From “The Jewish Messenger”

New York, Friday, Heshvan 28, 5636, November 26, 1875.



A Peep at Posen.


Posen and Interlaken—could any antithesis be stronger? The Swiss mountaineer and the Polish peasant, the Alpine bat and the Polish cloak, where could one find greater opposites than these? So it was not without a vague feeling of uneasiness that we stepped from the Posen railway station. The hotel omnibuses, drawn up in line, had the most unpronounceable names, the letters seemed to be upside down, the language of the people was utterly foreign, and the very appearance of the place as we drove into the town was; bewildering. Dim fortifications were on every side; there were grassy slopes with a Prussian soldier on duty, threatening embrasures, and low barracks. A file of soldiers were marching past, and the air of Posen was so military that we half imagined that Sobieski, Kosciusko, and Heine's Schnabelewopski, had combined for another Polish revolution. But our fears were groundless, for after a few minutes' ride we entered Wilhelm's Platz, lined with busy shops. The street was full of promenaders: men dressed in excellent taste, generally of short stature, piercing black eyes, and well curled moustache; ladies vying with their Berlin sisters in style and illusion, but with glittering, most expressive black eyes, complexion fair, and vivacious ways. Now and then a beggar would pass, or a woman poorly clad, or a man with uncombed beard, which shamed his manhood; but the general aspect of the Platz was very favorable, and when we turned into Wilhelmstrasse, with its double row of trees in the centre, reminding one of a street in New Haven, with its pretentious shops, and its prominent hotels, our respect for Posen immediately rose, and we were prepared to drink with gusto a luscious cup of Russian tea, which was poured from the sweetest little tea-caddy into the cunningest little cup in the world. For tea a la Russe, Mylius ought to be famous.

Posen at present does not much influence the current of the world's progress; but it has a history of its own, and kings, dukes, and nobles flourished here when America was a wilderness, and Lo, the poor Indian, in flesh colored costume, hunted on the very spot where New York's precious New Court House stands.— Long before the Genoese brought tidings of the new Atlantis, was Posen one of the chief emporiums for the trade between Germany and the East, and, a member of the Hanseatic League, it exercised no little influence in the Middle Ages. With these facts giving to the streets, churches, and houses, a certain glory of their own, even a New Yorker dare not feel his self-respect in the least diminished by a visit to Posen; nay, he is induced to repress a little of his overflowing patriotism, and think more charitably of his kind.

The old Polish capital is not a large city, its inhabitants number about sixty thousand, but it has a compact look. Since its annexation to Prussia it has a more modern appearance, the best part of Posen having been built since that date, more than half a century ago. The older part of the city resembles other old cities, with crooked streets and disorganized dwellings. The markets in the open squares, the quaintly dressed market people, the crowd of energetic buyers, the shrill barking of dogs, the screams of little children in s friendly tussle, all within the shadow of some venerable cloister or cathedral; this forms one of the most characteristic sights in Posen. It is only in the outskirts that you come across the Polish peasant in an attire that would do credit to a Purim masquerade: red shirts, dark blue pantaloons, and slouched caps prevailing. The uniform is apt to vary, but the skin of the face and hands is hopelessly yellow. Some of the peasants show a sturdy independence in the matter of head gear which is encouraging in these days of servility and imitation, and one actually wore a pathetic fur cap—and this, too, on a hot day in August.

The children bad rather puny faces, but seemed to frolic with zest. A little girl of five years came out of a two story shed, dressed in a tattered frock, which once may have graced a countess, but by successive differentiations, through old clothing shops, it had lost naturally a deal of its original lustre. As she came down the lane, it was amusing to note the expression of pride and disdain on her countenance, not an unpleasant one with the large beaming eyes, and to watch with what apparent indifference her gutter companions regarded her finery.— The fact was, each one of them felt the envy which sways Miss Polly Pretty face on Fifth Avenue, when she notes her dearest Lucy pass by in a better winter bonnet than her own. Of course this little belle of Posen could never play in the gutter in her best visiting dress, and so she walked up and down, arched her head this way and that, and smoothed her faded flounces with the ease and grace of a graduate of a fashionable dancing academy.

