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Saving Jozef Pilsudski

„My great-grandfather saved Jozef Pilsudski from the Russians...” — these are the first words from a letter we received from Israel. Would-be marshal was supposed to be given a tallit in a Jewish house in Baranovichi and thus hidden from the eyes of tsar soldiers.

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Józef Piłsudski around 1915 Wikimedia Commons

There is more of these sort of accounts, and they only have two things in common: the Jewish saviour and the town of Baranovichi. Josef Pilsudski was allegedly miracously saved from death both in 1905 and 1920.

„Eliahu Shmuel Zakheim was at home working outside when Josef Pilsudski came into Baranovichi asking him for help. Eliahu Shmuel gave him a talit and together they sat down to study the Talmud...” — wrote to us the granddaughter of Reb Zakheim. Her family kept a very strong memory of the future First Marshal being saved by the great-grandfather, earning his everlasting gratitude. This story is additionally documented by records from Jewish press, that repeat both the name of rabbi Zakheim and the scenario of the events. One of the articles describes how a yeshiva in Baranovichi was saved from closing. Rabbi Zakheim is said to have saved the school by showing a photograph of him and Jozef Pilsudski to local authorities.

„First Marshal, sensing danger, hid in the nearest house screaming: „I am Pilsudski!”. The Jewish owner gave him teffilin, tallit, and a prayerbook, put him by the western wall and told him not to speak. When the bolshevics came, they asked: „Who is this man?”. „That is my father – the Jew replied. He’s praying”. He added that his father is very religious, and he can’t be interrupted in his prayer.

The bolshevics then left, suspecting not that the person under the tallit was in fact Pilsudski” — this is a description from a Jewish community bulletin from 2007*1. The word „bolshevics” might catch one’s attention, since their dreams of power were far from realization in 1905. For this description comes from 1920, and the Jewish saviour this time is one Dawid Toker. What’s interesting is that thanks to historical accounts from the Polish-Soviet war we know almost certainly that Pilsudski could not have been in Baranovichi in 1920, while there is at least one more account of him being miracously saved.

„The bolshevics are breathing down my neck! Hide me!”. The Jew was a sensible men who heard much of Pilsudski, thus he acted fast: he pulled a skirt off his wife, grabbed a kerchief and took the Chief to the pigsty. The bolshevics came screaming that Pilsudski in hidden in the vicinity. The Jew told them: I know nothing of this. As you see, my wife has fallen ill, she’s barely sitting. No one passed through here nor entered” — we read at the website of the Polish House in Baranovichi. This time the saviour is named as Stefan Batura. What’s interesting is that it’s yet another example of an oral transmission being kept in the family, which claims to still have a homespun coat given by Pilsudski.

According to 1921 census Baranovichi had a population of roughly over 23 thousand. It’s safe to assume that a big part of that population settled in, or moved back after the war was over. How is then possible that the memory of a number these incidents was kept in this small city? What sows yet another doupt is that while in 1920 Jozef Pilsudski was the Chief of State, in 1905 he was only one of many Polish Socialist Party activists, which was not popular among local Jews – just like any other anti-Russian movement. Why then would a religious Jew risc his, and his family’s sake to save an anonymous enemy of the authorities, who were widely supported in these parts? This is one of many questions to which we only have suppositions rather then answers.

Although it’s hard to find an undeniable source among all these records, the similarity of all the stories is worth noticing. In all of them the saviour is a Jew, who – thanks to his smartness – saves Pilsudski from the hands of the Russians. All these incidents take place in Baranovichi, which connection to Pilsudski is otherwise only once reported in general history. „The Marshal came to Baranovichi on October 30th1922 at one hour to noon on a special train from Warsaw. He was there welcomed by the local governor, representatives from both civilian and military authorities. At 11.30 Marshal Pilsudski was greeted by the triumphal arch by the municipal authorities, army units and the fire brigade. From there a horse carriage geared with a pair of white horses took him and the governor Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz through Szeptycki and Narutowicz streets to the county, where at the conference room he received the delegation from the city and the district anthem (…) After the ceremony Marshal Pilsudski had a meeting with the governor Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, starost Konstanty Rdultowski and mayor Waclaw Terajewicz. Then they all headed for the station, from where he left with his train to Warsaw at about 3 in the afternoon” — portrays the visit „Kalendarz Popularny Baranowicki” from 1937.

Jozef Pilsudski’s popularity among the citizens of the newly recreated state was – especially after winning the war with the Soviets – enormous. Whereas Jews had additional reason, to venerate the Marshal – he was widely thought of as the protector from the second biggest political power, the right-wing National Democracy. Having grown up in the Vilnius Region, only 60 miles north of Baranovichi, he was undoubtedly a widely respected figure and to exactly this factor we should attribute the source of all the stories of miraculous rescue.

Annotation:

*1 — Yeshiva — (Hebrew: sitting) religious school, where men take classes and study the Talmud
*2 — two leather boxes containing scrolls of the Torah, worn by religious Jews during morning prayers
*3 — a traditional prayer shawl with special fringes (tzitzit), which originate from the Book of Numbers
*4 — Derived from: http://www.sztetl.org.pl/pl/article/baranowicze/16,relacje-wspomnienia/33609,henryk-prajs-jak-zyd-z-baranowicz-uratowal-jozefa-pilsudskiego/
*5 — Derived from: http://bartrans.net/baranavichy1706–1941.pl.shtml