by Maria Janion (Author)
©2014 Monographs 248 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 3


With Hero, Conspiracy and Death: The Jewish Lectures, the author has written a book of sweeping significance for readers interested in Polish history, Jewish history, and the Holocaust in which she asks troubling questions: Can a Jew be both a Jew and a Pole? Are we right to talk of «worthy» and «unworthy» death in the Holocaust? What are the implications of Adam Mickiewicz’s philo-Semitism? In Zygmunt Krasiński’s anti-Semitism, do we see the «specter of elimination»? Are humanist and enlightenment values useful in analyzing the Holocaust, or did the experience of Nazi genocide render them obsolete? Tracing the history of anti-Jewish stereotypes in early nineteenth-century Poland (and beyond), the author offers answers to these questions that are bold, clear and compassionate.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • I. The Jewish Colonel
  • 1. A Biography Romantic and Unromantic
  • 2. Ridiculed and Humiliated
  • 3. The Military Glory of Israel and Kościuszko
  • 4. The Jewish Light Cavalry Regiment
  • 5. Did He Really Even Exist?
  • 6. A Knight’s Posthumous Glory
  • 7. Literary Metamorphoses and Motivations: The Prototype of Jankiel?
  • 8. Civil Rights
  • 9. Genealogy
  • 10. The First Since Ancient Times
  • 11. The Specter of Conspiracy
  • 12. Addendum on the Holocaust
  • 13. ”Worthy” and “Unworthy” Death
  • 14. Lies
  • II. Polish Antisemitism and Its Founding Myth
  • Part One
  • 1. The Great Sanhedrin in Paris
  • 2. Early Warnings from Staszic
  • 3. A Moral Conflict
  • 4. The Specter of Elimination?
  • 5. The Threat of Revolt
  • 6. Christian Blood
  • 7. Myth and the Face
  • 8. The Image of the Eternal Enemy
  • Part Two
  • 1. A Wound on the Body of Poland
  • 2. Crusade
  • 3. A Single Miracle
  • 4. Theological-Ideological Phantasms
  • 5. Mickiewicz against Krasiński
  • III. Leonard’s Eastern Eyes
  • 1. Portraits
  • 2. A Body Orrental and Jewish
  • 3. Femininity
  • 4. Something Lascivious
  • 5. Jewish Girls
  • 6. The Sexual Orgy
  • 7. Goll
  • 8. Satan
  • 9. Das Unheimliche and Magic
  • 10. The Fist or Money, or Violence
  • 11. The Thirst for Blood, Gold, Luxury, and Debauchery
  • IV. Three Variations on the Jewish Theme in Mickiewicz
  • 1. Wail in the Synagogue
  • 2. The Matrix of Frankism
  • 3. Moses, Christ and Towiański
  • List of Bibliographic Abbreviations
  • V. Mickiewicz’s Jewish Legion
  • 1. Life is Somewhere Else
  • 2. The Precedence of Israel
  • 3. “Fate Has Tied Two Foreign Nations Closely Together”
  • 4. Politics and Mystical Illuminatton
  • 5. The Banner of the Maccabees
  • 6. Will the Jews leave Poland?
  • 7. The Legend of a Modern-day Mosse
  • 8. A Precursor and an Heir
  • List of Bibliographic Abbreviations
  • VI. The Irony of Calek Perechodnik
  • VII. Kertész: “Even If I May Seem To Be Talking About Something Quite Different, I Am Still Talking About Auschwitz”
  • 1. Collisions
  • 2. Celan or Dante
  • 3. Black Sun
  • 4. Jew
  • 5. Muselmann
  • 6. Wife
  • 7. Mourning

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To Zofia Stefanomta

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1. A Biography Romantic and Unromantic

