Meet the Jewish Circus Performer Who Could Bend Iron with His Bare Hands

Zishe Breitbart was known as the "Modern Day Samson" and performed all over the world until his untimely death.


Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia

Jewish culture has always preferred brains to brawn, placing more of an emphasis on scholarship than the gymnasium. Jews shine in many fields, but you usually won’t see too many of them in your typical sports highlight reel – and yet, despite the odds, there have been some exceptional Jewish sports stars, such as boxer Daniel Mendoza (champion of England in 1792–5) and baseball’s Sandy Koufax. U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Russian gymnast Yelena Shushunova  also won plenty of Olympic medals.

And then there was Siegmund Zishe Breitbart.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

The Modern Day Samson

Zishe Breitbart was born circa 1883 to a poor family in Stryków, Poland. His father was a blacksmith and Zishe followed in his footsteps but with one twist: much to their customers’ amazement, Zishe could successfully bend metal with his bare hands.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, the blacksmith. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Stryków was under czarist rule when World War I broke out and Breitbart enlisted in the Russian army, only to be captured by the Germans. Lucky enough to survive and be freed, he joined Busch, a German roving circus. Renamed “Siegmund,” he appeared and performed all over Germany as well other European countries, then toured America. He straightened horseshoes and bent iron bars with his bare hands, broke chains with his teeth, and lifted strange and various weights including wagons loaded with passengers – and even the occasional elephant.

Settling in Germany, Breitbart married a rabbi’s daughter and fathered a son. Performing his one man show, he solidified his reputation among Eastern European Jewry as the Iron Man, the World’s Strongest Man, and of course, the Modern Day Samson.

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Posters advertising his performances in Poland promoted a new Jewish national image. Between the two world wars, as Jews integrated more than ever into modern economies, these ads broadcast Jewish strength, raising Jews’ spirits – and non-Jews’ expectations.

Of the four posters preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, a couple are particularly large. One, printed in Cologne, shows the champ chomping on chains. The date and time of the act were left blank, to be filled in later. The other three were printed in Stanisławow – now Ivano-Frankivsk, part of Ukraine – in Polish as well as Yiddish, indicating that Breitbart’s fans weren’t all Jews.

One of four posters from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People advertising a Zishe Breitbart performance.

Beloved by Millions

As president of the Maccabi Berlin sports federation, Breitbart symbolized a Jewish renaissance. He never hid his Jewish identity or his Zionism. Some claim he visited Palestine, but there are no records of such a trip. The rumors probably testify more to the breadth of his popularity, extending even as far as the Middle East.

Breitbart’s career was cut short after just six years by a tragic work accident. While driving a spike through a thick pile of tin sheets – using his hand as a hammer of course – he was stabbed in the knee by a rusty nail, resulting in blood poisoning. Antibiotics had yet to be invented, so he struggled against the infection for eight weeks, submitting to ten operations, including the amputation of both legs. He died on September 29, 1925, the 24th of Tishrei,and was buried in the Adass Yisroel cemetery in Berlin.

The Sentinal,  Friday, October 20, 1925. From the National Library of Israel Historical Jewish Press collection. Click image to enlarge.

The funeral of this Jewish celebrity was covered by Doar Hayom (The Daily Post), published in Mandatory Palestine by Itamar Ben Avi (son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew). The article was entitled “On the Death of a Second Samson:”

The massive funeral was attended by thousands of Jews and Christians. A good few kilometers around the graveyard were jammed with hundreds of cars filled with people coming to the funeral. There were so many people that the elderly cemetery officials declared they couldn’t remember ever seeing such an enormous Jewish funeral in Berlin. The police had to send numerous constables out to maintain order and supervise the procession.

Cameras and filming equipment were set up on the surrounding roofs and photographed various scenes throughout the funeral….

