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Briv funem arkhiv: Mojzesz Frostig, saved from the trash heap of history

Zachary Mazur

INTRODUCTION

In geveb​’s briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here.

This collection — the intimate letters and a diary of an early twentieth century Zionist politician— was saved from oblivion by chance, found in a pile of trash in Israel. Through various intermediaries, the collection then ended up at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

Mozes/Mojżesz Frostig (1887-1928) was born in Zhovkva (Zółkiew), eastern Galicia, in the Habsburg Empire. His parents had assimilated into German culture, while the younger Frostig used Polish as his primary language. After gymnasium, he went on to study law at the University of Lemberg/L’viv, the provincial capital. He became interested in Zionism quite early and took his first trip to Palestine in 1904, traveling by boat from Trieste to Haifa. The Mojżesz Frostig collection contains a travel journal from this first journey, and is not a straight narrative, but contains notes and impressions from his time visiting cities in Palestine and Jewish settlements. He married Roza Messer in 1906 and they had a daughter Melania (Mela). After that point he engaged more directly with the political movement as an author and editor for Yiddish and Polish publications, Lemberger Togblat, Lemberger Morgen, Moriach, Dziennik Żydowski, Wschód, and Chwila. His correspondence, though deeply personal, also allows for a reconstruction of the transnational network that was funding Zionist politics.

The sheer breadth of the letters shows how well traveled Frostig was within his lifetime. The letters provide impressions from New York City, ocean steam liners, vacations in France and Italy, Jerusalem, kibbutzim, and from his home base in Lemberg/Lviv. In New York, Frostig worked closely with the Federation of Galician and Bucovinian Jews in America to raise money for the Zionist movement. He wrote to his wife and mother on letterhead from Hoffman’s Staerkefabriken in Salzulfen, the McAlpin Hotel in New York, Lemberger Togblat, RMS Gerengaria Cunard Line, and Hamburg-Amerika Linie. The correspondence also includes many other fascinating details, such as reporting on soccer matches played between Jewish sports clubs from around Europe.

At the start of the First World War, he happened to be traveling through Great Britain and since he was a citizen of an enemy country (Austria-Hungary), he was imprisoned at the Douglas Alien Detention Camp on the Isle of Man until the end of the war. Returning to independent Poland, he continued his political work in eastern Galicia. In the 1920s, he took several trips to the United States to raise money for the Zionist movement in Poland. From 1922 until 1927, he served as a member of parliament (Sejm) selected from the electoral list “United National-Jewish Parties” (Zjednoczone Stronnictwa Narodowo-Żydowskie). As a parliamentarian, he was a member of the finance committee and public works committee. At the end of his tenure, he returned home to his wife and daughter.

This collection is uniquely valuable because the content is not explicitly political; Frostig was not attempting to convince his wife of anything in particular, but instead offered his honest impressions of the people and activities associated with one of the most important political movements of the twentieth century.

One particularly insightful entry comes from a few letters written around the time Poland departed from its democratic constitutional order. In May 1926, Jozef Pilsudski overturned the elected president and parliament with a military coup in Warsaw. Jewish parliamentarians were somewhat ambivalent to this transformation. On the one hand the end of democracy could mean fewer rights for minorities; on the other hand they saw in Pilsudski a guarantor of equality among the nationalities that made up the polity.

On May 24, 1926, Frostig received an urgent telegram from Warsaw ordering him back to the Sejm so that he could vote on a new president. Though a number of members decided to ignore this call, Frostig did appear and voted for Jozef Pilsudski to become the new president, lending his voice to legitimate the new authoritarian ruler.

A little over a year later, Frostig was scrambling with his colleagues to claw back some measure of power within the parliament. He wrote to his wife after a long night of voting in parliament, recording his exhaustion and apologizing that he would not be home so soon. A look at the parliamentary transcript for that day (July 13, 1927) shows that hidden amidst a 13-hour debate over local government, Jewish parliamentarians and their allies attempted to ensure freedom of assembly and the press. Throughout the following years, Zionist politicians such as Frostig worked to ensure that Pilsudski’s rule never became total.

MLA STYLE
Mazur, Zachary. “Briv funem arkhiv: Mojzesz Frostig, saved from the trash heap of history.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/briv-funem-arkhiv-mojzesz-frostig-saved-from-the-trash-heap-of-history.
CHICAGO STYLE
Mazur, Zachary. “Briv funem arkhiv: Mojzesz Frostig, saved from the trash heap of history.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Mazur

Zachary Mazur is currently Senior Historian at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and a Research Fellow at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of History.