With his book Berek Joselewicz i jego syn (Berek Joselewicz and His Son, 1909), Ernest Łuniński was the first to pen a coherent, colorful, and captivating biography of this modern, mournful Polish-Jewish war hero. Łuniński was able to combine erudition with the lofty rhetoric of the vigorous Polish language to narrate a story of great literary value punctuated with scenes from climactic moments in the hero’s life. This was a romantic biography, the highest standard for which had been set by Szymon Askenazy in Książę Józef Poniatowski (Prince Józef Poniatowski, 1905), which itself enjoyed an exceptionally wide readership and was written with extraordinary cognitive and artistic passion. The Napoleonic Era – which lived on in historical and literary works written in the age of the Revolution of 1905 and the Great War from which Poland regained its independence, including Stefan Żeromski’s Popioły (Ashes, 1902-1903) – fostered the perpetuation of the model of the romantic hero fighting for freedom and sacrificing his life at the altar of fatherland and humanity. Battle, combat, and military service were the essential elements of a hero’s biography. Łuniński, Askenazy, and Żeromski cultivated common heroic narratives found as often in historical works as in literary and semi-literary works.

Two equestrian portraits (Berek Joselewicz and Berek Joselewicz at Kock) painted by Juliusz Kossak1 helped bring the “Jewish Colonel” into the gallery of Polish national heroes. Berek was picturesque in his “dark-green cloth coat, his shoulders gleaming with epaulettes, decorated in glory, and because he belonged to an ‘elite company,’ he wore a round bear-fur cap, widened at the top, protecting a thoughtful countenance [...] adorned with a bushy moustache that stretched from ear to ear.”2 Berek was known as an excellent cavalier, and in Kossak’s portrait we see the officer in full Napoleonic dress mounted on a beautiful and well-groomed steed, all of which is quite typical of this artist’s work. Even Adam Skałkowski, who was generally hostile toward the Berek legend, had to question the joke told by Prince de Ligne, namely that Jews conscripted into the light cavalry “feared their horses before they could fear their enemy.” Skałkowski stated that “Jewish horse traders knew how to ride, though to be sure they did not always present themselves well on their mounts.”3 But who knows? One can presume that Berek, from an early age and before he began working as an agent in the horse ← 9 | 10 → trade, worked as a horse-breaker for his “horseman” cousin, and that he knew his way around horses perfectly well.

A romantically conceived and personalized biography had to include some sort of psychological riddle involving the hero’s transformation: how was it that Prince Józef Poniatowski transformed himself from a ladies’ man at the salon into a flawless knight? how did it happen that Bishop Ignacy Massalski’s Jewish broker – that is, Joselewicz – developed into a heroic colonel in the Kościuszko Uprising? Various answers to these questions have been offered; I will turn to them shortly. But the fact is that in each of the two cases, serious difficulties emerged that became a barrier to heroic metamorphosis: Prince Józef was a nephew of King Stanisław August Poniatowski; he was an aristocrat, and thus born and destined – in the eyes of revolutionary patriots – to become a “traitor to the nation.” Berek Joselewicz was a common small-town Jew who, in his youth, attended a cheder and later occupied himself with his Polish lord’s businesses; he never renounced his religion and customs, so – by birth and destiny – he was not at all suited, in the eyes of soldiers and the nobility, to serve in the military, let alone in the cavalry. Nonetheless, with time, he rose to the rank of staff officer.

Biographies of “romantic” military heroes characteristically contain climactic, myth-creating moments: participation in some sort of decisive battle or campaign and a heroic death. Prince Józef distinguished himself above all as a leader in the victorious campaign of 1809, and he met death – during the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 – in the White Elster River. As a colonel under Tadeusz Kościuszko, Berek Joselewicz took part in the defense of besieged Warsaw in November 1794, and he died – as an officer in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw – on 5 May 1809 in a skirmish with the Austrians at Kock. Such events were well-suited to the aura of a heroic biography, for they involved the abandonment of oneself in the battle for freedom – until death.

