Meet Jozef Pilsudski, the father of modern Poland. He’s the other great figure of post-World War I Europe who played a role in bringing my grandparents to the USA. But unlike Leon Trotsky, whom I described in my last post as starting the war that caused them to flee, Pilsudski tried to give them a reason to stay.
The photo above shows him in 1917 leading his partisan fighters; he’s the one in the middle with the big mustache. Pilsudski carried himself with pomp and authority. “He was a huge, forbidding man,” wrote American envoy Henry Morgenthau. “His uniform, buttoned tight to the base of his big neck, was unadorned by any orders — the uniform of a fighter. His square jaw was thrust out below thick lips firmly set; his face was abnormally broad.”
Already leader of the Polish independence movement in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI, Pilsudski looked at chaotic Europe then and quickly saw a strategy for his homeland to win its independence for the first time since its partition in 1795 — his lifelong dream. Poland had three hated occupiers: Germany, Austria, and Russia. All three had to be beaten: first Russia by Austria and Germany, and then Austria and Germany by the west. Then, Poles themselves could seize back their own country.

Pilsudski had spent years preparing for this moment. Born in 1867 and raised under Russian occupation, son of a bankrupted Szlachta (Polish noble), he learned to despise Russians at home: His father had fought them in a failed 1863 uprising and, when Russians banned teaching of Polish-language books, his mother taught him in secret. At the university, he quickly found trouble. Czarist authorities arrested Pilsudski in 1887 for political activities and sent him to Siberia for five years. Freed in the 1890s, he helped found the Polish Socialist Party. In 1904, after escaping from another prison, he formed an armed resistance band and soon rose to become unquestioned leader of the “Revolutionary Wing” of the movement.
When war came in 1914, he was ready. He quickly assembled his volunteers and began ambushing Russians. The politics were treacherous. In 1917, Germans went so far as to demand he swear a loyalty oath and imprisoned him. But a few months later, fortune turned his way. Released from prison, Piksudski returned to Warsaw in November 1918 just as Germany was surrendering to the allies (see him below arriving at the train station) and declared the new Polish State — with himself in charge.

It was a huge accomplishment. Once in power, it was Pilsudski who conceived and executed the successful defense of Warsaw against Bolskevik invaders in 1920 discussed in my last post, blocking Communist expansion for the next twenty years and stabilizing the borders of Eastern Europe. Pilsudski’s vision for his new independent Poland was progressive. Beyond his staunch anti-Communism, he intended a democratic multiethnic state with Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Jews, Ukranians, and others all enjoying full rights and limited autonomy, so long as they remained loyal.

But the pogroms…

All this was good and admirable. But it was this same Pilsudski’s Poland whose birth in 1918/1919 was marked by an unprecedented outbreak of anti-Semitic violence killing hundreds of Jewish people in dozens of incidents: 64 dead in Lvov, 35 dead in Pinsk, 39 dead in Lida, 5 dead in Czestochova, 31 dead in Minsk, so on. The largest incidents virtually all involved Polish soldiers engaged in recent combat along the new country’s still-unsettled borders.

