Waleczny Berko szef szwadronu (Dov Ber, Mighty Man of Valor, Colonel in the Polish Army). Artist unknown, Poland, 1861. Lithograph honoring Berek Joselewicz, with Polish and Hebrew inscriptions. (Muzeum Narodowe, Kraków)

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Joselewicz, Berek

(1764–1809), colonel in the Polish Army. Berek Joselewicz was born in Kretynga (Lith., Kretinga), a small town near the city of Polągi (Lith., Palanga). After receiving a traditional Jewish education, he acted as provisioner and agent to the local landowner, Bishop Ignacy Jakub Massalski (1726–1794), in which capacity he also traveled to Western Europe. With the fortune he amassed through entrepreneurial activities, Joselewicz settled in the Warsaw suburb of Praga, where he married his wife Rokhl around 1788 and became a supplier to the army.

Joselewicz was the only Jew in Praga among the subscribers to a loan in support of the uprising against the third and final division of Poland. Hoping the uprising would usher in equal rights for Polish Jews, he joined the local militia and, with Josef Aronowicz, approached the leadership of the uprising with the suggestion that a Jewish fighting unit be formed. Tadeusz Kościuszko took up this proposal and in September 1794 appointed Joselewicz colonel of a Jewish cavalry squad. In a public appeal in October 1794, Joselewicz called upon Polish Jews to join this regiment, which was not financially supported by the local Jewish population. However, while it was still in the process of formation, the Jewish regiment was decimated in a Russian assault on Praga on 4 November 1794.

Joselewicz moved to Galicia, settling in Lwów in 1795. His suggestion that a Jewish volunteer troop be organized within the framework of the Austrian army was rejected by Vienna in October 1796. However, General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, who in the autumn of 1797 raised Polish legions in Italy as part of Napoleonic forces, took Joselewicz on as an officer. After seeing battle in Italy and Germany and achieving the rank of cavalry captain, Joselewicz petitioned to be discharged after the Peace of Lunéville (9 February 1801). His sense of hopelessness about achieving Polish independence through the Polish legions, as well as the discrimination he had suffered as a Jew, played a decisive role in his decision.

In 1803, Joselewicz was inducted as an officer into the Hanoverian Dragoons, also under French command, with whom he participated in campaigns in France, Austria, and Italy. With the founding of the Duchy of Warsaw, he hurried back to Poland, where, initially as an officer and later as commander of a cavalry squadron, he took part in many battles. A mark of the respect in which Joselewicz was held during his lifetime was evident in his admission to the Masonic lodge of the United Polish Brothers. On 5 May 1809, he fell in clashes with the Hungarian Hussars in the vicinity of Kock, where a monument was erected in his honor.

Joselewicz’s son Josef Berkowitz also strove for military honors, with less success. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Joselewicz’s military career and achievements were held up as an emblem and a model by Polish Jews who identified with Poland’s quest for national independence.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, ed., Album pamiątkowy ku czci Berka Joselewicza (Warsaw, 1934); Jan Zbigniew Pachoński, “Berek Joselewicz,” in Polski słownik biograficzny, vol. 1, pp. 446–447 (Kraków, 1935); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vol. 1 (New York, 1947).



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen