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Poles and Jews – Magaziner, Prensky Origins… Part One; Even Prior to Auschwitz, Life was Tough

September 15, 2020

On the left – the Nieman River Basin – a small part of which extends into Poland near Bialystok where from whence hail the Magaziners and Burwicks. (Nieman is also spelled Neman and Nemanus.). The western branch of the Neiman begins in Belaru’s Pripyat Swamps, goes through Grodno in Belarus and Prienai (which the Jews living there called “Pren”) following northwest into Kaliningrad until it dumps into the Baltic Sea. My relatives were fishermen and rabbis living on the banks of the Nieman (at least according to “Aunt Mal”).

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Yet an off-handed remark that came back to me recently suggested a more complex picture. I was asking my mother’s sister, “Aunt Mal” who was in her later years what was left of the family historian about the family history and she remarked something along the lines that, yes, some of the family had perished in the Holocaust – although whether they were executed in the first days of the Nazi Occupation or died in camps like Auschwitz remains unknown but that much of the family had been victimized earlier, during World War One and the turbulent years just after the war had ended.

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Over the next few months I am going to be reading and writing about Polish history – keep getting drawn in deeper and deeper. I suppose the question is why? The answer – It’s a personal matter: although most of us hardly give it a second thought – myself included until recently – my family comes from there. Of course many Poles – and some Jews – would say – your family history is Jewish, not Polish and some Poles would argue that Jews, even if they lived within the ever changing boundaries of what has been called “Poland,” are not truly Poles.

I find that argument – on both sides – silly and in some ways discriminatory.

Jews lived in the changing landscape of what today is Poland for hundreds of years. True enough the communities were largely separated, segregated – and yet for centuries they shared the same history, the same geographic space, the same political formations and as a result of geography, suffered similar fates being located in the middle of one of Europe’s great crossroads – with Russia to the east and Germany (and France and Great Britain) to the west, with Poland caught in the middle.

Some Jews may not like being called “Poles”… but what else were they? In any event, my interest in pursing this subject is personal.

Like many second and third generation assimilated Jews, this history was unimportant to me and generally stopped at the Holocaust. But with age and what I would like to think of as less personal stupidity and an understanding that history – be it family or in the broader sense – is important – and whether one realizes it or not, we are all a part of something “bigger” than the little piece of geography and history within which we currently find ourselves. And while much of my families Jewish history – other than the barest of outlines – died in the ovens of Nazi concentration camps, or earlier in fighting on the Eastern Front in World War I and in the regional wars that followed (like the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920) – we can learn a great deal about what our family went through given the chaotic historical narrative of the times.

My family history, and that of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles and parents, is Jewish and from Eastern Europe, what is today three countries: Poland, Lithuania and Belarus, for a good part of the past 300,400 years a part of the Russian Empire. The relatives who could have shared more of it with me are gone. I did learn some from a maternal aunt, Aunt Mal, (Malvina Stone, b. Molly Magaziner), some of which is fascinating, some of which it turned out by the little research I have been able to do, is more “family lore” than actual history – but interesting all the same.

Even that element which is more family lore and less fact interests me from the point of view of how family history is transmitted through oral tradition. There is a kernel of truth there too and important in certain ways, even if inaccurate. The exact “epic” – and it is that – of the family’s journey from Bialystok and Grodno to the corner of Avenue K and Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn and to Morris Ave. in the Bronx might be a bit rough around the edges when it comes to the facts, but the pain, the emotional turmoil, the harshness of that experience is genuine, and for most of us, poorly appreciated. Also unappreciated, is the degree to which we, the Prenskys and Magaziners have been shaped by history, both family and the more broader meaning of the term.

It is nothing short of breath-taking to come in contact with that history.

Thanks to a fine and detailed genealogy done by one of my father’s cousins, William J. Prensky, whom I never heard of until in 1995 he published a Prensky genealogy, “The Prensky’s – A Family History 1800-1995” going back to 1800 I know something about that side of my family’s history, the history of the Prenskys. (1) On the Magaziner side of the family I have been collecting information but there are still many more missing pieces.