Siegmund Zishe Breitbart, from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Chief Rabbi Dr. [Esra] Munk delivered the eulogy, emphasizing that the deceased had won the hearts of millions…. [Munk] particularly praised the deceased for disregarding all the glory and honor accorded him by the world at large, for Breitbart never forgot he was a Jew. He always came back to be with his fellow Jews, wherever they might be, telling them how happy he was that today Jews could claim the strongest man in the world as one of their own….     A black flag belonging to the Berlin Maccabi sports federation, of which Zishe Breitbart was honorary president, fluttered throughout the funeral. Telegrams of condolence arrived, and wreaths were laid on the grave by sports associations from Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, and Warsaw.
(Doar Ha-yom, 7 Marheshvan 5686, October 25, 1925)


A version of this article first appeared in Segula Magazine, October 2016, Issue 34.


The Eastern European Pinkas Kahal: Image and Reality

Through the pinkas of a given community, we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and depth


Examining the Frankfurt Pinkas in the National Library of Israel Rare Books Reading Room

The word pinkas means “notebook.” These notebooks were widely used in pre-modern Jewish society by both communal organizations and individuals.  Mohalim (Jews trained in the practice of Brit Milah) would keep pinkasim to note and track the circumcisions they had performed, businessmen kept pinkasim to note the various deals they made, students kept pinkasim into which they copied the texts they were studying, and mystics kept pinkasim in which they noted their sins (and sometimes their dreams, too).  Thus, the term pinkas was distinguished from the “Sefer” – book – in both its physical form and the way texts were entered into it.  The pinkas was a notebook, initially of blank pages, into which its owner penned various texts or entries that were of interest to him from time to time.

This format of record keeping was, of course, very useful for institutions, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, that wanted to keep a running record of their activity.  European Jewish society in the early modern age (about 1500-1800 C.E.) was a complex web of institutions – from the small, local guilds (“hevrot ba’alei melakhah”) to the great trans-regional councils such as the Lithuanian Jewish Council and, of course, the Polish “Council of Four Lands.”  Pinkasim or fragments of pinkasim from these different institutions have survived over time, giving the distinct impression that maintaining a pinkas was an integral part of early modern Jewish organizational life.

The Frankfurt Pinkas, from the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge.

The Pinkas Hakahal – the record notebook of the community’s governing council – formed only one part of a complex of communal pinkasim. Community administration was made up of many other bodies each of which kept their own pinkas.  The gabbaim, the communal treasurers, would keep a pinkas, noting synagogue organization, particularly as it related to financial and charitable disbursements, as well as the different decisions they made to regulate their work.  The judges of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, would a keep a pinkas to record the cases they heard, and the tax assessors would keep a record of the taxes assessed for and paid by each community member. The Kahal also kept a pinkas and as the community’s supreme governing body, its pinkas might be viewed as the most important. When brought together, these various record notebooks make up what we might call “pinkasei ha-kehillah” which provide a rich and multifaceted view of the broad sweep of Jewish communal life.

frankfurt pinkas
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library, examines the Frankfurt Pinkas.

Grasping how the pinkas functioned, and understanding its role in the life of both the community council and the community as a whole is no easy task. As Prof. Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University has shown, there are many layers of misconceptions about the early modern pinkas kahal which developed in the various cultural and political milieu of eastern European Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but were picked up and repeated, often uncritically, by future generations of scholars.  The maskilim of the nineteenth century adopted a view of the community pinkas as somehow embodying the entire history of the early modern Jewish community – an institution and a history they despised. In his satirical novel, “Kvurat Hamur – An Ass’s Burial,” Peretz Smolenskin was scathing:

A pinkas can be found in every town where Jews live, and in it, they and everything that happened in the town will be written as an everlasting memory.  There is mention of girls who lost their virginity by accident and through rape, of denouncers and those who caused Jews to lose money to non-Jews, of those who rebelled against communal authority and those who ate non-kosher meat, of those who stole the silver from synagogues and those who carried a kerchief on the Sabbath.  [It tells of] the house that was destroyed by demons and ghosts, and of sinners whose sins or mockery of the burial society caused the outbreak of plague.  In this text will be inscribed all those who transgressed the law of Israel and in their death will they pay for their sins, for they will be given an ass’s burial.

