R’ Leib Kusmirak: The Polish Rothschild
From Rags to Riches
Some called him the “Rothschild of Poland,” while others preferred the majestic moniker “King of the Jews.” Both appellations attest to his generous hand, his noble character, and his magnanimous spirit.
Yehudah Leib Kusmirak was born at the turn of the 19th century in Ozorków, near Łódź.1Yechezkel Rottenberg, Lekavod Shabbos 2, p. 453. Others suggest his birthplace was Parnichov. His family traced its lineage to Rabbi Yehuda Löw, the Maharal of Prague.2Sefer Zgierz p. 464. R’ Leib was raised in trying circumstances, his parents straining to make ends meet.
In nearby Parnichov [Parzęczew], R’ Leizer, a student of R’ Akiva Eiger, served as Rabbi. Seeking a match for his daughter Miriam, he chose R’ Leib, who, though not a scholar, was a young man of fine character. R’ Leizer furnished his new son-in-law with a generous dowry of 100 Reichsthaler.
On the first Shabbos after their marriage, R’ Leib noticed his mother-in-law had lit her candles in earthenware candlesticks. When he expressed his surprise at this, since even simple Jews would make an effort to acquire metal or brass candlesticks, his wife admitted that her parents had sold many household provisions in order to procure the dowry they had promised him. (Parnichov was a poor village and R’ Leib’s salary was commensurately meager).
Perturbed by this revelation, R’ Leib decided to return the entire dowry to his father-in-law, committing to support himself through the work of his hands. Later on, when asked how he had merited his extraordinary wealth, R’ Leib would mention this episode.3Rottenberg p. 453-457; Avraham Yitzchok Bromberg, Migdolai Hachassidus 11, p. 59-61.
R’ Leib’s initial foray into the world of entrepreneurship was turbulent. Utilizing his business acumen, R’ Leib teamed up with a local peddler who lent him several hundred gold coins. He wandered the surrounding villages buying and selling various trinkets. Arriving in the village of Glogow, near Luntschitz [Łęczyca], he visited the local landowner who, recognizing a naive novice, offered him a supposedly lucrative proposition, to sell him 500 goatskin pelts. Returning to Parnichov with his haul, however, R’ Leib discovered that he had been misled and that the pelts he had purchased for some 100 gold pieces were worth half that price at best.
Desperate and distraught, he returned to the poritz, begging him to return the money. Impervious to his tears and his plaintive pleas, the swindler set his vicious dogs upon the hapless Jew. R’ Leib was compelled to keep the hides and to pay his way home since the heartless brute refused even to cover the cost of his trip home. Arriving at the outskirts of Parnichov, R’ Leib heard a friendly shout. “Levka! Levka!” It was the poritz of Parnichov, who exclaimed, “I’d like to offer you some forested farmland at a steal!” The tears still glistening in his eyes, R’ Leib looked up. He told the wealthy landowner of his troubles, explaining that he was in no position to conclude such a deal.
“Fear not!” he responded. “I trust you! Farm the land, reap the crops, and pay me off over time.” He reached into his pocket and produced his last three coins, committing to pay the requisite sum of 2000 gold pieces in due course. This providential encounter was a turning point for R’ Leib, and his various enterprises soon grew and prospered.
Years later, R’ Leib’s son-in-law Yaakov Engelman, a prominent gvir in his own right, sought his advice regarding the prospective purchase of the entire village of Glogow. R’ Leib encouraged him to pursue the deal.4Due to new legislation, the evil landowner could no longer beat his workers. Disappointed, he gleefully informed them of an even greater “punishment” he would inflict upon them: the sale of his properties to a Jew. At the elaborate dedication ceremony, with the elite of Polish Jewry in attendance, R’ Leib was overcome with emotion. Through tears of joy, he celebrated the remarkable Providence he had experienced.
“It was on this very spot that I was pursued by those ferocious beasts of the poritz of Glogow!” he proclaimed, “and look where I am today!”5Ohel Aharon, p. 271-273.
