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Nahum Sokolow – “The world’s most important Jew”

Nahum Sokolow played knights in front of the synagogue in Wyszogród. He received a scholarship in Płock to develop his outstanding intelligence and would later go on to negotiate the return of the Jews to Palestine with the pope and the heads of the great powers of the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote thousands of articles and dozens of books and even invented the name Tel Aviv. However, he never stopped thinking and writing in Polish, and in his home the term ‘płocczanin’ (someone from Płock) was always uttered with a sense of pride.

December 6, 2021 - Jarosław Kociszewski Philip Earl Steele - Articles and CommentaryBlogs and podcasts

Centre of Płock with its City hall. Photo: radekcho / Shutterstock


Contributors

John Beauchamp
Philip Steele
Zdzisław Leszczyński
Piotr Dąbrowski
Gabriela Dąbrowska

In 1893 one Max Osterberg-Verakoff published a German-language Zionist utopian novel entitled The Jewish Kingdom in the year 6000 (2241 AD). The novel begins with the ceremonious unveiling of a statue of William Blackstone, who is revered as the founder of the kingdom. Blackstone was an American Christian Zionist, who – in real life! – mobilised a significant part of the American establishment in 1891 to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Due to his efforts, within just a few months President Benjamin Harrison asked the consul in Jerusalem to draw up a report and the ambassador in St. Petersburg to consult the matter with the Russian foreign minister.

Theodor Herzl, the author of The Jewish State (1896), learned about Osterberg-Verakoff’s Zionist utopia apparently not until 1899. That, at least, is when Herzl “sent a warm letter to [Osterberg-Verakoff] promising”, as professor Miriam Eilav-Feldon explains, “to express his appreciation for the utopian novel in his own work”.

Herzl was already then drafting a Zionist utopia in his head – a book he would publish in 1902. He entitled it Altneuland, which literally means “old-new land”. A Hebrew-language translation came out that very year in Warsaw. The lightning-quick translator was Nahum Sokolow, a Polish Jew then known as the editor-in-chief of the Hebrew-language daily Ha-Tsefirah published in Warsaw.

Sokolow entitled his translation Tel Aviv. A stroke of genius, as tel means an ancient settlement on a hill in Hebrew, and Aviv means spring. So “old-new” in fact. And thus the world-famous Israeli city owes its name to Sokolow, who himself was born in… Wyszogród. It hardly seems a coincidence that the name of this Polish town means tel.

The story of Nahum Sokolow – a titan of Hebrew-language journalism, co-author of the Balfour Declaration, and chairman of the World Zionist Organization – begins in a tel overlooking the Vistula. In Wyszogród he would spend the first years of his childhood, later moving downriver to nearby Płock. Here the boy grew up into the man who later in life negotiated “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” with the pope and the top diplomats of France and the British Empire.

A tel on the Vistula

The market square in Wyszogród stands out neither for its size, nor its opulence. However, contrary to the many similar squares in Masovian towns, surrounded as they are by multi-storied houses with sloping roofs, their dingy plastered façades each in a different colour, the one here in Wyszogród is distinguished by one essential feature. This market square has only three sides. The would-be fourth is open, extending out to a small cliff offering a gorgeous view over the Vistula, down to a holm in the river, and beyond, across the Masovian plain.

“There’s a kind of triangle here, with one of the sides defined by the ravine where the debris from the destroyed synagogue was cast during the war”, says Zdzisław Leszczyński, the Director of the Vistula Museum in Wyszogród, about the area of the town where the Jews lived in the second half of the 19th century. “It was somewhere here that Nahum Sokolow was born. Wiślana street is on the other side and runs alongside the castle into Rębowska street. From here was a gate that led to the now non-existent Kahal street by the synagogue”, he adds.

As we stood on Rębowska street it was difficult to notice the large courtyard located beyond a narrow path running between the houses. Only after exiting the path did it become believable that there used to be a cheder (i.e., a Jewish primary school) and a shelter for children here. This is where the rabbi and the community authorities worked, as here stood the large synagogue, built on a square plan of 40 by 40 metres. There was a bakery in one of the neighbouring houses, along with carpentry workshops producing basic furniture and clogs that were gladly bought up by farmers living on the Vistula’s holms.