There are numerous references to the heroism of Berek Joselewicz in various types of nineteenth-century publications, and in the twentieth century he remained in the pantheon of Polish heroes. Admiration for him between the two world wars was such that his name was joined with the romantic cult of Józef Piłsudski’s Legions. The ceremonies in 1935 surrounding the transfer of some soil from Berek Joselewicz’s grave in Kock to Piłsudski’s memorial mound in Kraków became the symbolic expression of this union.4 The mournful hero, Colonel Berek Joselewicz, became part of the immortal glory that was the Polish army, and he took his place alongside its greatest legend, Józef Piłsudski, who was known – not incidentally – as a “friend of the Jews.” ← 10 | 11 →

An abbreviated version of Luninski’s original monograph was published in 1928 in Kock, without footnotes and entitled simply Berek Joselewicz, appearing under the “imprint of the Citizen’s Committee established to build a vocational and grammar school in the name of – and in memory of – Berek Joselewicz” under the aegis of Marshall Piłsudski. Among the members of the Citizen’s Committee, alongside the Reverend Father Marcel Glinka, the parish priest of Kock, and Count Józef Żółtowski, there was Josef Morgenstern, rabbi; Moszek Goldband, a city magistrate in Kock; Mojżesz Dawid Wajnberg, chairman of the Jewish community in Kock; and Jojna Zygielman, a city councillor in Kock.

But let us complete this portrait sketch of Berek Joselewicz from the other, non-romantic side with an essay written in 1939 by Isaac Bashevis Singer entitled Pułkownik [Colonel] Berek Joselewicz. Singer, in painting his own image of “his Poland,” was mildly condescending toward Polish romantic impulses. He liked to juxtapose Polish nobles and Jews, although he recognized that they were entangled in a complex relationship. In his essay on Berek, Singer claims that “Polish lords were always romantics and dreamers. Just as pious Jews saw in every event a sign heralding the coming of the Messiah, Poles saw in every tumult, war, or revolution a portent of the liberation of the fatherland.” They shared a common messianic trait, Singer writes, though he also points to a fundamental distinction: “Jews contented themselves with penance, reading the Psalms, and studying the Torah, because – after all – what else could they do? Poles, on the other hand, tried to act, though not always in a way that was practical. Men volunteered for the military and shed their blood on battlefields often hundreds of kilometers from home.” Poles with a more realistic mindset criticized this conduct. “But,” Singer argues, “this gallant and romantic Polish spirit never accepted the idea that Poland had ever perished.”5 Singer emphasizes that, living in France after the failed Kościuszko Uprising, Berek Joselewicz – “as a former colonel and commander in the Polish army” – kept in close contact with precisely these romantic Poles.6 How did this come about? The road was long and fraught with obstacles. ← 11 | 12 →

In his unheroic biography, Singer places great emphasis on the fact that Berek Joselewicz came from the shtetl Kretynga near Połąga in Lithuania. “A pious Jewish boy from a small town made a great career for himself in the army” (64), which was amazing in light of the fact that Jews at that time were reluctant to join the military for religious reasons. In drawing a picture of the legendary childhood of the future warrior, Singer – much like other biographers – highlights the boy’s early predilection for soldiering. “In his time free from classes at the cheder, he most enjoyed playing war with friends. During stick battles with boys from other cheders, Berek was always commander” (65). In this way Joselewicz shaped his own destiny, rather as a Polish child than as a Jewish child.

It is important to remember, however, that the heroic tradition in which Berek’s story was told survived in various milieus. One of the earliest instances where he is mentioned came in 1817: “In his youth, at the Jewish schools, he showed great interest in the art of war, creating sabers and pistols out of wood, and with these weapons he could be quite a nuisance to his fellow pupils, about which some still remember to this day.”7 Similarly, in 1861, at a time when joint Polish-Jewish patriotic demonstrations were taking place in Warsaw, one author recognized that Joselewicz felt his high calling at an early age. Without a doubt, that author got carried away by fantasy, but it is interesting in which direction: “When other children were wasting their free time in thoughtless play, he – like a despot – would force them, wooden saber in hand, to listen to orders and form a military patrol.” Even at an early age “his heroic spirit yearned to join the military ranks on distant battlefields.” We see what image was being – indeed had to be – carved out by romantic military rhetoric. There is a Jewish tone to this work, but it is also heroic, which runs contrary to Singer’s particular brand of realism. Joselewicz represented “a kind of biblical hero who was to establish a new era in the convivial existence of his nation.”8

