Delving into the history of Posen Jews

The cover of History of the Jewish Community of Schonlanke: 1736-1940, A Memorial to the Vanished by Peter Simonstein Cullman. AVOTAYNU

Although Torontonian Peter Simonstein Cullman retired as a jeweller and goldsmith some 15 years ago, he is still turning out gems. Recently, his second major book on Jewish history was published by Avotaynu, the eminent American publishing house that specializes in titles on Jewish genealogy.

Cullman’s new book is titled, History of the Jewish Community of Schonlanke: 1736-1940, A Memorial to the Vanished. Like his previous title, it reflects his lifelong interest in the Jews of Posen, the Prussian-Polish territory where his maternal ancestors lived.

Weighing in at about 470 pages, Schonlanke is certainly an impressive book in quality, as well as quantity. It offers a comprehensive history of this little-known Jewish community from its very earliest days to the Holocaust. In fact, it begins even before the beginning, with a discussion of the Rhadanites, the medieval Jewish merchants whose commercial networks extended from Asian, Byzantine and Muslims lands in the east, to the Frankish, German and Slavic lands of central Europe.

For a non-historian, Cullman seems to have an extraordinary grasp of historical details, reflecting what must have been a lifetime of study and learning. No fascinating detail, no matter how far removed from the story at hand, is passed over. Thus, the text is studded with intriguing discussions of the Rhadanites, Khazars and many other matters, such as the following detail pertaining to Poland’s first known Jew:

“By the 11th century, a period blessed with golden summers and mild winters, a number of Polish towns had become settlement for Jews, evidenced by the discovery of the gravestone of an otherwise unknown David ben Sar Shalom, revealing the Hebrew calendar date 25 Av 4963 (August 4, 1203) in Wroclaw’s ancient cemetery.”

This is a good book, in part because Cullman keeps his eye on the big picture, geographically, as he fills in Schonlanke’s history with as much local detail about the Jewish community as he could find with his fine-toothed comb. The Select Bibliography of mostly German and English titles, listed in small print, runs almost six pages, and the copious footnotes offer evidence that Cullman utilized a great many Polish sources, as well.

Cullman notes the existence of at least 54 Ashkenazi communities in Poland by the 16th century, most of which applied a steep kosher tax upon community members, as a way of meeting the disproportionate demands for payments to the Polish crown. Jews were subjected to a never-ending series of administrative provocations, malignant allegations and outright libels, such as the blood libel, which forced the Jewish community to appoint shtadlanim, or official representatives charged with defending the community and negotiating on its behalf.

The author reveals the existence of “Grod-Books” – county court record books of the region of Wielkopolska in west-central Poland, which are filled with instances where the Jews were “continuously forced into litigation regarding interest payments, borrowed capital or arrear taxes.” The kehillah, or local Jewish communal structure of Schonlanke, had an executive board consisting of seven elders, which survived until at least 1833. The choice of seven deputies, Cullman relates, arises from the Talmudic wisdom that “shiva tuvei hoir,” a town’s seven best, should preside locally over matters of the community. However, the state meddled in Jewish communal affairs to the extent that it arrogated unto itself the power to appoint not only Schonlanke’s Jewish elders, but its rabbinate, as well.


An adept biographical portrait of Schonlanke’s first rabbi, Joel ben Meyer ben Joseph Asch, is woven skillfully from limited strands of information, opening a section on the local rabbinate and the problems and questions it faced over time. As expected, histories of the synagogue, the cemetery and other communal institutions are also presented.

Cullman again widens his scope to provide necessary background information about the “Shutzjuden” and the various restrictions the state placed upon the Jews. At one point, for example, only a very small, financially strong group of Jews – the “one per cent,” if you will – were considered equal to non-Jewish merchants and permitted to hand down their wealth to their children after they passed away. That was a privilege only a very few could attain.

“In 1714 a small number of wealthy Jews were granted more tolerance and an ‘ordinary Schutzjude’ was still given the right to include three of his children under his patents of ‘Schutz,’ or protection,” Cullman continues. Later, this benefit was reduced to allow only two children, and ultimately only one, forcing any others to emigrate.

As the narrative proceeds into the modern, emancipated era, the information at our disposal seems more complete and the picture the author paints becomes more complex and finessed. By the 1840s, the state published long lists of Jews who were permitted to become naturalized citizens. Particularly fascination is the treatment Cullman gives to Jews by birth, such as Michael Solomon Alexander, who converted to Christianity.

Much of the book is devoted to the early 20th century and the era leading up to the Holocaust. Here, in a section called in Hebrew, “Lo Tishcach” (Do Not Forget), it presents an A-to-Z biographical compendium of many of the town’s citizens, victims and survivors.

A genealogist at heart, Cullman includes numerous appendices that list emigrants, names in the 1774 census, population registers for 1831/32, family name adoptions, rabbis, elders of the kehillah and even a 200-year history of Schonlanke street names.

Although his prose lacks the stylistic elegance of a Howard Sachar (The Course of Modern Jewish History), or the lyricism of a Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million), there is no question that Cullman has written an impressive, even monumental, book that adds to our knowledge of Posen Jewry. It appears just as he receives a major recognition for his book on Schneidemuhl, which was recently translated into Polish. Two weeks ago, the Polish town of Pila (a.k.a., Schneidemuhl) honoured him in a ceremony at the Session Hall of Pila County, with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, in attendance.

Leslie’s Last Lesson: Teacher Maja Biuim and illustrator Hava Glick have produced an illustrated book about Leslie Miller, a First World War soldier who returned home with some acorns he had picked up on the battlefield at Vimy Ridge. Planted in the soil of Scarborough, Ont., the acorns grew into 12 majestic oaks. Generations later, saplings and acorns from Miller’s Vimy Oaks have been returned to France and transplanted back to the fields from whence they originated. Leslie’s Last Lesson, which tells the story for children, was published in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.