The synagogue is no longer. It was destroyed by the Germans during World War Two, with its debris forcibly discarded by the local Jews into the deep ravine close by. At the site of the synagogue, behind today’s tenement houses, there is a vegetable garden where the owners sometimes find relics in the ground that they pass on to the museum. The former square includes crumbling brick garages and small workshops. Stars of David have survived on only one façade in Wyszogród, where they were not chipped off during any of the post-war renovations.

It is hard to say where exactly Nahum Sokolow was born January 10, 1859. Director Leszczyński stresses that the most we can do is identify which of the houses and fragments come from that period, as they were built in the 19th century with bricks from the ruins of the 14th-century castle. Until this day you can see old hand-made late-medieval bricks peering out from beneath the cracked plaster on stairs and cellar walls. We know that Nahum Sokolow spent five or six of his first years in Wyszogród. He warmly reminisced on those years until the end of his life. For instance, he recalled playing knights with his friends on the square in front of the synagogue. Their swords were just sticks, but to them they were real. It is possible that this is when the small boy from a middling wealthy Jewish family started to believe he really was a knight. Long years later this would be one of the reasons for the ribbing by Zionist activists, joking that Sokolow was the only one among them who behaved like and considered himself a Polish nobleman.

Sokolow’s family had been living in Wyszogród since the early 19th century. It was his grandfather, a rabbi, who had first come here to Masovia – from Podlasie in eastern Poland. As a child Nahum witnessed events of the January Uprising of 1863-4, when there was fighting between the Polish insurgents and the Russian army in the vicinity of Wyszogród. The Jewish inhabitants of the town decidedly opted for the Polish side in the Uprising, about which Sokolow would later tell his children. It can well be assumed that these experiences and observations of the Poles striving for freedom and independence influenced Sokolow’s imagination and contributed to his dedication to the creation of a Jewish State.

Sokolow viewed himself as a Pole almost in the same degree as a Jew. He himself spoke excellent Polish – indeed, he gave his children names like Maria, Florian, and Celina, and raised them in a Polish-speaking home. Throughout his life, Sokolow kept his diary in Polish, a large part of which was written after his move to London in 1914.

Life in Płock

In 1864 or 1865, Nahum’s parents decided to move to the larger and more prosperous Płock located nearby. This city would soon offer their gifted son possibilities by far exceeding their expectations. The abandoned and crumbling house where the family once lived stands today on the market square surrounded by an old, battered fence. It is one of several dilapidated buildings on an otherwise nicely restored square with a fountain and the grand building of the municipal authorities on one end.

Here in Płock little Nahum would learn languages “in secret”, as recounted by his son Florian in the biography of his father published in Poland in 2006, with an extensive introduction written by professor Andrzej A. Zięba. In time the abilities of the young polyglot came to the attention of the local authorities. Nahum was introduced to Governor Mikhail Wrangel at the age of 10 and subsequently offered a stipend that would enable him to study at the Płock Gymnasium – considered one of the best in the Russian Partition of Poland in the second half of the 19th century. The prospect of the extremely intelligent boy learning Greek, Latin, and general history, rather than studying the holy books and becoming a prominent rabbi, provoked the resolute opposition of his grandfather, who claimed the deciding voice over Nahum’s education. This dilemma was solved through a compromise. Nahum would receive individual lessons in the homes of the professors of the gymnasium. This resulted not only in a thorough education, but also probably shaped the inquisitive, analytical mind of a man who was able to soberly describe reality with detachment.

“Płock is one of the earliest towns in Poland to be settled by Jews. During Sokolow’s time they made up a third of all inhabitants”, says Piotr Dąbrowski, the creator and director of the Nobiscum Foundation. Together with his wife, Gabriela, they published a guidebook titled In the footsteps of Płock’s Jews. “The people who lived here were rather poor, sometimes destitute. The Jewish quarter was plagued by fires because of the wooden constructions associated with early the 19th century. In the inter-war period, Płock was also a city of dynamic artistic life. Although it had its problems, it was a lively place already in the second half of the 19th century. This must have made an impact on Sokolow, because his horizons went far beyond strictly Jewish education and life in the Jewish quarter.”

Nahum Sokolow always viewed Płock as his hometown. “As far back as my memory reaches”, wrote Florian, “the term płocczanin (someone from Płock) was always spoken of with a warm tone in my parents’ home – and it carried the best credentials”. In the family home on the old market square Nahum had his own library. Here the boy would immerse himself in reading and experience elation “greater than at the British Museum,” as he recalled years later.

