Delegates at a Zionist convention, London, 1945. (Front row, from left) Yitsḥak Zuckerman, Ḥaykah Grossman, Emil Sommerstein, Leib Salpeter, [?] Meler. (Back row, left to right) Abba Hillel Silver, Mosheh Kleinbaum-Sneh, Yitsḥak Grünbaum, Unidentified. (Middle row) Mosheh Sharett, Naḥum Goldmann. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Sommerstein, Emil

(1883–1957), Polish Zionist leader. Born near Tarnopol, Sommerstein studied law at Lwów University and established a legal practice. Active in Zionist student organizations, he became president of the Zionist Federation of East Galicia after World War I. In 1922 he was elected to the Polish Sejm (the lower house of parliament), serving until 1927 and again from 1929 through 1939.

In the 1920s, Sommerstein was perhaps better known for his legal scholarship than for his political activity. Beginning in 1930, however, following the death of fellow Galician political leader Leon Reich and the departure from Poland of the dean of Polish Jewish politicians, Yitsḥak Grünbaum, he emerged as one of Polish Jewry’s most important spokesmen in the political arena. His expertise in fiduciary law made him particularly effective as an advocate against economic legislation potentially harmful to Jewish interests, which became increasingly common in response to the Great Depression. After the death of Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1935, Sommerstein became a vocal critic of anti-Jewish prejudice in the government and the courts and urged alliance with democratic parties against the regime. Meanwhile, he took part in the founding conference of the World Jewish Congress in 1936.

When the Soviet Union occupied Lwów in September 1939, Sommerstein was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. His ostensible crime was having declared in the Sejm that discrimination against Polish Jews was liable to move them toward communism. Illnesses contracted during imprisonment confined him to hospitals even after amnesty in November 1941. The Polish exile government paid for his care; however, when Polish–Soviet diplomatic relations were severed in April 1943, Sommerstein was left without support. His medical dependency undoubtedly prompted him, a lifelong anticommunist, to accept an invitation in June 1943 to join the Union of Polish Patriots, a front organization designed to help establish a pro-Soviet regime in postwar Poland. After the Red Army liberated eastern Poland in July 1944, Sommerstein served as director of veterans’ affairs in the Polish Committee of National Liberation (the de facto Polish government).

Sommerstein’s prestige and closeness to the new regime helped him play a leading role in the reestablishment of an organized Jewish community in postwar Poland. In February 1945 he served as the first chairperson of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, which oversaw the reconstruction of Polish Jewish life after the Holocaust and the repatriation of survivors from the Soviet Union. He held this position until April 1946, when he suffered a stroke while visiting New York. He remained in the United States until his death in 1957.

Suggested Reading

Yosef Litvak, “Korotav u-fe‘iluto ha-tsiburit shel Emil Zomershtain [Sommerstein] bi-verit ha-mo‘atsot be-milḥemet ha-‘olam ha-sheniyah,” Gal-Ed 12 (1991): 135–162 (Hebrew pagination); Jonas Turkow, Nokh der bafrayung: Zikhroynes (Buenos Aires, 1959), pp. 99–116.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 323, Gershom Bader, Collection, 1884-1953; RG 389, Emil Sommerstein, Papers, 1944-1946.