Let us return to Singer’s essay. He emphasizes that, at the end of the eighteenth century, a military career for Jews was exceptional; they treated military matters as something foreign. And the deciding factor was lifestyle: Piety demanded the scrupulous fulfillment of religious obligations and the maintenance ← 12 | 13 → as Mickiewicz, Norwid and Słowacki had predicted” (p 61). Adamczyk-Garbowska added that, from Singer’s Miłość i wygnanie, we learn that none of these predictions came true. of a god-fearing life in the midst of many children. The cultural model of a young Jew was a far cry from that of a young Pole. A young Jew “of around twenty years of age was a serious family man, and nothing was more foreign to him than the idea that he would strap on a saber and run off to war” (64). Berek’s father, like all Jewish parents – Singer maintains – dreamed that his son would become a rabbi. When the father realized that nothing would come of this, he prepared his son for business. Soon Berek moved to Warsaw, where he pursued his interests as a trader. He lived a life appropriate for a Jew, holding true to his religious customs. With the uprising of 1794, his life took an abrupt turn. Singer does not devote much space to Kościuszko’s program, though he notes that “everyone was fighting – it was therefore natural that Jews were in the arena,” and he asks: “But how were they supposed to fight? Who would turn them into soldiers? It was there, at [the Warsaw district of] Praga, that the world first heard of Berek Joselewicz” (67). Maintaining only the slightest distance from his subject, Singer states that “patriotic sentiments within the Jewish community flared so dramatically that even aging men, distinguished property holders and wise men of the Torah, volunteered for service.” They all met defeat.

Berek survived, he participated in the Napoleonic military campaigns, and – as Singer writes – “good times” came for him in the Duchy of Warsaw. “Currently Berek Joselewicz did not look like a Jew: He had shaven his beard and grown a full, twisted Polish mustache” (73). Singer’s point of view allowed him to identify and comment on moments in Berek’s life which would not play a large role in a biography constructed according to romantic rules. For example, Singer empathizes with Berek’s wife, Rebeka: “This Jewish woman wore a wig, followed the principles of her religion, and could not live with the colonel, who preferred to live and enjoy life according to the ways of the military.” So she left Warsaw and moved in with her daughter, who was married to an arendarz9, and lived near Kretynga. The pious son-in-law “led a kosher Jewish home and concerned himself little with the fact that his father-in-law was a colonel in the Polish army” (73).

With his passion for extracting realistic details, Singer does not neglect to point out the irony in the way Berek dressed (his famous golden epaulettes on a dark-green coat and his cap trimmed with bear fur) and exactly how much he earned: “Each week he received more than hundred-thirty Polish złoty soldier’s pay which, for those days, was a handsome sum. In Poland, a basic living was not expensive – for a single grosz one could buy a quart of milk or a couple eggs, and for four or five groszy, a pound of beef. Berek Joselewicz was able to lead a sumptuous life” (74). ← 13 | 14 →

Certainly, over time, Berek’s position in society changed, as did his manner. Singer emphasizes that Berek received many commendations, including the Virtuti Militari, and he was accepted as a Freemason (specifically, into the Polish branch of the French Masonic organization, Grand Orient de France, among whose members were many Jews). But Singer also attaches great meaning to the fact that Berek Joselewicz remained true to his faith. Though many Jews wanting to build a career for themselves took baptism in order to “avoid distress and obstruction,” Berek did not. He never concealed his background, always used “his Jewish folk name,” and never disowned either his wife or daughter, both of whom were Orthodox Jews. For this reason, Singer praises Berek’s “brave stance” and calls him “the first modern Jew in Poland’ (76, author’s emphasis – M.J.).