Beginnings in journalism

Nahum Sokolow made his journalistic debut in 1876 at the age of 17 with a piece he wrote for Ha-Tsefirah (dawn), one of the most influential Hebrew-language newspapers of the time. The editor-in-chief, Hayyim Selig Slonimski (grandfather of the famed poet Antoni), in a flash noted the potential of the teenager and actively supported his development in the following years.

Nothing remains of Płock’s Jewish quarter other than memories and the names of streets. From the old market square, Jerusalem street leads to Synagogue street, where there is an empty plot of land upon which the synagogue once stood. The building was not destroyed during the Second World War, as the Germans used it for an automobile repair shop. After the occupation it was nonetheless in such a terrible state that it had to be demolished. Today it is the subject of a public dispute. The owner has surrounded it with a wire fence in protest against the local authorities. A few years ago, he hung a sign on a tree with his price for the plot.

When just 17 years old, Sokolow married Rivka Segal and left for her home in Maków Mazowiecki, where almost the entire population was Jewish. In the intention of his grandfather from Wyszogród, this was to make sure Nahum would become a rabbi. The bride from a traditional Jewish family did not, however, manage to settle this young man who so passionately wanted to learn about the wider world, and more importantly – look for ways to fulfill his dreams of renewing Jewish national life.

Sokolow remained in Maków only for four years. In 1880, he moved to Warsaw in order to join the editorial staff of Ha-Tsefirah. He would quickly convince editor Słonimski that the newspaper should be issued three times a week. In 1884, the 25-year-old became a co-owner of the newspaper. Two years later he became the editor-in-chief and made it into a daily.

Zionism

The pogroms in the western provinces of the Russian Empire in 1881-1882 could not but attract Sokolow’s attention. He even traveled to the places where the Jewish refugees had found asylum in Habsburg eastern Galicia – namely, to Brody and Lviv. It is here that he met Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist from Great Britain whose aura would remain with him for the rest of his life. Indeed, Oliphant’s biography was the book Sokolow was working on at the time of his death in 1936.

Sokolow nonetheless did not then become a Hovev Zion (Lover of Zion). He felt torn. His heart told him that the Zionist movement that had broken out expressed a deep and justified Jewish desire. His intellect, on the other hand, did not permit him to believe in the possibility of what we know today as the First Aliyah. His columns for Ha-Tsefirah were therefore very sceptical of the movement. For example, he believed that the Zionist manifesto Auto-emancipation, published by Leon Pinsker from Odessa in 1882, was too pessimistic about the Jews’ predicament. He even called the manifesto’s proposals “a castle floating in the air”. At the same time, however, he created an anthology of articles about antisemitism and (being aware that most of the refugees would travel to America) wrote a grammar book for the English language – Torat Sefat Anglit. A few years later in 1885 he published extensive fragments of the book written by the aforementioned Oliphant in 1880, entitled The Land of Gilead, in which Oliphant described his plan for Jewish settlement in Palestine.

His presence at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 dispelled any lingering doubts Sokolow still had. The personal influence of Herzl was also important for his change of heart. Following the Congress, Sokolow traveled together with Herzl to Vienna, where the two men pursued further discussions. Thereafter Sokolow was never torn about Zionism again.

At the turn of the century Sokolow was not only the editor-in-chief of the now ardently pro-Zionist Ha-Tsefirah, but also of the Polish-language newspaper Izraelita. In 1902 he was sacked from the latter paper because of his… Zionist activism. During this time the Sokolows kept an “open house […] full of guests” at 2 Mariańska street in Warsaw. Over the years ‘Mondays’ were a special highlight, with extensive intellectual discussions then taking place. Florian Sokolow recalled that during one of those ‘Mondays’, Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, “gave a lecture on the new religion he had devised, one that was to be a compromise between Judaism and Christianity”. Even if not true, it makes an excellent story.