My four grandparents – Molly and Abraham Prensky, Sarah and Julius Magaziner arrived in the United States all at about the same time, during the first decade of the 20th century along with much of their extended families, mostly siblings and children. But most of the family remained behind in the places of origin – Grodno (now in Belarus), Bialystock (in Poland) just down the road from Grodno to the southwest along the Nieman River and Vilnius, today the capitol of Lithunia – all far away geographically and mentally from the world in which I live – along with siblings and extended family in the United States.

Representatives of the Union of Jewish Authors attending a memorial assembly in a Jewish cemetery in Bialystok After World War II. (Photo credit: Bialystok Memorial Web Page)

Long ago, far away and yet so close.

What is 100 or 110 years in the greater scheme of history? Not much, really. At some point – in my thirties I believe – it struck me that if you scratched the surface of my mother and aunt, ardently trying to assimilate to American “culture” in the 1920s and 1930s, that underneath it all much of the Polish-Jewish peasantry/small town life with its values, superstitions and extended family realities comes alive. And how far away from that am I, my sisters, my cousins, all of us “Americanized”, very few that I am aware of with any knowledge of Yiddish, no human connection to anyone from “the old country”? It is an illusion to think we’re that much different.

Let me make clear from the outset that all this has nothing to do with “it’s in our genes.” This is hogwash, not worthy of even exploring and can only lead to all kinds of racialist theories, be they of the “we’re better than others” – the “chosen people” nonsense, or taken by the Nazis and other narrow European nationalists be they French, Polish, Lithuanian or Russian, has led to different forms of anti-semitism, some virulent others less so but none the less just as odious.

That world, or what’s left of it, has been passed down culturally, historically.

What drew me to what continues to be a deepening interest in Polish history – of which the Jewish population living in those ever changing geographies has an integral part – is a blind spot in the histories of both the Magaziners and Prensky’s. For much of my youth I heard of how the family this side of the Atlantic was in touch with relatives back in Poland until World War II when the contacts ended abrupty. After the war there was silence and no information, none as to who among the two extended families, if anyone, had survived the Holocaust. That led me to some research – what happened to the Jews of Bialystok, Grodno and Prienai (2) during that evil whirlwind when the Nazi’s seized power. I continue to explore that history, some of which is detailed in the deeply disturbing – but well documented – The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman. No doubt some of the family disappeared in that dark maelstrom, that orgy of racism against not only Jews but also Slavic peoples, people on the political left, vulnerable populations (the elderly, sick, mentally ill) exterminated through eugenic practices. Nazi viciousness was by no means limited to exterminating Europe’s Jewish population.

Yet an off-handed remark that came back to me recently suggested a more complex picture. I was asking my mother’s sister, “Aunt Mal” who was in her later years what was left of the family historian about the family history and she remarked something along the lines that, yes, some of the family had perished in the Holocaust – although whether they were executed in the first days of the Nazi Occupation or died in camps like Auschwitz remains unknown but that much of the family had been victimized earlier, during World War One and the turbulent years just after the war had ended.

During World War I? The turbulent years just after the war had ended? To what could she have been referring? Why didn’t I know anything about that? What was there to know?

The brief answer to all that – to be elaborated in some detail in following entries – is that the Jews of Bialystok, Grodno, Prienai and Vilnus found themselves on the front lines of fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One and likewise, in the midst of the post-war struggles between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and revolutionary Russia. (3) During World War One the front between the Germans and Russians, the main adversaries there passed hands several times precisely through several of these places – Bialystok and Grodno in particular. After the war ended and each of the above countries was feeling drunk with Ethnic Nationalist Expansionist Disease (ENED – my own creation, back in style), they warred with one another, trying to gain advantage at the expense of their smaller regional adversaries

While there were several of these wars, the biggest one with the longest duration (about six months) is referred to as the Polish-Soviet War (also called the Polish-Russian War). Once again, Bialystok and Grodno were smack in the midst of it, so much so that there is a battle called “The Battle of Grodno” and when the Soviets temporarily won large chunks of eastern Poland in the Spring and Summer of 1920, they set up a Polish government in Bialystok. Vilnius, somewhat to the east and a bit north of Bialystok and Grodno would be the focus of another of these ethnic wars – the Polish-Lithuanian War.