Posen has some institutions. First and most important are the fortifications, with pleasant promenades. Then there is the Stadt Theatre, where Minna von Barnhelm was played that August evening, and the attendance showed how popular Lessing is in Posen. The Raczynski Library, with an imposing front, contains twenty thousand volumes, and is particularly rich in Polish historical works. The shop signs are thoroughly entertaining, and are useful to the student of comparative philology. The words are generally Polish. Thus cigars figure as "cygaron." American tobacco startles one under the title of "Amerykanskich Tytoni." A cake store is a " Cukiernia," which is near enough to "cookies" to make one understand. Beer is called “Piwa." A liquor establishment is a "Fabryka Likierow." A dry goods store is called "Oalkowita wyprzedaz." The names of store proprietors are staggering. If you wish to buy fancy articles, you might go to Sumkowski's; if you find his prices too high, step over the road briskly, madam, and call on his rival, Bogustawski. Do you wish a neat fitting pair of gloves, do you desire to invest a few groschen in wurst? The name of Kukulinski stares yon in the face, while Cichowicz bids you enter. A dentist in Posen is Herr Wallachow—the name sounds like a groan of agony from a patient. I think he lives near Fryderykowska, which is Frederick Street. The Pudelewiczes and the Luzkiewiezcs may be visited if you like.

But it was not in the pursuit of philological knowledge under difficulties that I wandered through the streets of Posen. The city was of interest because of the fifteen thousand Israelites who live there. I expected to see a number of unpleasant sights, was prepared to make apologies for the condition of affairs. But there was no need to apologize, but every reason to praise; for, although the American eagle does not flap its wings in sight of Posen, (and if you would believe the latter-day talker, it is only in America that Judaism can attain its promised Messianic fullness,) still Judengasse was orderly, clean, and if not inviting with its old houses and courts—the people who inhabit the street are poor—it appeared in a better state than many other streets in its vicinity, occupied by people of the same social class. Unlike similar neighborhoods in other European cities, there was an absence of those characteristic marks that give such reputation to Jewish quarters abroad. There was no gutter huckstering, no bearded gentry playing with old shoes in the roadway, no old women having spirited debates from opposite houses, no young girls in finery and jewels, and making their toilettes before the window-pane.

It was in the afternoon that I passed through the street, around which most of the Jewish inhabitants in Posen have their synagogues, and institutions, and perhaps homes. On the low stoops of the dingy dwellings, at a window, or on the threshold, some people were standing or sitting. But nobody was in his shirt-sleeves—this civilized custom obtains in full sight of the American eagle, and not very far from the dome of the New York "Temple of Grandeur," whose members are all educated men, and appear ashamed of their Polish ancestry and relatives. The sidewalks were scoured, the roadway cleared of dirt, the gutters free from wandering reminiscences of yesterday's dinner. I looked in vain for such coreligionists as still adhere to the curls and long coat. Perhaps they have all gone to America, and have now become pillars of the synagogue, in frock coats and black ties. I saw no elegance: these were poor people, that was all, busy in the humbler callings of life, and let us hope doing their duty faithfully and loyally, too. There was little beauty either; the women seemed to have a rather tired look; they must help their husbands at shop keeping, and some are widows, and then there is the house to be cleaned for Saturday.

Most of the dozen synagogues in Posen are close neighbors, from the large temple of Dr. Bloch to the small chevra which meets near Rabbi Akiva Eger's old residence. There are Orphan Asylums, one for boys and one for girls, both small; the boys' Asylum has a neat building of its own, with accommodations for eighteen lads. A pleasant fact to recollect is that, to a Christian Baron are the Posen Jews in part indebted for the erection of this Orphan Asylum, with its pretty synagogue.

Not very far from the Asylum is the Jewish Hospital, small but orderly. As in other European cities, the poorest Israelite regards a hospital as a charitable institution, and is ashamed to make use of it: its patients are mostly Jewish strangers. The Beth Hamedrash is but a step from the Hospital, and near both is the Mikve, which was erected at a cost of nearly $15,000, so an informant said. The Mikve proper is built according to the rabbinical law, but besides the ritual bath are a number of bath rooms, which are used by the rich and the poor. The Mikve is a handsome structure, and reflects a deal of credit on the community, who are not ashamed to preserve a sanitary institution of their ancestors.

