The Brothers Polyakov: From the Shtetls of Poland to Russian Nobility

Yakov Polyakov was a rare breed. Luckily for us, this fascinating figure also kept a diary.

Yakov Polyakov, The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the NLI

It could easily have been a Chekhov play or a novel by Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Polyakov. Their lives certainly provided enough drama.

Yakov, one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons, was the oldest of the three brothers Polyakov, all prominent Russian bankers and industrialists. His diary, preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, was recently published online, all made possible thanks to the hard work of the volunteers of the Russian-based project “Prozhito.” Spanning forty-three years and searchable by year, this chronicle reflects the daily anxieties and joys of a wealthy Jewish businessman in 19th-century Russia.

The Brothers Polyakov

The Polyakov family originated in the shtetl of Dubrovno (today’s Belarus), to which Yakov’s grandfather had moved from Poland in 1783. Hence the name “Polyakov”- the Russified version of the Jewish family name “Polyak,” meaning Pole. The three brothers spread throughout Russia: Samuil lived in St. Petersburg, Lazar in Moscow, and Yakov in distant Taganrog, where he represented the Polyakov’s interests in the south.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Yakov’s diary meticulously notes his trips, meetings, and family matters. Though his records are often short and sketchy, with many featuring no more than one line, they number more than four thousand entries. Polyakov’s Russian is somewhat clumsy and grammatically problematic. One of his jottings explains why:

“As soon as we moved from Dubrovna to Orsha, Mother set about organizing our schooling and education at home. This was quite unusual for the time, as there was nothing but heders and melamdim, and nobody had any thought or hope of learning even the slightest Russian or arithmetic. When we moved, I was twelve, my brother Samuil was ten, and my brother Lazar only three. Mother found a teacher who was considered highly educated and therefore not quite trusted to be religious enough (a Jewish communal requirement for every melamed).”

Yakov launched his incredible career by joining his brothers in the railway business. They supervised the construction of the Kursk-Kharkov-Sevastopol and Voronezh-Rostov lines. In 1870, Yakov opened a trading house and established a coal mine on his estate. The mine, he claimed, ended Russia’s reliance on expensive English coal to power its steamships in the Black and Azov Seas.  The Polyakov brothers subsequently founded several banks including the Azov-Don commercial bank (in St. Petersburg), Donskoy Land Bank (in Taganrog), and the St. Petersburg-Azov Commercial Bank.

In the early 1890s, Yakov and Lazar branched out to Iran, building railways and investing in trade, industry, and banking under the aegis of the Russian government.

As the first general consul of Persia in St. Petersburg, Yakov was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Lion and the Sun for his services to the Shah. He tried parlaying this honor into a Russian baronial title (as the famous Günzburg family had with their German baronial rank), but without success.

Yakov’s diary testifies to his wealth as well as his philanthropic initiatives. In 1896 he bought his wife, Amalia, a villa in Biarritz (in the south of France, playground of Europe’s rich and famous) for 130,000 francs. Before investing in his own villa, he spearheaded the building of a synagogue in the resort, donating generously to bring the project to fruition. On Rosh Hashana eve of 1895, Yakov noted with satisfaction:

“All suited well for prayer and table. We invited Brodsky, but he arranged everything separately! Showed his wealth, what he is capable of. I donated two thousand francs for the construction of the synagogue in Biarritz. Lazar Solomonovich also donated two thousand, Brodsky three thousand, so the beginning is set. May God help finish it!”

The synagogue in Biarritz, built at Yakov’s initiative, postcard from 1910.

The synagogue was inaugurated in August 1904.

Persecuted Tycoons

Despite Yakov’s wealth, his actions were in some ways as limited as Russian Jewry’s as a whole. When his parents lost their sight and needed daily assistance, he couldn’t get permits for relatives to come live with them in Moscow:

“Unfortunately, the assistants for Father weren’t given permission [to reside with him]. It’s painful to see [my parents] disabled. Mother is completely blind. Father is partially blind. And they cannot have two of their kin look after them? It hurts, but what can be done?”

Five years earlier, all Jewish craftsmen were expelled from Moscow. That Passover, Yakov called the decree “[…] woeful for the Jews. All the newspapers are cruelly exaggerating, ridiculing, and defaming [them], happy to see [Jews] thrown out onto the streets.”

Yet there were bright spots too. In late 1897, despite rising anti-Semitism, Yakov and Lazar were awarded hereditary noble titles, making them one of Russia’s very few noble Jewish families. Their relatives in the countryside, however, still couldn’t leave the Pale of Settlement. Russian Jewish life was in constant flux, with changing regulations constantly making their lives more difficult until the revolution of February 1917. The provisional government that replaced the monarchy finally abolished all anti-Jewish laws making Jews equal citizens.