A page from the Zülz Pinkas, dated 1796 to 1805, from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click image to enlarge.

In the twentieth century, Jewish nationalists of many different stripes took an equally romantic, but highly positive, view of the pinkas. Many of them viewed it as the ultimate expression of the Jews’ autonomous bodies of the early modern period, bodies the nationalists saw as foreshadowing the development of the Jewish national institutions they wanted to develop.   Others took it as somehow embodying the spirit of the nation.  Avraham Rechtman, who participated in An-Ski’s great ethnographic expedition of 1912, expressed this in lyrical terms:

The pinkas is the mirror of the people’s life (folks leben) in past generations.  The pinkas reflects the people’s feelings, its joys and its sadness, how it expressed its concerns and what made up its demands.  Through the pinkas we can assess the life of the individual and the kahal in all its breadth and all its depth.  We can learn from them about the way of life as it was, as well as relations within society, between one society and another, between one community and another, and also of the Jews’ attitude towards the outside, non-Jewish world which surrounded them.

What was common to both, of course, was a highly romanticized view of the pinkas as embodying the history and spirit of the Jews as a whole, though the values they imparted to it were quite different.

In the face of this product of the overheated Jewish imagination, it is probably worth engaging in a more sober discussion of the pinkas kahal.  Unfortunately, despite the deepest desires of both maskilim and Jewish nationalists, the pinkas was not a kind of “communal memory.”  The vast majority of entries dealt with highly technical matters, such as taxation and other economic issues that fell into the purview of the kahal. Major events in the community’s life were recorded only in so far as the kahal had to make decisions or regulations to deal with them.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, dated 1773-1808, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

In addition, the pinkas was not available to the community but was zealously guarded by the members of the Kahal.  The Krakow community constitution of 1595 specified that the pinkas hakahal should be in the hands of the two community scribes (called at that time, “edim demata”) and locked away in a box that only they could open.

In truth, the pinkas kahal in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was very much a technical document.  Only matters dealt with by the kahal were included in it.  These could, of course, be of enormous significance for running the community though not in the romantic idealist way previously envisioned.

Crucial topics such as the question of population control through the granting or retraction of residence rights (“hezkat hayishuv”) were included in a pinkas. This was sometimes connected with regulations concerning dowries since only those wealthy enough to pay handsome dowries would be able to settle their children in the community.   The management of the annual elections to the kahal was another issue that would be included.  Other issues dealt with by the pinkasim include the management of communal charity (most often done by means of regulations concerning the gabbaim), the employment of community officials (cantors, slaughterers, doctors, midwives, teachers, etc.), most particularly the rabbi, and relations with the non-Jewish authorities.

Though the Pinkas Hakahal does not provide a window into the Jewish soul, for the good or the bad, it does shed a great deal of light on how Jews organized their communities and ran their lives hundreds of years ago.

The National Library of Israel, together with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, holds the largest collection of pinkasim in the world. Through international academic co-operation, the Pinkasim Collection aims at locating, cataloging, and digitizing all surviving record books, making them freely available. At the first stage of the project, the focus is on pinkasei kahal, the pinkasim of the central governing body of Jewish communities. On June 20th, the National Library hosted an event marking the launch of the Pinkasim Collection, which featuring experts from around the world.


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Coffee Houses Open on Shabbat… With Rabbinic Approval

Records from 18th century Prague show that the opening of Jewish coffee houses on Shabbat enjoyed the approval of the city’s rabbinic leadership.

A Game of Draughts at Cafe Lamblin by Louis Leopold Boilly

A Game of Draughts at Cafe Lamblin by Louis Leopold Boilly

In the middle of the eighteenth century, religious life in the Jewish community of Prague was at its high point, with nine well-known synagogues and dozens of study houses. But at the same time that the learned men of Prague were producing vast Torah scholarship and the yeshivas were bustling with students, another institution was gaining popularity – the coffee house. Coffee houses became popular soon after coffee’s arrival in Western Europe, and often offered more than just a drink; they were a place to spend leisure time playing games and discussing current events with friends and strangers. Rabbinic sermons and writings from this period warn of the spiritual threat posed by the coffee house.  These establishments’ diverse environment and leisure culture competed with the traditional Jewish lifestyle of worship and study.

