On September 17, 1794, Polish national leader Tadeusz Kosciuszko announced the formation of a separate, Jewish cavalry unit to join the forces fighting against the Russians and Prussians for independence.
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The unit was led by Berek Joselewicz, who to this day is remembered in Poland as a war hero, although the insurrection itself failed.
(Americans know the name of Kosciuszko because he moved to the United States in 1776 and participated in the War of Independence that year, as an officer with the Continental Army. They also know him for the bridge bearing his name that links Brooklyn and Queens, one of many tributes to him in the United States.)
The key event leading to the Kosciuszko uprising was the signing by Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia of the Second Partition Treaty, by which they annexed and split between them more than half of the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The uprising was an attempt both to reverse the partition and also to reinstate the political and social reforms of a new constitution that had been adopted by the Great Sejm (parliament) of 1788-92 – and then cancelled by the Polish king.
Dov Baer (or Berek, in Polish) Joselewicz was a Jewish Polish financial administrator born in 1764 (also on September 17) in Katinga, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After a traditional Jewish education, Joselewicz became proficient in business, and began working as a factor to Bishop Ignacy Jakub Massalski. In this capacity he had occasion to visit Paris, at the time of the French Revolution, which exposed him to the radical ideas then current there.
Back in Poland, Joselewicz and his wife Rebekah settled in the Warsaw suburb of Praga, where he became a supplier to the army. Inspired by the March 24, 1794, Krakow proclamation by commander-in-chief Kosciuszko of the uprising, Joselewicz provided a loan for the support of the cause, and encouraged other Jews to join the effort and fight “like lions and leopards.”
It was his hope that an independent and reformed Poland would grant equal rights to its Jews, just as Kosciuszko announced in May the partial liberation of the country’s serfs.
Joselewicz then proposed to Kosciuszko establishment of a separate Jewish unit, an idea that the latter accepted, announcing the unit’s creation on this day in 1794.’
The unit, organized by Joselewicz together with Joseph Aronowicz, elicited great interest, and finally 500 men were accepted into its ranks. Recognition as a Jewish unit meant that they were provided with kosher food, and permitted to abstain from combat on Shabbat, when circumstances allowed. They also could refrain from shaving, hence their nickname of “the Beardlings.”
The Beardlings were to be short-lived.
The unit was decisively defeated by the Russians in the November 4, 1794, battle for Praga. And despite initial and encouraging victories by the rebels, the insurrection in general was vanquished 12 days later, when Kosciuszko’s successor, Tomasz Wawrzecki – Kosciuszko had been wounded and taken prisoner a month earlier – surrendered to the Russians at Radoszyce.
Berek Joselewicz continued to seek to tie the fate of Poland’s Jews to a larger cause. His proposal to form a Jewish troop in the Austrian army was turned down, but he did go on to fight with Napoleon’s Polish Legion in 1797, and later joined the Polish forces of the Duchy of Warsaw in fighting the Austrians.
Joselewicz was killed on May 5, 1809, fighting Austria in the Battle of Kock. To this day, there is an expression in Polish, “Jak Berek pod Kockiem,” – “like Berek at Kock” – referring to being caught in a hopeless situation.