What caused it? The killings sparked headlines and protests around the world, and western governments sent teams of envoys to investigate. They confronted Pilsudski, and he reacted argrily. “There have been no pogroms in Poland!” he insisted to one group. “Among us no wholesale killings of Jews have been permitted.” When pressed, he grew defensive. “Why not trust to Poland’s honour?” he demanded.
The Polish pogroms of 1918 and 1919 have been studied, investigated, and analyzed repeatedly. Poles insist these were incidents of war at a time when loyalties of Jews and other minorities had wavered repeatedly among shifting occupiers. Many more Ukranians were murdered in the Lvov incident than Jews. And once peace was secured in 1921, they largely stopped. What particularly worried Pilsudski was that alarms about “pogroms” were undermining Poland’s ability to win international support for its fight against Russian invaders.
Oddly, while Jews abroad were outraged, those in Poland reacted with ambivalence, perhaps resignation. Even as the killings, riots, and beatings caused massive hardship and fear, the majority still seemed to believe in the new Poland. When one group of investigators asked the Gerrer Rebbe, the leading Hasidic figure at the time, he told them this: “The Orthodox [80 percent of the population] are satisfied to live side by side with people of different religions. We are exiled; we cannot be freed from our banishment, nor do we wish to be. We will abide by our religion [in Poland] until God Almighty frees us.”
The fact is that, while thousands of Jewish people left the country in 1919 and 1920, the overwhelming majority, over 3.1 million, chose to stay — even before the US adopted exclusionary quotas. In trying to reconstruct the story of my own grandparents during this period, I had trouble at first understanding why they found it such a hard decision to leave. I think the answer, at least in part, can be seen in Jozef Pilsudski. Despite all the negatives — and there were many — Poland, their home, was still to them an honorable country with a promising future and a progressive leader. It is not too difficult to see why so many Jewish people would decide to link their fate with patriotism and join the fight under a mensch like him.

What they didn’t know what that just a few years later, in 1939, the Russians would come back, this time allied with Nazi Germany, and over 95 percent of the Jewish people who stayed behind would be murdered.


In digging into the story of my grandparents and their flight from Eastern Europe in the 1920s, I was surprised to learn that two giants of the age held our fate dangling at whim at one key point. One was Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski, whom I’ll talk about next time. The other was Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known by his revolutionary nom du guerre, Leon Trotsky.

What a strange man, Trotsky, a zealot among zealots. Look at him in this 1919 photo, strutting about as Commissar of War in the new post-1917 Bolshevik Russia, rousing his Red Army troops. He spoke in spell-binding sentences, brilliant as a writer, tactician, or theorist. People loved him, hated him, and feared him. Born and raised Jewish, he rejected it as a young man as bourgeois fluff. “I am a Social Democreat and only that!” he insisted when asked.

In 1920, Trotsky was still neck deep defending Red Russia in a gruesome civil war, pitting the new Leninist regime against not only White Russian reactionaries but also an international expeditionary army from Britian, France, Japan, America, and other countries. Still, that spring, on orders from Moscow (Trotsky fought the idea at first), he launched a full-scale invasion of the newly-created country of Poland — what he called a land of “oppression and repression under a cloak of patriotic phraseology and heroic braggadocio.” The plan was to spread revolution both to Poland and through Poland, reaching German and the west.

By summer, Trotsky’s Red Army had knocked Poland’s defenders on their backs, sending them into heavy retreat. Soon they were closing in on Warsaw itself for a knockout blow.

This is the war that my grandfather, Rubin Mendel Bronnfeld, then a 29 year-old father of five young children living in a tiny village shtetl called Zawichost, was asked to fight. That spring, the Polish army, desperate for soldiers, expanded military conscription to include 30 year-olds — even Jews like him. By this point, my grandfather had already seen two brothers killed in military clashes, but that wasn’t his main reason for objecting. Polish independence in 1919 had been accompanied by a wave of anti-Jewish riots, pogroms, killing hundrds. Many of the worst clashes were prompted or carried out by Polish soldiers, always citing some unproven Jewish provocation.

My grandfather faced a gut-wrenching choice: whether to risk his life for a country that had given his people pogroms and oppression, or whether to leave his family’s centuries-old home and follow a wild scheme of underground flight across war-torn Europe, hoping eventually to reunite with wife and children in faraway Amerca.

Poland’s defense against Trotsky’s 1920 invasion would be brilliant and heroic. It would stand firm and defeat the Red Army in dramatic fashion in the Battle of Warsaw, deservedly remembered in Polish history as the “Miracle on the Vistula.” But by forcing my family to uproot itself and flee, it would save us from death in a far worse crisis just over the horizon, the Holocaust of World War II.