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The World the Prenskys, Magaziners, Wyschevjskies, Jacksons Left – East Central Europe in the Early 20th Century – 1

December 16, 2020

The Wyschevjskies in Bialystok – 1900 in the Russian Pale. I think Grandma Sarah’s mother, Sarah’s sister and sister’s husband.


The situation for Jews throughout the Pale had already deteriorated before they left for the United States, all within a period of five years of one another but that situation was about to deteriorate. The anecdotal information passed on (from our “Aunt Mal”) is that most the extended family did not survive even the horrors of WW1! Concerning those who did – their letters in Yiddish – stopped abruptly after September 1, 1939. From then on,… silence.



Have immersed myself in Polish-Jewish history, these past COVID-19 months.

This has included two works by Norman Davies, – his two volume “God’s Playground” – indispensible for understanding the historical context of why my ancesters left the Pale for the United States in the first decade of the 20th century, White Eagle Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War: 1919-11920 and the Miracle on the Vistula. And now Ezra Mendelsohn’s The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars. All these books are worth reading – they are well researched, carefully written and whatever controversies they have triggered – I am convinced that all three have weathered “the test of time.” Unable to gleen more than the barest details as to their personal histories – there is some, but it is sketchy, anecdotal and in some cases contradictory – I decided it would be more worthwhile to probe the historical context of their immigration to the United States.

This has been an enriching experience.

One needs to keep in mind the rather extraordinary instability of these central European political entities beginning with the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (as it was called) which totally collapsed in 1795. Sliced up and gobbled up by three European powers (Prussia, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire) Poland ceased to exist until it re-emerged, phoenix like at the end of World War One. The fighting on the Eastern Front of that war as Russia and Germany (mostly) vied for control saw power in many of Jewish districts change hands fifteen, twenty times or more. That instability continued in the post war period in which regional players – the budding USSR, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus – found themselves trying to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of three empires (German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian) by wars of territorial expansion pretty much on the part of all the players. The main post WW 1 war in this region, thr Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 only added to the ultimate franticness of the world war, and left the Jews of the region – as well as all the other ethnic and religious minorities – in a state of profound instability and anxiety.

It was a whole mid-continent at sea, only to settle down around 1924,5 for about a decade when, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, the regional situation would once again deteriorate into unspeakable horror and chaos which made the earlier tragedies appearing mild in comparison. We all know what followed – Hitler’s program to exterminate the Jews, to “decapitate” – the term they used – the intellectual and political leadership of Poland and reduce all slavic peoples to unskilled forced labor (before exterminating them as well)… the horrors of WW2 that are well known and should not be ever forgotten, not by Jews, Poles, (what were) Soviets and many more.

After the partitions of 1795 (actually there were three – 1772, 1793, 1795) Jews who lived through that sprawling region that was broadly known as the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth found themselves in three quite different political and social living situations that effected the world views of the varying communities in different ways. My – our – grandparents all found themselves in that part of old Poland-Lithuania that came under control of Russia. Vilnius, Bialystok, Grodno from whence they hailed were all administered by the Russian Czars. That would remain the case until the end of WW 1 when the political unity of the region – after the postwar wars cited above had ended – collapsed and these three centers of Jewish life would find themselves located now in three different countries: after what is referred to as “the Battle of Bialystok, that city/region returned to Polish control; After two other post WW1 battles – the Battle of Grodno, Battle of the Neiman, Grodno, some fifty miles to the northeast also came under Polish control while Vilnius, with hardly a Lithuania-ethnic population at the time reverted to the newly independent nation of Lithuania.

Ezra Mendelsohn’s careful study of post WW1 Jewish life in East Central Europe navigates through period of breaktaking transition with care and precision. The fractured – and constantly shifting political boundaries resulted in a consequental fracturing of Jewish life throughout the region, religiously, linguistically, and in the sense of Jewish identity. His work probes the Jewish interwar experience in seven countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia). Ultimately caught up and crushed by the Nazi juggernaut, there is a shallow tendency to view Jewish life in this region as far more homogenous that it was in fact. I found his analysis of that world to be objective, fair, ie, history as good as it gets and while the book is now nearly forty years old, it has held up well.

I’m sitting here mourning the tragedy of what was the Polish-Jewish interwar Jewish cultural renaissance. After detailing the richness and complexity of Polish Jewish life 1918-1939 he comments “Never before had conditions been so favorable for the flourishing of national Jewish politics and culture in the diaspora and it is safe to say that they will never be again.” A period of turmoil and as the 1930s moved on – one of increasingly ugly and bitter anti-Semitism (throughout the region, but especially in Poland). And this is before Sept 1, 1939 when Hitler first and then Stalin a few days later, unleashed what might be called the forth partition of Poland. Yet under duress, and the Jewish Community itself divided – nay fractured – along diverse lines, among them Zionist and anti-Zionist tendencies – Jewish life in Poland flourished, a kind of Indian summer of central European Jewish culture before it was extinguished by Nazi einsatsgruppen mobile killing units, Lithuanian fascists who outdid even the Nazis in their zeal to kill Jews, and of course places with names like Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

The crisis that led to the tragedy that was WW2 for the Jews of Eastern Europe, the instability, the rising anti-semitism in the “borderlands”, the western frontier of the Russian Empire from where Abraham Prensky, Molly Jackson, Jude Magaziner and Sarah Wyschinsky emigrated began in the Ukraine from 1881-1884. All four of them were born sometime just prior to or just after 1880 from what we can tell. Bialystok, Grodno and Vilnius, where they originated, is a distance from Kiev where the worst of those mass killing – the systemic hunting down of Jews – took place, but the echos of that slaughter which continued in the Ukraine throughout the decade reached these more northernly regions of the Pale. From this point on the Jews of East Central Europe found themselves in permanent crisis – socio-economic, political – that would not end until May 1, 1945.

The situation for Jews throughout the Pale had already deteriorated before they left for the United States, all within a period of five years of one another but that situation was about to deteriorate. The anecdotal information passed on (from our “Aunt Mal”) is that most the extended family did not survive even the horrors of WW1! Concerning those who did – their letters in Yiddish – stopped abruptly after September 1, 1939. From then on,… silence.

To follow: Political, Cultural Cleavages: What Choices for Central Eastern European Jews: Assimilation, Zionism, Socialism…



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rafael Humberto Mojica permalink
    December 16, 2020 12:58 pm

    A very interesting story ending on a very moving note: ” […] their letters in Yiddish […] stopped abruptly after September 1, 1939. From then on, … silence.”
    I’m sure there are many similar stories in the history of migrant families.One of my uncles in Mexico went back to Spain where the family originated. For some time my father and my uncle kept a correspondence going until the letters from my uncle stopped arriving in 1936, the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    December 16, 2020 6:58 pm

    Robbie, the photo you include shows three people wearing very nice, very urban clothing, yet the background is strictly log, implying (to me) rural life. Can you add any detail here? Were these folks urban? professional? rural? wealthy peasants?????

    • December 16, 2020 8:59 pm

      I wish I could – as usual you are very observant. I noticed the same thing Phil and wondered about it. I know that these relatives came from Bialystok, both a town and an region…that my grandmother’s father was said to be a rabbi. But the rest is lost in history… From what I was told, they were not prosperous… Could be that is how they dressed up for the photo, but that is just a guess.

      • Phil Jones permalink
        December 17, 2020 3:10 pm

        When I look again, I notice how they wear their hair. That’s urban and stylish,not the hair styles of some rural hicks. These three sure ain’t peasants. And I don’t think they’re poor. So I don’t think the clothes are just for the photo.

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