Known as the Poritz of Belno, R’ Leib was revered and respected by Jew6Even on the wedding day of his “ben zekunim” – his youngest son, R’ Leib was preoccupied with assisting an unfortunate invalid. It was not a perfunctory gesture, R’ Leib helped another with heart and soul. (See Avraham Bressler, Tzror Habosem p. 145-152.) and gentile alike.7His grandson-in-law Senator Asher Mendelson (Agudas Yisroel – Warsaw) attributed his impeccable command of Polish to his time as a newlywed on R’ Leib’s estate and his interactions with his Polish staff. (Nachliel Vol. 4 Adar 5733 p. 44) He was renowned for his innovative philanthropic endeavors. He established a fund to assist religious Jews seeking to avoid army service and he subsidized the “Army Exemption Tax,” a levy exacted on eligible servicemen who chose to defy draft requirements. At his vast estate at Belno, a bucolic village outside Gostynin, R’ Leib hosted 100 guests each Shabbos. Many prominent scholars and chassidic rebbes were among the visitors who frequented his palatial home.
A loyal chassid and close confidant of R’ Shmuel Abba of Żychlin,8R’ Shmuel Abba Zychlinski (1809-1879) founded the Zichliner Chassidic dynasty. He was known as the Alter Rebbe of Zichlin. R’ Leib devotedly assisted him on many occasions. He served as his emissary on foreign trips, acting as a conduit between his rebbe and other rabbinic leaders.9S.Y. Zevin, Sipurei Chassidim – Torah 2, p. 129-130. He also used his connections with influential officials to intercede on the rebbe’s behalf. When R’ Shmuel Abba was – somewhat justifiably – suspected of Polish nationalist sympathies, R’ Leib successfully convinced their Russian rulers of his patriotism.10S.Y. Zevin, Sipurei Chassidim – Moadim, p. 220-221. Later, he became a devoted follower of another regional rebbe, R’ Yechiel Meir of Gostynin, whom he would transport in his personal coach. A favored destination was the home of the tzaddik of Czechow;11Originally a disciple of the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chiddushei Harim (R’ Yitzchok Meir Alter 1798-1866), R’ Avraham Landau (1784-1875) soon attracted a significant following of his own. Notably, he was the only Chassidic rebbe who chose to maintain the traditional Ashkenazic Nusach, as opposed to the mystical rites adopted by other Chassidic groups. R’ Leib often merited to join R’ Yechiel Meir at his table.12Bromberg p. 58.
His daughter Chava married Yoel Schreiber, son of Cracow chief rabbi Shimon Sofer, and scion of rabbinic royalty.13R’ Yoel’s father Shimon, known as the Michtav Sofer (1822-1883), led Krakow’s Jewish community for several decades. His grandfather, the Chasam Sofer (1762-1839), was chief rabbi of Pressburg. His great-grandfather R’ Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) was chief rabbi of Posen. Notwithstanding this illustrious ancestry, R’ Leib influenced his son-in-law to become an adherent of Chassidus, and emulating his father-in-law, R’ Yoel sought out the rebbe of Gostynin. After the passing of R’ Yechiel Meir, some Chassidim suggested him as a potential successor. In his humility, R’ Yoel rejected their entreaties, instead of attaching himself to the Sfas Emes of Ger.14R’ Yoel remained a lifelong Gerrer Chassid. He frequented the court of the Sfas Emes (R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter 1847-1905), and his son and successor, the Imrei Emes (R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter 1866-1948). (Mipi Sofrim Vesefarim – Avos I p. 59.) His son R’ Moshe Schreiber of Vienna hosted the Imrei Emes on his visit for the Knessia Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel in 1923. The Rebbe regularly stayed at his home on his visits to the city. (“With the Gerrer Rebbe in Vienna” Dos Yiddishe Vort |Nissan 5748.)
