This Day in Jewish History / An Extraordinary Jewish Leader Dies in Punitive Exile in Uzbekistan

Moses Schorr, rabbi and scholar, Jewish activist and Polish senator, was found guilty by Russia of ‘defending the interests of the bourgeoisie.’

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May 10, 1874 is the birthdate of the rabbi, scholar, educator, community leader and Polish senator Moses Schorr, an extraordinary figure among his country’s Jews who died cruelly – not at the hands of the Nazis, but in punitive exile in Stalinist Uzbekistan.

Moses Schorr was born in Przemysl, Galicia, then in the Austrian-Hungarian empire, today in Poland. He was the oldest of the three sons of the former Esther Friedman and of Osjasz Schorr, the president of Przemysl’s Jewish cooperative bank.

Moses attended a Jewish gymnasium in his hometown, receiving strong Jewish and general educations. After graduating in 1893, he headed for Vienna, where he began rabbinical studies at the newly opened Jewish Theological Institute. (He was ordained in 1900.) Simultaneously, Schorr pursued both philosophy and Oriental studies, first at the University of Vienna, and later at the University of Lwów.

Schorr earned his doctorate at Lwów in 1898, writing his thesis on the history of the Jewish community in Poland over the centuries. In 1903, he published a highly regarded history of the Jews of Przemysl, his hometown, using documents dating back to the 15th century.

Quickly, however, Schorr realized he could not be guaranteed an academic position in the field of Jewish history, and so switched his focus to Near Eastern studies. To this end, the Austrian Education Ministry sent him to Berlin for two years of advanced study in Semitic languages.

Dedicated to the solidarity of the Jews

In the decades that followed, Schorr combined an academic career with communal and political work. He had appointments in Oriental studies at the Universities of Vienna and Warsaw, at the latter of which he headed the Institute for Semitic Languages and History of the Ancient Orient. He also was a cofounder of Warsaw’s Institute for Judaic Sciences, which was established with government funding, adjacent to the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, the progressive shul where he was rabbi.

Schorr was active in the leadership of B’nai B’rith in Poland, which in that era was involved in charitable and relief work. (He wrote, in an essay about the organization, that he saw it as being dedicated to “two fundamental principles: the idea of solidarity of all the Jews in the entire world [and] the brotherhood of all the peoples and nations.”) In a similar vein, he was involved in relief work for Jewish orphans during World War I.

At the Zionist Congress, in 1905, he met the prominent banker Yitzhak ben Jacob, who apparently introduced him to his daughter Tamara. Moses and Tamara married that same year.

Named to the Senate

In 1935, Poland’s president, Ignacy Moscicki, named Schorr to the country’s senate, where he warned frequently of the country’s growing anti-Semitism. In 1938 he represented Poland at the Evian Conference, which was supposed to come up with solutions for the Jews streaming out of a Europe that was coming under increasing control of Hitler’s Germany.

At the start of World War II, when the Germans invaded from the west, Schorr and his wife headed east to Ostrog, in Soviet Ukraine, where their daughter, Felicia, lived. Almost immediately, the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) called him in for questioning. His activities as an outspoken advocate for the Jewish people and occasional critic of Communism, and his ties to foreign organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee, had made him a subject of suspicion.

Eventually, he was transferred to Moscow for additional interrogation, before being charged, in April 1941, with defending the interests of the bourgeoisie. (The records of his arrest and interrogation were described in a 2007 article by historians Michael Beizer and Israel Bartal.)

Schorr was convicted, and sentenced, in May 1941, to five years of exile in Uzbekistan. He died there on July 10, 1941, of complications of heart disease, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Tamara and Felicia, and Felicia’s children, who had remained in Poland, were confined to the Warsaw Ghetto after the German occupation of that city, and later transferred to a detention camp in France. Tamara eventually committed suicide, while Felicia survived a suicide attempt, and the war itself. She and her four siblings survived the war, and rebuilt their lives, in Israel and in New York.