Zionist from Poznań

Maciej Moszyński
Zionist from Poznań
Zionist from Poznań
Poznań, ul. Żydowska, początek XX wieku



Max Kollenscher's life path reflected the dilemmas related to Jewish cultural and national self-identification and its transformations, an issue particularly relevant at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. His activity in Poznań before the outbreak of World War I was an essential contribution to the history of European Zionism.


As a result of the modernisation taking place in Prussia in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Poznań was characterised by religious diversity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the dividing line ran between the representatives of Jewish Orthodoxy and the adherents of Reform Judaism. The first group formed the Congregation of Unity (Einheitsgemeinde), centred around the magnificent New Synagogue at Stawna Street which was built in 1907. Rabbi Jacob Freimann from Poznań, who was also the superior rabbi for the province, led it since 1914. However, the Reformed Jews associated within the Congregation of Brothers (Israelitische Brüdergemeinde) funded in the middle of 19th century, had their own synagogue and rabbi, Philipp Bloch[1]. This actual division within the local Jewish community was reflected in the formal legal status regulated by Prussian legislation which recognised Jewish communities as corporations under public law.  The upper classes held significant influence over the actions of the Poznań Jewish community. Both groups aspired to full integration with the German bourgeoisie and nurtured their ties with Jewishness. From the middle of the 19th century, the liberal worldview dominated among the representatives of this group[2]. This arrangement lasted until the outbreak of World War I; however, the progressing socio-political changes began to strain it more and more. One of the critical factors was the emergence of Zionism. Max Kollenscher stood out among the leading representatives of this movement in Poznań.

He was born in 1875 in Poznań to a merchant family cultivating the traditions of Judaism. The family home opened him up to, on the one hand, the search and deepening of theoretical knowledge, and on the other hand, participation in the field of organised life within the local Jewish community. At that time, this community was by no means a monolith. It was a group whose numbers systematically decreased since the second half of the 19th century as a result of migration to other parts of Germany in search of better professional and earning prospects. However, the community still maintained a prominent position in the socio-economic life of cities and towns in the region. Many of its representatives belonged to the wealthiest strata of the urban population, which successfully used the earlier boom in industry and trade. They paid the highest tax rates, which favoured participation in local political life[3]. At the same time, however, there was a group of pauperised Jews, mostly craftsmen and small merchants who were losing the competition with industrial production.

Like many young Poznań Jews, Kollenscher attended the local Friedrich Wilhelm secondary school which was famous for its high level of education. Then he started law studies at the University of Wrocław, during which he spent three semesters in Heidelberg and Berlin[4]. At the end of the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, he returned to Poznań, where he began his private legal practice. Kollenscher realised early on that as a Jew he had little chance of a career in Prussian justice institutions. Despite formal equality, the Jewish community experienced discrimination that prevented it from achieving professional promotion in this field on an equal footing with the Christian (de facto German) population[5]. In nearly twenty years of Kollenscher’s legal practice, representatives of all national groups, without exceptions, visited his office in Poznań. Kollenscher relied primarily on the Polish clientele, and a specially employed Polish translator was to assist him with that[6]. An unequivocal criticism of the German national policy emerges from his memoirs alongside a high degree of sensitivity to the situation of the Polish population in the Prussian state.

Kollenscher came from circles deeply entrenched in German culture and committed to the idea of ​​integration. Thus, there were many indications that, following the example of the liberal elite, he would perceive Jews only in terms of a religious community. While staying in Wrocław, however, what struck him was the difference between national relations there and those prevailing in his native Poznań. The latter appeared as a multicultural phenomenon - a city not only Polish and German but also, despite decades of acculturation in the area of language and education, Jewish[7]. The turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was in Germany a time of rapid increase in anti-Semitic sentiment as well as of a crisis of the broadly understood liberal way of thinking. Anti-Semitism as a modern phenomenon was one of the tools of coping with the ills and fears stemming from the transformations taking place in the surrounding world, and often taking on an abrupt and unexpected shape. By the end of the 1870s, the so-called Berlin movement (Berliner Bewegung) activated; it was a socio-political phenomenon part of which was a public radicalisation of views, on an unprecedented scale, of numerous circles connected by an aversion to Jews. In the years that followed, anti-Semitic parties regularly introduced their representatives to the Reichstag[8]. The Kollenscher's emerging interest in the cultural distinctiveness of a large part of Poznań's Jews was reinforced by the news coming from Vienna about the operation of Teodor Herzl. As the Poznań lawyer argued, he decided to engage with Zionism as a reaction to the wave of pogroms in Russia, and to the 6th Zionist Congress in Basel[9]. In the following years, apart from Herzl's idea of ​​political Zionism, Kollenscher prioritised organising the Jewish community in the Diaspora, a so-called current work (Gegenwartsarbeit)[10].



[1]             L. Muszyński, B. Bergman, Sylwetki poznańskich rabinów, „Kronika Miasta Poznania”, vol. 3, 2006, pg. 31.

[2]             W.W. Hagen, Germans, Poles and Jews. The Nationality Conflict in the Prussian East. 1772-1914, Chicago-London 1980, pp. 309-310.

[3]             T. Serrier, Provinz Posen, Ostmark, Wielkopolska. Eine Grenzregion zwiscen Deutschen und Polen 1848-1914, Marburg 2005, pp.  62-67.

[4]             Central Zionist Archives [CZA], sig. AK619\1, pg. 23 and following.

[5]             E. Hamburger, Juden im öffentlichen Leben Deutschlands. Regierungsmitglieder, Beamte und Parlamentarier in der monarchischen Zeit 1848-1918, Tübingen 1968, pg. 38.

[6]             CZA, sig. AK619\1, pg. 63.

[7]             CZA, sig. AK619\1, pg. 63.

[8]             P. Pulzer, Die Entstehung des politischen Antisemitismus, Göttingen 2004, pp. 136-145.

[9]             CZA, sig. AK619\1, pp. 75-76.

[10]           The Gegenwartsarbeit postulate was the subject of lively discussion within the Zionist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Martin Buber used it first in 1901 in his journalistic work. Cf. J. Żyndul, Państwo w państwie? Autonomia narodowo-kulturalna w Europie Środkowowschodniej w XX w., Warszawa 2000, pp. 18-31.

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