Abraham Levy, my second great grandfather married Ann Lazarus my second great grandmother in Exeter Synagogue on 3rd December 1851 giving as his birthplace “Russia Poland”. Before a decade passes he “disappears” leaving his wife working as a general dealer, looking after their two children and living in her parents’ home. Oddly I had found him decades later once again living with Ann – this time.in Warwickshire. That was almost the entirety of what I knew about him and the mystery of where he had been during those missing years would have remained just a mystery but for a chance discovery made by a cousin of mine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE PARTS 4 AND PRIOR BELOW ⤵︎
On the other hand, why Abraham had left Russia Poland was no mystery at all to me. From time immemorial most people have striven to be free to live a good life without desiring to rule over others but everywhere they have encountered barriers to their freedom erected by the few seeking to dominate the lives of the many. Abraham became part of the trickle of the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe escaping from their ancestral homelands soon to turn into a flood. In 1897 almost 6 million Jews were living in Russia alone, whereas today their number in entire Eastern Europe is of no moment.
The history of any individual member of the 99% desiring only to live a free life, written from that member’s personal perspective, is surely more relevant to today’s 99% than the history of a successful member of the 1% written from that member’s perspective and without throwing any light on how the dominated 99% were living their lives. What follows is the history of Abraham – just one member of the 99% but a fair representation of the oppression of many
Decades before the birth of Abraham, in a power play, Russia, Prussia, and Austria carve up the previously independent Kingdom of Poland without any reference to the wishes of the people living there. By the time Abraham reaches maturity, being of reasonably sound mind, he contemplates his escaping from the antisemitic, despotic controlling rule of the Russian masters over their piece of former independent Poland in which he was born and moving to a freer country…
Following the chance discovery made by my cousin, I became far better able to research the life and times of Abraham. Two towns in the formerly independent Kingdom of Poland emerged as important in the history of his branch of my family. They are Wloclawek and Sochachev. In 1793 both towns become part of Prussia lasting only until their incorporation in 1807 into the Duchy of Warsaw under the control of Napoleon to pass yet again in 1815 this time into the eager hands of Russia… The previously independent Polish population is required first to obey the Prussians, then the French and finally the Russians- all in under 25 years. Abraham was born in Wloclawek soon after the Russians takeover to parents who had been born in Sochachev.
Wloclawek is a port town situated on the banks of river Vistula which has experienced turbulent times and fluctuating fortunes over the centuries. Amazing though it is to contemplate, Abraham is one of the first generations of Jewish births taking place in the town. Jews had been absolutely barred from living in Wloclawek, a bishop owned the town until in 1804 four Jewish families were permitted to settle there. This was not a sign of burgeoning liberalism but because the authorities had decided that their trading abilities and network were needed to ensure the successful commercial development of the town. More Jewish settlers soon arrived and the Jewish population reached 99 by the year 1812. The authorities’ strategy was succeeding but their time in charge was soon to end.
After the fall of Napoleon in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, it was decided without any regard to the wishes of the people living there, that the Duchy of Warsaw should forthwith be a kingdom in “a personal union with the Tsar”. He placed Wloclawek within the Pale of Settlement created by Catherine the Great in 1791 to be the designated area of the Russian Empire in which millions of Jews were permitted to live. The Jewish population of Wloclawek continues to grow under their new rulers. For Jews, this is a case of good news – the community size – and bad news – the Russian reaction!
In 1824 community size is a level such that it’s antisemitic Russians rulers decide warrants the establishment of a separate Jewish quarter – a ghetto – where all Jews must now have their homes – never mind that the town was experiencing the significant commercial growth that they had helped nourish. Factories, having made their first appearance in 1799, are continuing to be built around the town. The Russians had made it the seat of the district in 1816 and a short time later of the whole county. The place in which Abraham is to be born is buzzing! Jewry will hopefully somehow cope with the increasing oppression.
It still seemed that Manes Sochachevsky – Abraham’s father- had made the right decision to move to the increasingly prosperous Wloclowek from his birthplace, in nearby declining Sochachev. He sensibly thought it would be a better place in which to bring up his growing family. He considered the good years of Sochachev – a place with significant Jewish history – to be surely long over.
Sochachev received it’s first mention in historical records of the twelfth century. For many years it was to be a regional center for administration and for merchanting activities. In contrast to Wloclawek, Sochachev was one of the places in which Jews were permitted to live from at least 1427 – albeit with one major hiatus. Fatalistically I have to say it was always just a matter of time before Jews would experience adversity there, delivered by the hands of the prejudiced, as they appeared to do in whatever home towns and villages they happened to be living. Such a time of adversity should always be the time where one seizes control of one’s own life rather than passively submit to an apparently inevitable disaster. Easier said than done!