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

On the Brink

Yakov’s business practices were criticized – perhaps sometimes deservedly – but there were also anti-Semitic outbursts. The following citation, from a note on Yakov Polyakov and the Jews of southern Russia received by the state comptroller’s office in the late 1880’s:

“The Jews of the Pryazovye district [straddling Ukraine and Russia’s Rostov Oblast], which has always been full of Greeks and Armenians, could never engage permanently in any trade but alcohol, until the Jew Ya. S. Polyakov arrived there to build the Kharkov-Azov and Voronezh-Rostov railroads.

Having constructed these railroads in ramshackle fashion using government-guaranteed bonds, this Polyakov remains the owner of the entire stock (also government-guaranteed) of both railroads, making him their true master […].

Along with Polyakov, his many relatives and masses of Jews came to the region and settled there, exploiting his protection for a variety of geschefts [funny business] and tricks at the locals’ expense, all while evading our every law restricting Jewish rights.”

Page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary, The Central Archives fo the History of the Jewish People

Considering their modest background, the brothers Polyakov achieved a great deal. Samuil died young, leaving his family a substantial inheritance. Yakov and Lazar, however, lost most of their fortunes in Russia’s economic crisis at the turn of the 20th century. Yakov spent his final years in Biarritz until his death in 1909. His two daughters, who lived in his French residence after his death, perished in the Holocaust.

Special thanks to Olga Lempert for translating the diary entries from Russian to English. 

This post was originally published in Segula, The Jewish History Magazine, Issue 97, June 2018.

When Anti-Semitism Forced a Champion Jewish Boxer to Throw in the Towel

Motzi Spakow was a prize-winning boxer in Romania for many years until he was forced to give up his title after he was attacked by a mob during a match.

Romanian Jewish boxer Motzi (Moți) Spakov and Chief Rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Dr. Jacob Itzhak Niemirower

Motzi Spakow, the undisputed boxing champion in Romania between 1927 and 1940, was forced to give up his title following an anti-Semitic incident in the Romanian boxing scene, where at one of the many competitions he participated in, he was physically attacked by a nationalist crowd.

“I, who fought from the bottom of my heart for Romania in France, Poland, and other countries, am no longer considered as a physical, genuine Romanian in my own fatherland, against that I can no longer fight… I renounce the title and wich that my successor may defend the Romanian flag with the same enthusiasm that I have for the last nine years.” 

Quotations from Spakow’s letter to the Romanian Boxing Federation in the report of the Jewish Telegram Intelligence of September 1936. (Jewish Telegraph Agency – Sept. 18th, 1936)

In October of 1936, just a month after giving up his title, Spakow asked the Chief Rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Jacob Itzhak Niemirower, for financial support and spiritual guidance on immigrating to the Land of Israel where he hoped to acquire the right equipment and train so he could continue his profession as a boxer.

“After nine years of winning the boxing championships, I was forced to give up my position under the circumstances that are known to you, and in light of my current situation, I decided to leave for Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, in order to achieve better results for my efforts than those I achieved in Romania.”

Spakow’s letter to the first Chief Rabbi of Romania, Dr. Jacob Itzhak Niemirower. from the Collection of Jewish Romanian Intellectuals’ Private Papers at the National Library.

 Rabbi Niemirower was himself a victim of an anti-Semitic attempted murder in early 1936, and he later died in 1939.

Rabbi Niemirower waving from the window of his house after an assassination attempt against him, on January 11th, 1936. This archival item was deposited in the National Library a few years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Spakow managed to maintain his position in Romania until Antonescu’s fascist rule was established in 1940. After that, he was definitively banned from performing in the arena as a Jewish athlete. He immigrated to Israel in 1947 but failed in his efforts to develop the sport of boxing in the Holy Land.

Spakow left Israel for Australia, wherein 1980, he died at the age of 74.

“Muscle Judaism” – What didn’t work?

Another interesting archival item was found in the collection of publications of the National Library – an essay entitled “Physical Education and Sport” by Ignatz Weiss, which may provide a partial explanation for Sapakow’s failure in his attempts to build up the sport of boxing in the Holy Land. The essay deals with the renaissance of Jewish sport as a goal of self-realization, in which the author distinguishes between two types of sports: one for the sake of physical health, and the other for the purpose of competition.

Ignatz Weiss’s theoretical essay, “Sport and Physical Education,” published in the Jewish-Romanian Almanac of 1939-1938

Weiss brings the example of Samson the hero and King David as proof of the importance of physical fitness and competition in Jewish society in ancient times. He also draws attention to the concept of “Muscle Judaism,” Max Nordau’s vision of the need to establish Jewish sports clubs, an idea that Nordau presented during his speech at the Second Jewish Congress in 1898.

Remarkably, even before the start of Jewish Emancipation, the boxing industry had many successful Jewish representatives but Jewish society was not yet enthusiastic about this sport or about the achievements of Spakow and his colleagues.