In spite of this potential culture clash, the records from that time period in the Pinkas Beit Din – the minute book of the rabbinic court of Prague – show that the opening of Jewish coffee houses on weekdays and, shockingly to modern ears, even on Shabbat, enjoyed the approval of the city’s rabbinic leadership, along with careful, detailed rabbinic-halachic regulation.

The Pinkas (minute book) of the Rabbinic Court of the Holy Congregation of Prague, currently preserved in the Jewish Museum of Prague, is a hand written book which, records the decisions of the rabbinic court, one of the most important governing bodies of the Prague Jewish community. This pinkas, written in a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish, begins in 1755 and survived the Holocaust even as the community it records was wiped out, provides important testimony to Jewish daily life in Europe.

A pinkas from 18th century Prague, the National Library collections
A pinkas from Halberstadt, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.

In the Prague Pinkas Beit Din, the numbers alone – seven discussions about coffee houses within fifteen years – tell us how pressing and how complex this issue was. The entries show a swift progression, from disapproval and severe limitations to support with minimal caveats. Evidently community members had embraced coffee-house culture and were not about to give it up. The pinkas entries also show the style of religious leadership adopted by the rabbinic courts of Prague in this case: instead of opposing a cultural trend that threatened traditional life, the rabbis accepted the new trend, which gave them the opportunity to regulate and contain its impact, and to integrate the new institution into the traditional mode of Jewish life.

One of the first discussions in the pinkas, from around 1757, begins by taking a hard line – Ideally the coffee houses in the Jewish ghetto should be closed, and people should instead dedicate their time to Torah study. Since that is impossible, they should open only for an hour in the morning, after morning services at synagogue, and then for an hour following afternoon services. Women should never enter coffee houses. With regard to Shabbat, “no man should dare to go to the coffee house and drink coffee there on the holy Sabbath. This is punishable with a large fine!

This discussion is followed by another paragraph, presumably added days or weeks later:

However, due to the travails of war (presumably the siege of Prague in the spring of 1757, part of the Seven Years War) and other concerns, many have protested that we cannot be so stringent on this matter… the way to distance from sin will be that on the holy Sabbath, no one should go to the coffee houses to drink coffee, but anyone who wishes to drink should bring it to his home. And on weekdays, any time they are praying in the Old New Synagogue (Altneuschul), no man should dare go drink in the coffee house.

The added paragraph shifts the balance significantly, permitting Jews to frequent coffee houses at all times except during prayers; allowances are made for procuring coffee on Shabbat as well. Apparently the Jewish coffee sellers had an arrangement in which customers paid before or after Shabbat, and they could prepare the coffee without violating Shabbat laws about cooking, perhaps with the help of non-Jewish workers. The main concern is the propriety of spending time in the coffee house on Shabbat, so getting the coffee as takeout is a suitable compromise, but not one that lasted long.

The famous bridges over the River Vltava, Prague.
The famous bridges over the River Vltava, Prague.

The next two entries on this topic in the pinkas, dated 1758 and 1761, are each signed by eight Jewish coffee house owners. One declares that coffee will be sold only until noon on Shabbat, and one states that coffee will be sold without milk on Shabbat, presumably in order to avoid serving dairy to customers who had just eaten a meat meal.

A fourth entry, dated 1764, declares:

From this day onwards, on Shabbat and holidays, women are not to enter coffee houses to drink coffee at all. And even on weekdays, from 6 PM onwards, no woman or women should be found in the coffee house…

These entries assume that, despite earlier restrictions, women are indeed entering coffee houses. Moreover, coffee houses are not only providing coffee for takeout on Shabbat, customers are sitting and drinking coffee there, and the rabbinic court is only trying to limit that clientele to men.

