When Ksawery Met Moses

This is a guest post by Wiesiek Powaga, translator of Palestine for the Third Time, a book of reportage originally published in Poland in 1933 by Ksawery Pruszyński, a young reporter working for a Polish newspaper on assignment in Mandate Palestine. Here, Powaga introduces Pruszyński and his formative friendship with Mojżesz Pomeranz.

Manuscript of Ksawery Pruszyński’s speech delivered on 25 November 1947 at the final session of the Ad Hoc Committee, UN temporary headquarters, Flushing Meadows, New York. Photo: Wiesiek Powaga, 2019; the Pruszyński Family Archives

In a scene from Natalie Portman’s film A Tale of Darkness and Love (2015), based on Amos Oz’s book of the same title published in 2004, a group of Jews, adults and children, mill around anxiously in the dark backyard of a Jerusalem townhouse listening to a radio broadcast from New York. They are waiting for news on the vote on Resolution 181 which is taking place at the United Nations. When the result finally comes through, the crowd in the backyard erupts in joyous celebrations—the world has formally recognized the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and their own state. The celebrations quickly spill across the town, across the country, across the world.

It is 29 November 1947. The man responsible for shaping that resolution and navigating it successfully to its final vote was a Polish diplomat, journalist and writer, Ksawery Pruszyński, the chairman of Subcommittee One, one of two at the Ad Hoc Committees on the Question of Palestine. It was the Committee’s report and its recommendations for the legal basis and borders proposed for a new Jewish state that formed the backbone of Resolution 181. Perhaps Pruszyński’s impassioned speech in its support, delivered to the General Assembly, was also broadcast back to Jerusalem. Perhaps there were even a few people in that crowd who knew his name. Yet, despite being flooded with telegrams of congratulations and thanks from Jews and Jewish organizations around the world—or because of them—practically on the same day Pruszyński was quietly removed from his diplomatic post and the memory of his speech, of his role at the UN and his book began to fade, washed over by the joy of celebrations, the blood spilled in the ensuing wars, the sweat shed on building sites. Following his tragic death in a car accident in 1950 it fell into oblivion. Oddly, there is no trace of it in the archives of the Polish Foreign Office, nor in the archives of the UN. And even though the date 29 November 1947 has come down in history of Israel as important as the date of the actual founding of the state on 14 May 1948, the “famous” Pruszyński’s speech was quickly reduced to not more than a family legend.

Palestine: Plan of Partition, proposal submitted by Subcommittee One, chaired by Ksawery Pruszyński. Photo: Wiesiek Powaga, 2019; the Pruszyński Family Archives

Pruszyński was invited to work on the Committee on the strength of the book he had written some fifteen years previously as a budding journalist. The book—Palestine for the Third Time—a collection of his reportage from the Mandate Palestine, was published in Poland in 1933 under a title which seemed to be anticipating the historic vote on November 29. It is a very special book. A rare historic document and a vivid picture of modern Israel in the making. Written “on the knee,” under the pressure of the need to file regular dispatches, it seizes the moment and froths with immediacy of an eyewitness account. It captures the early, formative years of the future State of Israel, introducing a gallery of historic characters who later made a significant contribution to modern Israel politics, culture and economy. But it is not merely a report from a building site, even if it dutifully shows Tel Aviv rising before our eyes from the desert sand, or paints a panorama of new road networks and describes plans for a modern bustling sea port. Pruszyński’s open mind and heart, his enthusiasm and sympathy for the fellow travelers, his burning curiosity to learn more about them are deeply moving and bring the whole scene to life. The book must be one of the earliest collections of modern Israel’s founding myths, recorded years before the actual founding of the state. The scene from Oz’s book (and Natalie Portman’s film) is in many ways a fitting afterword for this book.

When Ksawery met Mojżesz—the place and the time

Ksawery Pruszyński went to Mandatory Palestine on a mission—to find out whether the Zionist dream of recreating the Land of Israel as a modern state had any chance of realization. For a budding young journalist, barely out of college—in 1933 just twenty-six years old—a reporting assignment in an exotic country was a dream job, but in this instance the dream was not his and the job was more than just a routine commission.

He left Poland in spring 1933, travelling to Haifa on the Romanian ship Dacia from Constanța. He returned after five weeks in early May when his reporting from Palestine, a series of 22 articles, was already appearing in Słowo (23 April-8 July). As planned, he turned these articles into a book, Palestyna po raz trzeci, which was published under the Słowo imprint in October 1933. The title alluded to the three periods in which the area had had an impact on world history: the first Jewish commonwealth, the period of the Crusades and—possibly?—the present.