Weiss admitted in his article that, even after four decades, the innovations of the Zionist Congress in Basel had not yet reached the consciousness of the Jewish public:

“Unfortunately, today, the interest of Jewish society in Jewish sports is not directly proportional to the aspirations of sports representatives in physical education.”

Weiss concluded:

The athletic youth is the commitment to the Jewish future…Only the youth trained in sports, who have been prepared with this dedication can lead Judaism to the desired calm. Even if it sounds paradoxally, but the march to a happier and more peaceful Jewish future is through sports

The Jewish Almanac for the year 5699 (1938-1939), which includes about 19 articles and essays by Jewish authors and thinkers in Romanian, Hungarian and German.


Article on the Viennese “Hakoach”  swimmers Hedy Bienenfeld and Fritzi Löwy

Article on the Viennese “Hakoach” athlete Alfred König and his mysterious identity as Ali Ferit Gören

“Burn them, as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium”

Yehiel De-Nur felt that "Yehiel Feiner" was destroyed in the Holocaust, and so he wished to destroy the book he published before the Holocaust

Author Yehiel Feiner, born in 1909, is known as one of the greatest authors to write about the Holocaust and its aftermath. Feiner renamed himself Yehiel De-nur and later chose a pen name imbued with meaning: Ka-Tsetnik 135633, taken from KZ – the short form the Nazis used for “Konzentrationslager,” German for concentration camp. The name therefore literally meant – “Concentration camp prisoner number 135633”

Before the Holocaust, in 1931, Yehiel Feiner published a book of Yiddish poetry titled “Twenty-Two” (צווייאונצוואנציק in Yiddish). After the war, any time he heard there was a copy of the book available at the National Library of Israel, Ka-Tsetnik would come to the Library, borrow out the book, and destroy it. Ka-Tsetnik did this three times between 1953 and 1993.

Ka-Tsetnik’s letter to Shlomo Goldberg, 1993

In 1953 and 1964 he burned the available copies of his book. In 1993, he wrote a letter to Shlomo Goldberg, the manager of the library stacks at the time, about the third and last time he destroyed the book. He shredded the publication and sent the remains of the book together with the letter in an envelope to Goldberg.

Pieces of the copy shredded by Ka-Tsetnik

“I have another request: I placed here the remains of the ‘book.’ Please, burn them as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium.”

It seems that Yehiel De-Nur felt that Yehiel Feiner had been destroyed in the Holocaust, along with everything dear to him. Moreover, De-Nur viewed everything Feiner created before the Holocaust as meaningless. As far as he was concerned, the Holocaust had utterly destroyed the world that existed before. Ka-Tsetnik, writing after the Holocaust, had nothing to do with Feiner and the work he created and published.

Ka-Tsetnik collapses during Adolf Eichmann’s trial, 1961. Photo credit: GPO

During Eichmann’s trial where De-Nur was a witness, Ka-Tsetnik called Auschwitz “another planet”. For Ka-Tsetnik there were three distinct worlds, before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust and everything that he had created before the Holocaust could not be tolerated.

Yehiel De-Nur passed away on July 17, 2001. The Library still holds an intact copy of the book De-Nur tried so hard to destroy.

Hannah Senesh’s Final Letter

The letter addressed to her brother George was written in English to ensure it would pass through the British military censors.

Hannah Senesh at Kibbutz Sdot Yam

My dear George!

I send to you again a short letter to make you know, that we are quite ‘O-K,’ and that’s all. I guess all my acquaintances and relations are cross with me, that I never wrote and are perhaps even angry with me. Please try to explain the situation, if possible, if not they will forgive me later.

Hannah and George Senesh (Szenes), from the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

To mother I do not write now either and your letters must replace the mine. For this reason, I give you the right even to forge my signature, hoping you will not use it for “high financial obligations.”

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections

No use writing that I would like to see you, to talk to you and at least to write more detailed letters. I hope you know that very well, and I get your letters with great delay but sooner or later they reach me, and I am always ever so glad to hear about you. Thousand kisses to you and warm greetings to your friends from home.

From Hannah

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections.

On May 20th, 1944, the Jewish paratrooper Hannah Senesh found herself in Croatia, not far from the Hungarian border. Two months earlier she had been parachuted into the region by the British Royal Air Force, in a desperate attempt to save Jews of neighboring Hungary from the Nazi death camps. On this day, Hannah Senesh sat down to write what would become the last letter she ever sent to her beloved brother George. At the time of writing, she had joined up with a group of local partisan resistance fighters.

In just a few short weeks, they would be be captured and tortured by Hungarian forces loyal to the Nazi regime. Six months later, Hannah would be executed by firing squad.

Hannah Senesh and her brother George Senesh . From the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

Hannah Senesh’s last letter was written in English. This was because all letters were required to go through the British army censor before they were sent on to their intended recipients. Senesh wanted to be sure the letter would be approved without any issues so that it would make it to her brother.

Hannah Senesh was executed on November 7, 1944.


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