At this point it is not my purpose to detail the extraordinarily complex history of this particular moment other than to point out that Polish Jews were caught in the middle of both the fighting on the Eastern Front and the ethnic slugfests and scrambles between Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Lithuanians that followed. It is to point out the precarious situation in which the Jews of “the Pale” (4) found themselves in the first quarter of the 20th century. It was impossible to determine which ways the political winds were blowing because, precisely they blew from so many directions and changed so quickly.

Of course some Jews chose their allegiance politically, they either saw hope in birth of Soviet Communism to liberate them from shackles of Russian Polish or Lithuania feudalism; others believed that assimilation into the emerging market, capitalist economies was where the hope for Jewish liberation lay. Finally a third group already – even prior to WW2, had given up on Europe and had cast their fate elsewhere, in the Americas – as did my ancestors, or to Palestine. The fact remains that in 1920 as the world Bialystok and Grodno Jews had lived in for centuries was collapsing, there was no “correct” position Jews as a community could take. And regardless of what position – who they allied themselves with – they did take, the realities on the ground under their feet would shift like quicksand, swallowing them up.

They were caught in a trap of history. And history – if studied without illusions, without the blinders of religious, ethnic or political bigotry – is a harsh teacher. Jews of the Pale during this period (1900-1925) had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.

End Part One.

The Untold Stories. The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR

July, 1933 rally in the courtyard of the Great Synagouge in Grodno protesting the Nazi takeover in Germany.  I wonder if my grand parents’ relatives are there in the crowd, somwhere in the photo. Photo credit: YVA Photo Collection 1366/42

 

 

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  1. The name I was born with is Robert Prensky. My father changed the family name to “Prince” for “business reasons” and to hide the Jewishness of the name when I was three. I protested vigorously to no avail. The name “Prince” has no historical meaning whatsoever other than sounding “royal.” Have thought about changing my name back to “Prensky” but have never done so. Rather typical of many assimilated Jews (and others) trying to “make it” in the United States by hiding their ethnic identity.
  2. What drew me to what continues to be a deepening interest in Polish history – of which the Jewish population living in those ever changing geographies has an integral part – is a blind spot in the histories of both the Magaziners and Prensky’s. For much of my youth I heard of how the family this side of the Atlantic was in touch with relatives back in Poland until World War II when the contacts ended abrupty. After the war there was silence and no information, none as to who among the two extended families, if anyone, had survived the Holocaust. That led me to some research – what happened to the Jews of Bialystok, Grodno and Prienai during that evil respect for the family name, I tried to research some about the fate of Prienai Jews during World War II, as well as the fate of the families from Bialystok, Grodno and Vilnius (which Jews referred to as Vilna).
  3. not yet the Soviet Union which formally comes into being in 1922
  4. The Pale” – The territories of the Russian Empire in which Jews were permitted permanent settlement. Although large in size (approximately 472,590 square miles or 1,224,008 sq km), and containing areas of dynamic economic growth, the Pale (known in Russian as cherta postoiannogo zhitel’stva evreev; the English word pale was borrowed from the term applied to the area of English settlement in Northern Ireland, where the lands of the “wild Irish” were considered “beyond the pale”) was considered the greatest legal restriction imposed on the Jews of the empire.

 

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    September 15, 2020 12:59 pm

    Have you ever visited that area of Poland-Russia-BelaRus? If not, do you think you ever will?

    • September 15, 2020 1:03 pm

      No never have. As for the future as these days I rarely get East of the Missouri River – other than to get unpasteurized heavy cream in Shenandoah, Iowa – proud home of the Everly Brothers – I doubt I ever will

  2. Igal Ben - Rachel permalink
    September 15, 2020 1:07 pm

    Thank you Rob for your efforts.
    Igal Ben-Rachel (Rachelzon/Prensky)

  3. September 15, 2020 6:11 pm

    and thank you distant cousin – I am told that anyone with the Prensky name is related although I cannot confirm that. I’ll be writing more in the days that come. Best wishes, Rob Prince (b. Prensky)

  4. Barak permalink
    November 13, 2020 5:51 pm

    Hi Rob, I’m Igal’s son, would be happy to share our family tree and try to see if we can crack this connection and find some facts \ interesting stories…how can we reach out?

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