London and “the seed of the state of Israel”

In 1906 Sokolow entered the leadership of the World Zionist Organization. This work would increasingly consume him to the point that he moved to London right before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. There he was able to work more closely with the leaders of the movement – Chaim Weizmann, Moses Gaster, and Herbert Bentwich in particular. During the war, these Jews worked intimately on plans for the Levant with leading British politicians, Lord Arthur Balfour and Mark Sykes most notable among them. Towards the end of 1916, a new government emerged under the leadership of Lloyd George. His War Cabinet consisted primarily of Christian Zionists, with Balfour himself as foreign secretary. It was thus during this time that efforts on what later became known as the Balfour Declaration meaningfully accelerated. At the home of Gaster (Hakham, the supreme Sephardic rabbi in Britain) Jewish and Christian Zionists together were frantically forging the foundations of the future British Mandate for Palestine, the seed of the State of Israel. Nahum Sokolow himself coined the phrase “Jewish national home” which is closely echoed in the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, on the final stretch to its announcement, Sokolow secured key support from both Pope Benedict XV and the leading French politicians Jules Cambon and François Georges-Picot.

Nahum Sokolow was not only a journalist and Zionist activist, but also an outstanding historian. His superhuman productivity is evidenced by the fact that in 1919, despite all the intense work on the Mandate (Sokolow was the representative of the Zionists at Versailles), his nearly 800-page History of Zionism was published, describing the history of the idea and movement from the beginning of the 17th century. The foreword was written by Lord Balfour himself. It is the largest of some 30 books Sokolow wrote. He is also the author of over 4,500 articles. The famous Hebrew-language poet Chaim Bialik once quipped that “one would need 300 camels” to transport all of Nahum’s work.

Back in Poland

“Nahum Sokolow was a much-liked and well-respected figure in Płock and Wyszogród”, says Gabriela Nowak-Dąbrowska. “This can be seen in his visit to the two towns in 1925. After years of being away, he came to Płock by steamboat from Warsaw, a normal means of transport at the time. Large crowds came out to greet him, with not only Jews comprising them, but also Christians. He met with representatives of the Jewish community and the local authorities in Płock. He was stopped on the street by many of the townspeople who remembered him from his youth. They would try and remind him who they were. His trip was something exceptionally important for the people of Płock”, she adds.

It was also very important for Sokolow himself. Over his entire life he remained in touch with many families in Płock, most certainly including that of his closest friend Władysław Dobrzyński. According to his son Florian, Dobrzyński was the only person his father speak with using the informal ‘you’.

During his two-day visit in Płock, Sokolow gave a lecture in the theatre high on the bank overlooking the Vistula. A theatre the Germans would destroy 16 years later. The exact contents of his speech are unknown, though we do know it concerned the history of Zionism and that the event was so popular that not everyone managed to get inside. A large crowd had to content itself with listening from outside on the street.

“Our awareness in Płock of this outstanding figure faded badly during the years of the People’s Republic of Poland. Since then, his memory has yet to be restored”, says Piotr Dąbrowski. “There’s a lot said about the Jewish inhabitants of Płock who achieved great things. The standard-bearer is the neurologist Edward Flatau – the most famous person from Płock outside Płock. Yet here in his own hometown he too is rather unknown. Just as in the case of Nahum Sokolow, who is not commemorated here in any way.”

This is quite ironic when we think of how Sokolow was once deemed “the most important Jew in the world”. The label is especially apt regarding the early 1930s, when he was the head of both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Moreover, the Israeli ‘Pulitzer Prize’, as it were, is in fact called the ‘Sokolow Prize’. It was established in 1956, when his remains were taken from England to Israel.

Wyszogród ever in the rear-view mirror

Chaim Weizmann left us in his memoirs a description of his friend Nahum Sokolow. So did Christopher Sykes, the son of Mark. Celina, Nahum’s daughter, also described him in the foreword to her brother Florian’s biography of their father: “In one of his speeches delivered at a meeting in London in 1925, my father began to improvise, as he did from time to time, saying: «When I look back on my life from the time of my childhood in Wyszogród to the present moment, I see a clear line leading me to my final goal. The line is not complicated, but altogether straight. My aspiration, my deepest desire, was always to contribute to the rebirth of my nation, so that it would stand equal with the other free nations of the world»”.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Jaroslaw Kociszewski is the editor-in-chief of new.org.pl, a Middle East expert and a former Polish media correspondent in Israel. 

Philip Earl Steele is an American historian long-based in Warsaw. Before turning to the history of early Zionism in 2012, he had done ground-breaking work on the Christianisation of Poland in the 10th century.

The podcast and article are part of a Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe project funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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