A fifth entry, dates 1774, states:

The owners of the coffee houses stood before the rabbi and the rabbinic court, who warned them that they should be careful to avoid selling coffee on Shabbat and holidays to non-Jews, as the prohibition of commerce on the Sabbath applies. They are permitted to sell only to Jews, for the sake of Oneg Shabbat, delighting in the Sabbath day, since not everyone is able to prepare coffee for himself on Shabbat at home.

A pinkas from 18th century Prague, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.
A pinkas from Zülz, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.

To the rabbis of eighteenth century Prague, the coffee house’s ambiance of levity and cultural exchange competed with the traditional understanding of the proper Shabbat atmosphere. The rabbinic court therefore made efforts to restrict Jewish coffee houses’ activity on Shabbat, with limited success. But in their final entry on this topic, the Prague Beit Din provided the coffee houses with a religious stamp of approval, pointing out that Jews attending coffee houses on Shabbat was in fact a fulfillment of the religious injunction to delight in the Sabbath day. The rising cultural significance of coffee in European regions, since its import a few decades ago, is now reflected in the the pinkas; the new product is incorporated into halachic language, labeled, for the first time, as “Oneg Shabbat” – a positive value which should be carefully considered.  The coffee house and the synagogue need not always be rivals: within certain parameters, both could be part of a meaningful and enjoyable Sabbath day in Prague.

The National Library of Israel, together with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, holds the largest collection of pinkasim in the world. Through international academic co-operation, the Pinkasim Collection aims at locating, cataloguing, and digitizing all surviving record books, making them freely available. At the first stage of the project, the focus is on pinkasei kahal, the pinkasim of the central governing body of Jewish communities. On June 20th, the National Library will host an event marking the launch of the Pinkasim Collection, which will feature experts from around the world, and will include a lecture by Maoz Kahana about coffee houses in Prague.

You can read more on this subject in the article by Dr. Maoz Kahana, ‘The Shabbes Coffeehouse – on the emergence of the Jewish Coffeehouse in eighteenth-century Prague’, Zion 78,1 (2013), pp. 5-50 , which you can find here.


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Samuil Polyakov: Life as a Jewish Tycoon in 19th Century Russia

Samuil, the second of the brothers Polyakov, lived an interesting life, balancing his identity as a Jew with his position in the Russian business elite.

Letter of Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with the photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2)

Letter from Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with a photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and his brothers, Yakov and Lazar, were anomalies in mid-19th-century Russia. Samuil was the second of three brothers who were part of a Jewish banking family of Russian nobility in the mid to late 19th century. His older brother, Yakov Polyakov, was one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons who built up the railroads across the country. Yakov kept a detailed diary of his thoughts, business dealings, and activities that are now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. His diary gave us much insight into his world but uncovering the thoughts and actions of his younger brother Samuil took a bit more work.

Kurt Grunwald
Jerusalem Resident ID of Kurt Grunwald, The Central Zionist Archives, A343/3

Kurt Grunwald, a native of Vienna who moved to Ramban Street in Jerusalem, wrote a vivid biography of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the biggest Jewish philanthropists, whose business model was just like that of the Poliakov brothers in that he combined banking with obtaining concessions for railway construction. Baron Maurice de Hirsch most famously sealed the deal for building the railway connecting Vienna and Istanbul, and despite the fact that this vision was only partially realized because of the shaky political situation, it nevertheless became the major railway in the Balkans and for many years hosted the famous Orient Express.

