Remembering the Jewish Rowers of Kalisz

It is a Jewish custom for a visitor to a grave to leave a small stone as a sign to others that someone has visited and remembered the deceased. Unlike perishable flowers, stones are fitting symbols of the lasting presence of the departed’s life and memory.

 2 May 2018

Tim Koch leaves a digital memorial stone.

In 2015, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I published a piece on HTBS titled “A Poignant Piece of Rowing History: Jewish Rowing Clubs in Nazi-Germany”. In the introduction I wrote:

What I have produced is probably full of inaccuracies and misunderstandings and certainly is nowhere near ‘the whole story’. However, rather than remaining in obscurity, I think it is important that some version of the story of the ‘Jüdischer Ruder-Clubs’ should be made more widely known… Worldwide, a huge effort has and is been made to ensure that all aspects of Jewish life that were wiped out by the Holocaust are not forgotten, and this is my small and no doubt rather inadequate contribution to this.

I later wrote:

Initially, I was worried that producing something that links something as important as The Holocaust with something as minor as rowing history could be considered crass. I continued for two reasons. If any part of what the Nazis tried to erase forever is actually forgotten, it is a victory for them. Also, as something as terrible as genocide is impossible for most of us to comprehend, our only chance of some understanding is to relate it to things within our own experience. For example, we cannot conceive of the deaths of six million people, but we can empathise with the loss of one person, Anne Frank.

A crew from the Jüdische Ruderclub Werder. Werder is a German town on the river Havel, west of Potsdam. The handsome and athletic young men are fine examples of the ‘Muscular Judaism’ that was promoted in the first part of the 20th century by Zionists in particular. However, different Jewish groups used sport in different ways, some to counter, and some to facilitate, Jewish assimilation into civil society.

The wide and positive response to my article made me determined to continue my researches on the subject. However, I imagined that I had exhausted all online sources and would have to access original material, a much more demanding process. While I still believe this to be the case, I did recently find a relevant online source that was new to me.

The Kalish Book was published in 1968 by the Israel-American Book Committee. Kalisz, (pronounced ‘Kal-eesh’, the book seems to have chosen the phonetic spelling) 260 km west of Warsaw, is a middle-size Polish city that is perhaps a microcosm of the Polish-Jewish experience through the centuries. It is appropriate, therefore, to look at a very brief summary of the history of Polish Jewry.

For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. In 1264, the Polish Prince, Boleslaus the Pious, issued the Statute of Kalisz, an unprecedented document in the medieval history of Europe that allowed Jews personal freedom, legal autonomy and a separate tribunal for criminal matters as well as safeguards against forced baptism and anti-Semitic propaganda. Persecuted in Western Europe, in 1342 the Jews were invited to Poland by King Casimir the Great (admittedly, partly to help him collect taxes) and in 1334, Casimir extended the Statute of Kalisz to the whole country. It was expanded by later Polish rulers and Jews settled and prospered in what became the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, a country that some called The Paradise of the Jews.

The Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom which existed in various forms from 1569 until 1795.

By the middle of the 16th century, perhaps three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. However, from the 17th century onwards, the country’s traditional tolerance began to falter and the division of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom between the generally anti-Semitic countries of Prussia, Austria and Russia at the end of the 18th century greatly worsened things for the Jewish population. Nonetheless, as Poland regained its independence in the aftermath of the 1914 – 18 War, it was still the centre of the European Jewry with one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, numbering over three million. In 1939, most of Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and, within six years, 700 years of history was wiped out by the murder of 90 percent of all Polish Jews.

Memorial monument for the vanished Jewish community of Kalisz, located at the Holon Cemetery in Israel. It is built in the shape of a concentration camp crematorium. Picture: David Shay.

The forward to The Kalish Book states:

Here is the history of a very ancient community which existed for almost a thousand years. On numberless occasions throughout the generations, the community fell only to rise again and continue its life and way of living until at last it was eradicated so that not even a sign of it is left… The Kalish Book describes the daily life of the Jewish Community, its struggle for economic, cultural and social existence from the early days until the end. In these pages, the survivors of the Community have done their best to set up a Memorial to their brethren.

The Kalish Book is a record of all aspects of Jewish life in Kalisz: historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and sporting. Of the latter, there are pieces on the Yiddishe Turn un Sport Klub, the Gymnasium, and the Rowing Club K.W.30.