In the late afternoon, men and women could be seen on the Judengasse, wending their way to the synagogues for the evening prayers. In Posen the synagogues are also used on weekdays: in New York for the most part we think that we have done God an important service if we occupy the synagogue for an hour or two once a week. It was not a crowd like that which issues from the Temple of Grandeur on fine Saturdays: it was more humbly dressed, but who dare say less reverent and God-fearing? I followed a friendly Posener, and he pointed out to me Plessner, the once famous preacher, who however is weak with advancing age, and preaches but seldom. The Posener led me through a court or two, passing Akiva Eger's old house, a room in which was his synagogue, into the oldest Jewish shrine in Posen, whose rabbi is Dr. Feilchenfeld, one of the ablest Talmudists in Europe, a gifted German preacher, and a man of much affability. His synagogue is more than eight centuries old, and is still in an excellent state of preservation. Some of the original contracts for the building of this synagogue were recently discovered, and fully attest its extraordinary antiquity. The building without seems like an old stone house; within, after passing through a dark court, it has a somewhat brighter look.—Mincha and Maariv were devoutly said by a congregation of at least sixty persons, and there were fully twenty in the women's synagogue.

The conditions were lacking which give to the most of our American synagogues such a worldwide reputation. There were no cushioned seats, no sweet voiced cantor, no resounding organ, no rich-voiced Christian women singing the Shemang, no Episcopalian forms, no sepulchral stillness, no perambulating sextons. There was neither dome nor spandrel, neither massive pillar nor volute, neither fresco nor gingerbread work, with miniature lions of Judah in trefoil. But there was something in the brief service that Thursday evening, which one seeks in vain to discover in many more gorgeous and pretentious shrines. It was dimly lighted, and the synagogue was as full of shadows as of forms. On one side, separated by a wall, with a window, was the woman's synagogue, and through the window their dimly lit shrine with the worshippers could be seen, a few wax candles giving light, not an electric apparatus. There were aged men about me, and younger ones, too, and a dozen boys. There was no cantor, but one of us read the prayers. Many years ago, it was the custom in a number of New York synagogues for young men to read the Haphtorah in the Sabbath Ritual. Our young men now are perhaps too civilized to read the Haphthorah, or is it because they cannot understand the language in which the prophets wrote? Forgive the Posener if he can read Hebrew.

Our coreligionists in Posen have their faults, and I have no intention of preaching a pilgrimage to the old synagogue there. We Jews, of every shade of belief and disbelief, all live in glass houses; it is the old story over again of the mote and the beam. Moneybags would feel out of place in the Posen Synagogue: his wife and stately daughters would be insulted at the idea of entering the enclosure. But, ah, how much out of place would these Posen Jews be in the Temple of Grandeur! Yes, old man with the shabby clothes, pale cheeks, piteous eyes, and flowing beard, whose grandchildren, perhaps, are playing with a vengeance the role of progressives in America; yes, old man, it is sad for you. No wonder that you prefer to stay where you are, and totter daily into the hoary synagogue. No wonder that you cling to the musty prayer-book and the old time melodies of our race. No wonder that you feel compelled to grope in the old way. For when you hear of the pranks played on American soil, the aping of the worst features of Christianity, the sham progress which runs in a straight logical chain from the abandonment of the traditionary features of the synagogue to the introduction of forms in use among Western nationalities, including kneeling, raising of the Host, perhaps a colossal statue of Michelangelo’s Moses, or the full length portrait of the Parnass surrounded by the Board of Trustees, to which we must pay homage—when you reflect on all this, what wonder that you cling the more closely to the Mikve and the Polish bravura, to the hard benches and the unesthetic walls! And younger men, too, are getting tired of these phases of American Judaism, which are justly exciting the ridicule of their coreligionists abroad. The farce will not last forever: laity and clergy are alike to blame. The strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction, with the torpidity of the old and the madness of the new, will one day burst into an overwhelming stream; and we shall then see half a dozen young men repeating in the history of the American Jewish Church what Whateley, Davidson, and Arnold, and afterwards Posey, Newman, and Keble did in England not many decades ago. And young men, inspired by genuine Jewish enthusiasm, filled with Jewish knowledge and Jewish reverence for what is true, and noble, and good—each eager to emulate the Roman soldier and leap into the spreading chasm to save the city—such a devoted band would usher in a new era in the development of Judaism in America, in the world.

A. S. I.





Home       |       Site Map       |      Exhibitions      |      About the Museum       |       Education      |      Contact Us       |       Links

Copyright © Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.