Things did not work out so well for his son, Józef Berkowicz: as a Jew, he suffered great hardship, as had – in fact – his father before him. He followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the army, but because of injuries sustained in battle, he had to withdraw from military service. Nevertheless, “when the uprising broke out in 1830, Józef- despite all he had suffered under Polish lords – joined the rebellion, and like his father, he attempted to create a Jewish legion” (82).10 He died as an immigrant in France, “forsaken by Jews and Poles” alike. “He fought for Poland,” Singer concludes, “as a hero, but he was treated so poorly and unjustly” (83). One can be comforted only by the fact that many Polish heroes were treated in a similar way.

Writing his essay just after the September defeat of 1939, Singer points out the similarity between Poland’s situation at that time and its history, when – in such troubles – Poles took up arms for the liberation of their country and, after years of great struggle, found success. But Singer had to ask: Would the future Poland change its character? What he writes about Berek Joselewicz’s son at the end of his essay impinged on his vision of Poland. Contained therein is a great deal of bitterness and disappointment, which he confirms in his 1944 article Żydzi i Polacy żyli razem 800 lat, ale się nie zżyli (Jews and Poles – They Lived Together for 800 Years but Never Became Acquainted), in which he emphasizes the distance that separates the two nations, the lack of a common history.

Singer viewed Berek Joselewicz as an absolute exception, and he did not submit to romantic rapture, as others had. He did not turn Berek into another Prince Józef Poniatowski. And therein lies the great distinction of the realistic – such is the word Singer himself would use – portrait of Berek Joselewicz.11 Nonetheless, ← 14 | 15 → in order to find one’s place in Polish history, one had to be admitted into something about which Singer cared very little: namely, heroic discourse. And that is precisely what happened in the case of Berek Joselewicz.

2. Ridiculed and Humiliated

The features of a good soldier – his attitudes and behavior traits – were considered entirely alien to the Izraelita (Jew).12 Such features were contrary to the Jew’s guarded, cowardly, timid, and fearful “nature”; contrary to his “tendency” to run and hide in the face of difficult situations; contrary to his “congenital” aversion to the art of soldiering, to his cosmopolitanism and egoism. And all of this was revealed in the Jew’s lack of attachment to any fatherland, in his inability to devote himself to “a cause.” Essentially, the Jew was predestined to a life of espionage and treachery. It is enough to read quotes selected by Artur Eisenbach from statements made during the November Uprising (1830-1831), as a discussion was taking place in Poland about Jews and military service. “The people of Israel do not possess the required physical and moral strength for the honorable calling as defenders of the fatherland...they have not yet ascended to the great heights from which they could be included in the ranks of national defenders.” Jews are marked by “indolence and a lack of morality and noble goals.” They are venal and greedy, and adhere to various superstitions. They are slaves to the “golden idol.” Calling them into military service would endanger the security of the nation. Jews are the incarnation of the internal enemy, and granting them the civil rights that come with military service would only allow them to damage the country with even greater success.13 This catalog of accusations had not changed for two hundred ← 15 | 16 → years. The “Jew in the military” or the “Jewish military” are immortal subjects of jokes and caricatures of all kinds.14

These stereotypical qualities, persistently ascribed to Jews over the course of centuries, often served as justification for not admitting them into active military service. Those Jewish and Polish elites – especially in Congress Poland (created in 1815) – who demanded that Jews be conscripted into the army were also demanding that equal rights be granted to all citizens, that equal “privileges and liberties among all creeds” be established, as had been the case in other European countries.15 But the fact was that a special tax was levied on Jews in return for release from the obligation of military service, which was something traditional Jews agreed to pay in light of their objection, for religious reasons, to military service, which they feared might lead to secularization.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
Romantisism Modernity Polish-Jewish Relations History of Polish Literature Jewish History Holocaust
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria Janion (Author)

Maria Janion is a historian of literature and ideas, whose main focus is romanticism and its legacy in contemporary culture. As Professor in the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), and currently in the Graduate School of Social Sciences at PAN’s Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, she has conducted a series of famous seminars.


Title: Hero, Conspiracy, and Death: The Jewish Lectures
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250 pages