Grunwald’s research naturally led him to the Polyakov family. As it turns out, these two families were in fact related as the brother of Maurice de Hirsch, James (Jakob) de Hirsch de Gereuth married the daughter of Samuil Polyakov, Zinaida. In the 1960s, Grunwald got in touch with the descendants of the Poliakov family who were scattered across post-war Europe. Mary Polyakov, a granddaughter of Yakov Poliakov, was a fiction writer who spent time living in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Mary provided Grunwald with some insight into her family:

Mary Polyakov Letter
Letter from Mary Polyakov to Kurt Grunwald, December 20, 1967 (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

“I know that Jacob and Samuil lived in St. Petersburg. Each had a palace. The first entertained politicians, diplomats and such like. Samuil’s house was open to artists and writers. There must be somewhere a bronze statue of his, the work of the known sculptor Antokolsky, a fine work.”

Photograph of the statue of Samuil Polyakov made by Mark Antokolsky (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg

The palaces of the brothers Polyakov were situated on Galernaya street near the Hermitage, which is still one of the most luxurious in the city. At the end of the 19th century, multiple buildings on Galernaya street belonged to the two most prominent clans of Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs – the Polyakovs and their neighbors the Günzburgs, the most famous Russian Jewish family of the time. Several banks were also located nearby.

Historian Ben-Zion Katz collected information about Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg from persons who knew them and presented it in his memoirs. He writes that Samuil was religious and prayed with his tallit and tefillin every day, but did so in secrecy. Samuil also kept a kosher kitchen though he was insistent that his non-Jewish guests not know that he kept his food kosher. Horace Günzburg’s guests, including the Russian royal family members, knew they would receive only kosher food in his home. Count Shuvalov, a Russian noble who often dined at Günzburg’s, used to eat cheese for dessert after dinner, like most of the Russian nobility who had adopted French culture. Günzburg’s maids would promptly clear the table and replace meat dishware with a dairy set.

Not a Jewish Philanthropist?

Samuil was actively criticized among his Jewish compatriots as his philanthropy was geared only toward Russian organizations and never toward the Jewish organizations. Samuil’s reasoning, it seems, was the wish to assimilate, to be favored at court, and to gain a much desired noble title. Henrich Sliosberg, a famous Jewish lawyer, said the following:

“He avoided the Jews of St. Petersburg, stayed somehow apart from them, but very cordially accepted all sorts of dignitaries, princes, counts, who sought his favor for their material interests. They kneeled before him, they considered him a business genius, but I never heard any of the high-ranking officials who knew him closely say that Polyakov was loved and that even those whom he had helped were attached to him. His business reputation did not have any beneficial results for the Jews; it irritated people more than it appealed to them.”

Samuil donated large sums of money toward education and to many provincial theatres and museums. Paradoxically, Samuil also happened to make a certain accidental contribution to the Russian revolutionary movement which was, of course, absolutely against his wishes. This is how it happened.

Samuil donated 200 thousand rubles to the construction of the student dormitories of Saint Petersburg University. The administration decided to host a celebratory assembly and present Polyakov with a letter of thanks for his donation. While we don’t know exactly what was written in this letter, many of the students who were asked to sign the address found the tone of the text too servile. When the administration refused to change the text, the students decided to object to the ceremony since the letter was composed as if coming from the entire student body. The students called a meeting in the university lobby and staged a protest.

Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov
Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov

The whole situation could have been resolved easily and quietly, but the administration decided to bring the police and the mayor to the building where the protest was being held. Several students were arrested and, in the end, about one hundred students were expelled from the university. This incident provoked additional student demonstrations in other cities. Among the students who took part in the initial ‘uprising’ in Saint Petersburg was Sergey Nikonov, a future revolutionary, who later took part in the preparation of the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III. In his memoirs he writes:

“I can say for myself that the “Polyakov Story”, which played out before my eyes and with my modest participation and was essentially insignificant, completely determined my position in relation to the autocracy and its organs — administrations, police etc. From now on, I could only be an ardent opponent to this system, and for me the question was brought up to how I can be more productive in the fight against it.”