This all happened in the space of ten months. Ksawery’s commitment and focus on the job was total from start to finish; some people even thought the work betrayed signs of haste. True, he was working under the pressure of time, but what actually got young Ksawery so excited about the Mandatory Palestine in the first place?

That first place was Kraków in the early 1920s, where he met his friend Mojżesz Pomeranz, a fellow law student at the Jagellonian University. The time was the early years of Poland’s hard-won independence after 123 years of partitions during which it disappeared from the map of the world, at least as a state.

Mojżesz—then Marek—came from an assimilated middle-class Jewish family but as part of the small body of Jewish students he too was subject to all manners of antisemitic abuse by the rightwing nationalist youth. It was during one of the street skirmishes outside the University, when Ksawery intervened and was wounded, that the two met and their life-long friendship began. It was also the beginning of their continuous discussion about the place of Jewish minority in the newly independent state and the role of the state in accommodating it into the reborn Poland, which also wanted to be a modern democracy. And about realistic prospects of such programs for the Polish Jews. And these were not clear, especially after Piłsudski’s May coup d’état and the subsequent abandonment of the Polish-Jewish Agreement, the first and last program of emancipation of Jews as citizens of modern Poland. It was their discussions that resulted in Pomeranz’s taking up a definitive anti-assimilationist and pro-Zionist position which he presented in an article “Israel Calls for Justice,” published in Bunt Młodych (Rebellion of the Young) edited by Jerzy Giedroyc, later the editor of the influential magazine Kultura, published in France 1947-2000.

Mojżesz Pomeranz and Ksawery Pruszyński in Kraków in the 1930s. Photo: Anon, from: “Mojżesz i Ksawery”, Twój Styl, Warszawa, 1999

Mojżesz Pomeranz in Tel Aviv in 1948. Photo: Anon, from: “Mojżesz i Ksawery”, Twój Styl, Warszawa, 1999

Pruszyński’s Palestine met with a lively reception, especially among the Jewish readers and of all shades of political creed. In the Polish-language Zionist newspaper Chwila (The Moment) published in Lvov, its editor-in-chief Leon Weinstock wrote: “Palestine, as seen and described by Ksawery Pruszyński, has an important explanatory and publicity mission to fulfil. Both in Jewish and Polish homes. And that series of reportage from Palestine is certainly among the best. It fully deserves to be read in every home in Poland” (Chwila 1933 nr 5210).

The book made him known also in the Polish journalistic circles, advancing him at the tender age of twenty-six into the top league of Polish reportage, already well established by the elders of the genre, such as Józef Mackiewicz or Melchior Wańkowicz, who laid the foundation of the future school of Krall and Kapuściński. It is one of those cruel twists of history that his name, the book, and his work for the UNSCOP disappeared from memory—political, literary—so quickly, fading almost without a trace.

Sadly, the same, or even worse fate has befallen the name of his friend, Mojżesz Pomeranz, to whom Ksawery dedicated his book. It was their discussions that inspired Ksawery’s trip to Palestine, and their friendship lasted all their lives. Mojżesz Pomeranz managed to emigrate to Mandate Palestine before the war but his parents and brother Natan perished in Shoah. He died 1949; after his death his wife changed hers and their children’s name to the Hebrew Hadar. In November 1947 he wrote to Pruszyński:

“I cannot express in this letter the admiration and enthusiasm inspired by both of your speeches. Someone said that if you came to Palestine, people would greet you with flowers, like another Balfour, only with greater love.”

Copy of the letter sent by Mojżesz Pomeranz to Ksawery Pruszyński on the eve of the UN vote on Resolution 181, dated 28 November 1947. Photo: Wiesiek Powaga, 2019; the Pruszyński Family Archives

Indeed, Jerusalem Telegraphic Agency delivered regular reports on the work of UNSCOP and Pruszyński’s Partition Committee, as it became known. Yet, his name and the story of their friendship would have also slipped through the cracks of history if it weren’t for another book: Mojżesz i Ksawery by Mieczysław Pruszyński, Ksawery’s brother, and a series of accidental discoveries. Following my work on Ksawery’s other book of reportage from the Spanish Civil War (Inside Red Spain, Warsaw, 1937), I discovered his Palestine and then his brother’s book, which sent me on a quest through the archives and libraries in Warsaw, New York, Moscow, and Sankt Petersburg in search of the “famous” speeches. The dearth of information in historical sources fed the growing doubts if Pruszyński’s activities at the UN were indeed not more than a family legend when in December 2019, in a file handed to me by Ksawery’s daughter, Marysia, I found the handwritten text of the speech. Then, during the Covid lockdown, when sifting through the UN Photo Library, on one of the pictures of the General Assembly listening to a Gromyko speech I spotted a familiar face. That led me to a little trove of photographs from the sittings of Sub-committee One, gathering dust in the archives.

