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The Blessing of Alexander

By Mary Seeman

“Town of tailors” is what Brzeziny was called. The first Jews settled in the village in 1557 and the grass of the existing Jewish cemetery in Brzeziny, now overgrown, neglected, and abandoned, conceals stones that were engraved in the 16th century. Alexander, son of Hersz, known as Zyskind or “sweet child,” was born in Brzeziny in 1760. His name, Alexander (after Alexander the Great) had been popular among Jews since the period of Greek supremacy, and was accepted as a Hebrew name, used for synagogue purposes and in Hebrew documents. His father’s name, Hersz, came from the Yiddish for deer or hart, the animal to which Jacob the Patriarch compared Naphtali, his son.

“Naphtali was swift as a hart to do the will of G-d.”

When Alexander, son of Hersz, was barely seventeen, his wife bore him a son whom he called Mordechai. In the Poland of the period we are talking about, children were named after the closest, most recently dead relative of the same sex. Because the name Mordechai is derived from the name of a Babylonian god, Marduk, this family must have descended from a tribe exiled from Judea to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple. Alexander the tailor, son of Hersz, and his wife, Necha, had many more children, several of whom died in infancy.

Though proper surnames were not unknown among the Jews of the Middle Ages, especially the Sephardim, they were rare in the Poland of that time. But this was not to last. Brzeziny and vicinity fell to the Prussian Kaiser in the year 1793 when Mordechai was a young man. At that time, 250 families lived in Brzeziny, Poles and Jews together. There were 5 buildings made of brick in the town; the rest were made of wood. Before long, however, the town changed. There was a great influx of ethnic Germans into Brzeziny until, for a time, it became the most populous town of the area.

On April 17, 1797, a Prussian decree ordered all Jews to choose a surname. Alexander selected Herszkowitz (son of Hersz) but hardly had a chance to use the name because, very soon, Napoleon had conquered that part of the world and restructured national borders. He declared Brzeziny part of the Duchy of Warsaw (1807-15) and surnames were no longer required. After Napoleon’s downfall, the Vienna Congress of 1815 liquidated the Duchy of Warsaw and established the Kingdom of Poland, later called Congress Poland, under the authority of Alexander I, Czar of all Russia.

The Czar, a man of principle, tried to create a pan-national alliance (Prussia, Austria, Russia) based on the values of justice and charity. Thanks to him, the new Polish constitution of 1815 read: “The Israelite people are granted all rights of citizenship, which are certified by the present assembly. Laws must be passed to enable the Jews to fully participate in the rights of citizenship.” As part of these new rights, in 1821, the use of surnames for Jews was once again introduced. Mordechai chose as a family name the name Szwarc, meaning swarthy.

Mordechai was one of 80 cloth producers in Brzeziny. He soon became one of 194 master tailors, weaving and selling his cloth with the help of apprentices. By 1825, the population of Brzeziny numbered 3,492, of which 27% were Jews. In that year, Czar Alexander I visited Brzeziny and, steeped as he was in mysticism and prone to whims, conceived of the idea of granting a special blessing on all Alexander namesakes in the town. Alexander Herszkowitz Szwarc, then 65, received the Czar’s blessing and, upon his death shortly thereafter, the blessing passed to his son, Mordechai.

Mordechai, in turn, transferred the blessing to his son Hersz Ber, named after his great grandfather. Hersz Ber was not cut out to be a tailor. He left the town of Brzeziny and, in 1844, moved west to nearby Zgierz on the Bzura River, 21 kilometres north of Lodz. Here he established himself as a transient resident, a dealer in the iron trade.

At that time, there were approximately 2,000 Jews living in Zgierz, 20% of the population. Of these, 200, like Hersz Ber, lived in Zgierz only provisionally because it was impossible to find a permanent dwelling in the crowded residential section set aside for Jews.

A report sent in June 1843 to the Warsaw governing commission, states:

“The growth of the population of Old Believers in the city of Zgierz caused an influx of temporary residents into the city, which is a manufacturing region that lies on a paved highway, and has developed in business and industry...Regarding the expansion of the Jewish quarter in the city of Zgierz, requests have been presented to Your All-Powerful Eminence the Governor, in private, to add some streets onto the Jewish quarter in order to accommodate the newcomers.”

Negotiations for expansion of the Zgierz Jewish quarter were still ongoing twelve years later. In October 1855, the negotiators received the following response:

“In the name of His Majesty Alexander II, the Czar of all Russia, and the King of Poland. To the administrative authority of Royal Poland.

The quarter for the Old Believers in Zgierz, established by the decision of the royal representative on December 21, 1824, requires an expansion in order to accommodate the growth of the local population of Old Believers. Regarding this, the royal administrative council has decided that the following be added to the Jewish quarter in the city of Zgierz: the north side of Szeradzer Street, the north side of the Piaskowa. ……both sides of the Strikower Street, between Szeradzer and Blotene, both side of the Blotene, between the Lodzer and Strikowr Streets, both side of the Konstantiner Street, between Lodzer and the Konstantine Highway, both side of Szlachthaus (Slaughterhouse) Street between Piaskowa and the Bzura River. Those streets are designated for Jews, and from now they are permitted to live there.”

Hersz Ber Szwarc refused to live in the residential quarter designated for Jews. He was therefore accused of “penetrating into the extra quarter, and setting up business there”. Claiming he was cosmopolitan –i.e. knew several languages (although he used the excuse of a sore hand when asked to sign documents in Polish), Hersz Ber was eventually permitted to raise his family in the center of the old city of Zgierz, near the marketplace, on a street called the 3rd of May. This happened because the governor of Congress Poland on July 5, 1862 finally granted full rights to Jews, 47 years after the adoption of Alexander the First’s constitution.

Hersz Ber and his wife Miriam had a son, Issachar, born in 1859.

"Issachar," said Jacob, "will take upon himself the burden of the study of Torah.”

In the Bible, Issachar was the ninth son of Patriarch Jacob, the fifth by his wife, Leah. These are meaningful numbers: nine is the number of strength. Five is the number of grace. Together, they predict the strength of grace that was manifest in the life of biblical Issachar and the Issacharite tribe.

Issachar Szwarc of Zgierz studied and became very learned. He was both a writer and a social activist. He served on the town council of Zgierz and collected one of the finest libraries of Judaica then in existence in Poland. Books, manuscripts, texts, and documents, bound in cotton, and leather, and velvet. Books were always Issachar’s closest, most faithful companions. In 1879, he married his first cousin, Sura, and they had ten children. They called their youngest son Alexander.

On November 18th, 1939 (it was a Sabbath), the Jews of Zgierz were ordered to sew a yellow Star of David onto their outside clothing. On December 26 (it was an icy cold day), all Jews were forced out of the town. Two thousand five hundred people huddled together in the town square. They were robbed of their possessions, beaten if they protested, and driven by horse cart into the interior of Poland, to the town of Glowno. Issachar Szwarc was spared the trip. At the age of 80, the day before the expulsion, clutching to his failing heart his favourite book, Solomon’s Song of Songs, Issachar died. His body was brought by push wagon to a grave in the Jewish cemetery of Zgierz. He was the last person to ever be buried there.

His son, Alexander, to whom the blessing of the Czar then passed, miraculously survived the Shoa.