Crafts versus Agriculture and the Rabbis’ Conference at Polyakov’s Palace

Samuil’s policy of philanthropy started to change in the 1880s: he began taking interest in Jewish initiatives and became the major promoter of the establishment of ORT: Obschestvo Remeslennogo Truda, ‘Association for the Promotion of Crafts.’ The change in his philanthropic perspective came due to the strong influence of Professor Nikolay Bakst, a physiologist, writer, and Jewish activist. Bakst strongly believed that the condition of Russian Jewry could be drastically improved by developing their skills in various crafts, enabling Jews to find work as artisans. This view contradicted the view of Horace Günzburg who invested, like Maurice de Hirsch, in putting Jews to work in agriculture.

List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces if the Russian Empire. Inside of the book of protocols of ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).
List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces of the Russian Empire. The protocols of the ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From the ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).

Bakst and Polyakov both believed that, in order to improve the lives of the Jews, they should be taught secular disciplines. Willing to help this cause, Polyakov got involved in the fate of the most famous Jewish religious school of the time – the Volozhin Yeshiva. Russian authorities tried to enforce the teaching of the Russian language and arithmetic in the yeshiva, but the head of the institution, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, thought that his yeshiva was not the place for these subjects and there was a serious risk that the yeshiva would be closed due to his stubbornness.

Volozhin Yeshiva

Albert Harkavy, a former student of Berlin’s, went on to become a librarian at the Imperial Library and a renowned scholar in Saint Petersburg. Berlin traveled to see him and Harkavy introduced Berlin to Polyakov and Günzburg who interceded for him with the famous liberal Count Pahlen, who was privy to the secret affairs of the ministries. The Count managed to arrange a license to open a yeshiva that would only teach religious subjects without having to teach the national language.

The question of secular studies came up again in 1887. On the initiative of Bakst, the Congress of the most prominent rabbis in Russia was convened. The Congress met in Saint Petersburg in Samuil Polyakov’s house, and, after a long and stormy debate, the attendees drew up a protocol that established that yeshiva pupils in Volozhin would learn Russian and arithmetic, but that these subjects would not be taught in the hall of the yeshiva, but rather in a separate room.

Unfortunately, this outstanding event and document did not prevent the closure of the yeshiva which happened soon afterward, but for reasons unrelated to the teaching of new secular disciplines.

Two Tragic Deaths

Samuil Polyakov had a close friend named Abram Moiseevich Varshavsky who was also in the railway business. His son married Rozalia Polyakov, Samuil’s daughter. Varshavsky was famous for his kindness and he was known to help everyone who turned to him. Perhaps this generosity is what led to his financial difficulties. Unable to face the humiliation of declaring bankruptcy, Varshavsky committed suicide. Samuil Polyakov died of a heart attack at his friend’s funeral.

polyakov diary
A page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary. Sad events are marked with a blue pencil including the death of Samuil and the death of Ernestina Rubinstein, mother of the famous ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein. A red pencil marked a happier event -The graduation from the universityof Yakov’s son, Boris (CAHJP, P238).

Here is how his brother Yakov describes that sad day:

“On April 7, my brother, his wife and I went in his Landau [automobile] to Varshavsky’s funeral (how many times did his wife and I plead with him not to go to the funeral, It led to nothing). The three of us left Varshavsky apartment following his coffin and immediately at half past ten in the morning my poor dear brother fell and died of heart failure. He fell near me on the street next to the apartment of Varshavsky and only thanks to the urgent orders of Mayor Gresser my unfortunate brother was lifted and brought into a shop near this apartment. Otherwise, he would have been trampled over for there were several thousand people attending the funeral of Varshavsky, and when they found out about what had happened to my brother they all rushed to this place and only Gresser was able to stop this crowd. I cannot give any other details about our great misfortune.”

A local newspaper reported from Samuil’s funeral:

“Along the route of the funeral procession, a countles multitiude gathered. All balconies, windows and even some of the rooftops along Nevsky Prospect were littered with the curious. Behind the coffin, marched crowd of several thousands of Jewish artisans, who arrived to pay their respects to the founder of the ‘Jewish craft fund.'”

Special thanks to Moshe Goncharok from the Central Zionist Archives and to my grandmother Ksenia Guzeeva. 


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