To cut the long story short, in the end I found myself on a mission to save the memory of an amazing book, a witness of history in the making, and of Ksawery and Mojżesz, whose friendship led them from a dream to the real Eretz Israel. I believe it’s worth saving not just as a fascinating story or to revisit what seemed a shut and dusted chapter in history but also to revive the memory of a forgotten friendship.

The last chapter of the story still remains to be written. Mojżesz and Ksawery lived and cultivated their friendship throughout their lives and they died almost at the same time. It would be interesting to see how Mojżesz and his family story developed in the new state of Israel they so passionately argued for, how the accidental meeting that launched a young reporter on his first great journey that led him to the historic moment of founding the new State of Israel—the third Palestine he had foreseen in his book. The question is to what extent this new state matches the dream he shared with his friend Mojżesz, and whether Mojżesz’s children follow their father’s dream. Or what in fact happened to them as they joined the mass of Unamuno’s Intrahistoria. It would only be fair to bring them out of the shadows of history and pass on to them the recognition of the role Mojżesz Pomeranz played in forming Pruszyński’s thinking and creating the book which inspired so many Polish Jews to head for a new home.

Appendix: Ksawery Pruszyński’s Speeches to the UN

As chair of Subcommittee One, one of the two set up by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Question of Palestine in October 1947, Pruszyński gave two important speeches. Unfortunately, neither of these speeches have been archived in any official records of the UN or the Polish Foreign Office and their full original texts have remained unknown to the public, as well as historians, for over seventy years.

The first speech was delivered on 25 November 1948 at the closing session of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, when the committee delivered its final report. In his speech Pruszyński addressed questions and issues raised by the other members of the committee, explaining the difficulties involved in arriving at the final version of the proposal and defending it as the only possible, if flawed, compromise. The text presented in the book is a faithful transcription of Pruszyński’s handwritten version, preserving his original style and slightly flawed English, just as he delivered it. The manuscript was only discovered in December 2019 in the private archive of Mieczysław Pruszyński (1910–2005). It is the first publication of the English original in extenso.

The second speech was delivered on November 29 in Lake Success when the proposal contained in the report of Subcommittee One was put to the vote before the General Assembly as Resolution 181. The text presented in the book is prepared by the author for publication in the Polish-language Zionist paper Opinia in 1948; the full text of the original speech is yet to be found.

An extract from the final speech delivered by Ksawery Pruszyński on the 29th of November, 1947:

“No other nation understands better than the Polish nation the longing for one’s own land, the land that belonged to one’s ancestors, where one should not have to suffer the fate of an intruder or pilgrim. This is the reason why the Polish nation understands the struggle of Palestinian Jewry. The right each nation has to sovereign existence on the land of its ancestors—that is the international rule supported by the Polish nation. Independence, the right to one’s own national state—this is a need which we Poles understand perhaps better than others, which is why today we understand the demands and aspirations of the Jews in Palestine and beyond, just as we understand every thirst for freedom, every struggle for freedom.”

Members of the Jewish Agency delegation study a map of proposed partition of Palestine at United Nations interim headquarters at Flushing Meadows, New York, 12 November 1947. Left to right are: Dr. Nahum Goldmann, David Horovitz, Emanuel Neumann and Rabbi Wolf Gold. United Nations. Photo: UN Photo Library, # 324440

Second session of the United Nations General Assembly opens in Flushing Meadows, 16 September 1947, United Nations (Flushing Meadows), New York. Items on the 63-point agenda include the Palestine Question. Ksawery Pruszyński 5th in the right bottom row. Photo: UN Photo Library, #86350

Wiesiek Powaga was born in Poland. He settled in London after the imposition of martial law of 1981. After graduating with a degree in philosophy at King’s College, London, he worked as a carpenter, translator, correspondent for a music magazine, and as senior editor for a UK publisher. He has translated fiction, poetry, and drama, occasionally script-writing for radio and tv.

This post contains extracts from an article to be published in the forthcoming volume 35 of Polin, “Promised Lands: Jews, Poland and the Land of Israel.”

Palestine for the Third Time is now available from ASP or wherever you buy books.