The history of Polish Jewry includes the splendid achievements of the Jewish culture that developed in Poland over centuries. Torah sages, rabbis and pious men created there. It was also where the Jewish national culture blossomed: in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, in the Jewish theater and cinema. Zionist political parties and youth movements were founded there and Jews were also among the noted creators of Polish literature and culture.
“Polish Year in Israel” began in April 2008, concurrently with a period marking Israeli culture in Poland. The Israel Philatelic Service is contributing to these events through a joint stamp issue with Poland dedicated to a special figure in the common history of Poland and Polish Jews.
Berek Joselewicz was a Jewish fighter who excelled in the Polish people’s battles for national independence and is considered to be one of Poland’s premier military heroes. Streets have been named after him in many Polish cities. Joselewicz was born in 1764 in the town of Golendzinov near Warsaw. He served as a trade agent for the local Bishop.
When an uprising led by Tadeusz Ko?ciuszko against the Russian occupation broke out in Poland in 1794, Joselewicz established a cavalry battalion – the first Jewish military battalion since the Bar Kochva Revolt. The volunteer Jewish battalion bravely defended Warsaw against the Czar’s Cossacks. Most of his soldiers fell in the course of these battles and Joselewicz himself was taken prisoner, but he managed to make a bold escape. Ko?ciuszko, the beloved leader of the uprising, promoted him to the rank of colonel.
Following the suppression of the revolt, Joselewicz escaped to Italy, where he joined the Polish Legions, fighting alongside Napoleon’s army in Italy and Austria. He excelled in the “Battle of the Three Emperors” at Austerlitz in 1805 and was subsequently awarded high military honors. He later commanded the Royal Polish Army’s cavalry battalion.
The painting featured in the joint issue stamp was painted by Juliuz Kossak in 1893. It depicts Joselewicz astride his horse as he led his men into his last battle against the Austrian army in 1809, near the town of Kock (Kotzk). Joselewicz was buried on the battlefield where he fell and a monument honoring his memory was erected at his gravesite. Tales of his heroism are taught at Polish military academies to this day. In his eulogy for Joselewicz, Count Stanislaw Kostka Potocki said, “You were the first to exemplify the rejuvenation of your people’s heroism and the image of those chivalrous men whose deaths were mourned by the daughters of Zion”.
Joselewicz’ son, Josef Berkowicz was also an excellent soldier, who served with his father in battle after the Ko?ciuszko Uprising.
Berek Joselewicz is more than just a symbol of Jewish heroism in Polish history - he is also a symbol of the joint struggle of Poles and Jews on behalf of Polish freedom.
Yaron Becker, The Polish Institute of Culture