Polish for ‘rowing club’ is ‘klub wioślarski’ (K.W.). Kalisz’s Jewish Rowing Club was ‘K.W.30’. As it is recorded that Poznan’s ‘K.W.04’ was started in 1904, perhaps ‘K.W.30’ was founded in 1930? The non-Jewish Kalisz Rowing Club (Kaliskie Towarzystwo Wioślarskie, KTW) was founded in 1894, the fifth to be established in Poland since the first in 1878, and it still exists today. It was very successful in national competitions and was instrumental in establishing the Polish Association of Rowing Clubs in 1919. KTW’s website’s history page says, ‘From the first day of its existence, it… played an important role in the life of the city and its inhabitants… Following the example of KTW, rowing became the most popular sport in Kalisz.’ By 1939, Poland had 73 rowing clubs in 41 cities.

Below, I have taken the liberty of reproducing the whole section on K.W.30 as printed in the English version of The Kalish Book. It has clearly been translated from another language, but is none the worse for that.

Rowing Club K.W.30 by Pinczewski.

This picture is identified as ‘The rowing team of the Jewish Sports’ Club, Kalisz, Poland , 1935’. It suggests that the Jewish Sports’ Club (Yiddishe Turn un Sport Klub) had its own rowing section. This could be the case but it could also be a badly translated caption and that the crew pictured was actually from Kalisz’s Jewish Rowing Club, K.W.30. Picture: Beth Hatefutsoth Photo Archive, courtesy of the Kalisz Landsmannschaft, Tel Aviv.

Rowing Club K.W.30 was founded in Kalish in order to enable the Jewish youth to take an active part in water sports while permitting older members and their children to enjoy the jetty and the excellent fleet of boats which the Club possessed. In due course, this Rowing Club became the social centre of local Jewish intellectuals with activities that spread far beyond those originally envisaged.

Year-by-year, on the anniversary of the opening of the Club and at every rowing competition, the members gathered en masse with their families and guests. The Club arranged parties at the end of the year and at Purim, as well as dances at its Club premises from time-to-time. On occasion, these were held in the larger chambers of the Town Hall or the Musical Society. In addition, there were satirical evenings and lectures on sports and general themes.

It should be added that this Club K.W.30 was an independent body and the only one of its kind in Polish Jewry.

A modern picture of the River Prosna at Kalisz. Picture: Peżot.

The Municipality granted the Club a stretch of its own on the banks of the Prosna which was buttressed with planks and poles. Handsome wooden buildings were constructed and painted in gay colours. They contained cloakrooms as well as a large covered area for the boats. Each member had a locker for his belongings. Year-after-year, there were improvements at the jetty and the training installations. Architect L. Comber, a member of the Club, planned new buildings for training halls and cloakrooms. The finances were very satisfactory and nothing held up building except the approval of the plans.

An early 20th-century postcard showing Kalisz’s non-Jewish rowing club, KTW.

There were seven boats of excellent quality, both racing and semi-racing, which were purchased in Poland and abroad. They were among the best of their kind in the country. In addition, there were several dozen good (touring) boats. Of the 250 members, about 100 were active sportsmen; several scores of whom made up racing teams, both male and female. Jewish students spending the summer holidays in the town were allowed to use the Club and its equipment for a nominal fee or even gratis. Apart from the jetty and buildings, the Club had its winter premises in the Josephine Allée. This contained six rooms, a library, a reading room which received many newspapers and a billiard and table tennis room. The rooms were always full to overflowing with members even in the summer.

Historic pictures marking KTW’s 110th anniversary showing rowing at Kalisz. The Wikipedia entry, “The History of Jews in Kalisz”, says that ‘The Jewish Rowers’ Club of Kalisz participated in competitions at the national level’. However, given the comments in the penultimate paragraph below regarding the difficulties of forming crews, I must speculate whether the writer confused K.W.30 with KTW.

The boat-racing which was chiefly engaged in Poland required teams of four in racing boats. These needed close and well-time cooperation of our rowers and coxswain… In Kalish, it was very difficult to ensure this. It was hard to build up several teams of this kind or to assure the proper combination of members in each team. In addition to this, unsatisfactory team construction was another difficulty. Under the conditions in which the Jews lived, the crews were bound to break up from time-to-time when one or other of the members left Poland or moved to another city.

Two years before the outbreak of World War II, the Kalish Club began to discuss a plan for sending a crew of four together with their boat to the Boating Competition in Tel-Aviv. It was decided to carry out this plan in 1940. The committee felt sure that the trip would serve to advance the sportsmen of K.W.30; would have a good effect on the boats men of Tel-Aviv; would encourage everybody to make greater efforts and would increase the number of sportsmen, both in Kalish and elsewhere. However, those circumstances which were to make an end of Kalish Jewry prevented this project from being realised.

A yahrzeit candle burns for 26 hours and is lit in memory of a loved one on the anniversary of their death. It is also lit on the eve of the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, Yom HaShoah.


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