The prominent British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore never passed over an opportunity to assist his Jewish brethren. Sir Moses heard that R’ Leib was seeking to create agricultural cooperatives in the Holy Land in which Jewish farmers could seek sustainability while sowing the sacred soil.15R’ Leib was the unlikely progenitor of the Moshav (see fn. 21). Sir Moses looked to encourage his fellow philanthropist and he expressed the wish to move to Jerusalem, to meet R’ Leib there, so that they could exchange ideas and inspiration.
R’ Leib was indeed involved in a promising project, for which his presence in Eretz Yisrael was required. His decision was the cause of countrywide consternation, with Poland’s Jews strongly protesting the impending departure of their beloved benefactor. Other critics soon joined the furor, claiming that his arrival in Eretz Yisrael (coupled with his aspirations) constituted a break with tradition, and would delay the final redemption. R’ Chaim Elazer Waks, a close associate of R’ Leib, asked Sir Moses to assist. Writing through British chief rabbi Nathan Adler, Montefiore heartily endorsed the plan. However, R’ Leib soon fell ill and returned to Poland.16“Moses Montefiore and Leib Kusmirak: The history of Chareidi settlement in Eretz Yisrael” | Doar Hayom Friday 4 October 1936.
In 5632 (1871-72), the Ottoman government announced the sale of thousands of dunams17In Ottoman Palestine, one dunam was 900 meters squared. of land in the Jordan Valley, in the vicinity of the ancient walled-city of Yericho. In an effort led by R’ Meir Auerbach, a prominent Jerusalem rabbi, fifty of the city’s wealthiest Jews formed a collective known as The Society for the Purchase of Yericho, hoping to settle many Jews in the fertile valley. R’ Leib took a special interest in the initiative, contributing a princely 100,000 rubles. But controversy soon arose, as some detractors objected to the project, invoking the millennia-old biblical prohibition of rebuilding the city of Yericho. R’ Leib turned to his mechutan18Through his son-in-law Yaakov Engelman. R’ Waks, requesting his sage counsel. He responded that building on the land would be permissible as the city had been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Thus, it had achieved a new status in the intervening period, and Yehoshua’s curse on any individual who re-established Yericho would no longer apply.
The group faced significant competition, with other faiths also recognizing the holiness of the land. Geopolitical considerations soon came to the fore, with powerful Consuls-general wielding their weight. Although R’ Meir’s group managed to secure a tentative deed of sale, four years of bureaucratic wrangling took their toll, and the Turks nullified the agreement. The precise reasons are unclear, although an intra-party conflict among the prospective buyers may shed some light. Some members believed that the land should be registered in the names of the foreign citizens among the group. Others believed that it was safer to list the Ottoman citizens, as the Turks may have been concerned to see such significant acreage in foreign hands.
R’ Leib redirected his contribution to building housing in Jerusalem’s old city, while the group turned westward, founding the city19Petach Tikva is known as the mother of the Moshavim, as its early residents pioneered a distinct agricultural lifestyle. The name, meaning “Door of Hope”, is derived from a biblical reference to the original proposed location: “… and make the valley of Achor a door of hope.” (Hoshea 2:25). of Petach Tikva.20R’ Meir Auerbach, Imrei Binah – Derashos p. 49-51; Chaim Waks, Nefesh Chayah al hatorah p. 35-38.
In his twilight years, widowed and alone, R’ Leib married Sarah Mendelson. When she passed on, in Eretz Yisrael in 5709 (1948), she was in her hundredth year.21“Sarah Mendelson-Kusmirak passes on in her hundredth year” | Davar 15 October 1948.
In his will, he bequeathed a considerable sum to be distributed to the scholars of Yerushalayim’s Warsaw kollel.22Hatzvi 11 December 1885. On 6 Nissan 5643 (1883), in Parnichov, he returned his soul to his maker at the age of 82.23Hatzfira 22 May 1883.
Some notable descendants of R’ Leib include Rivka Moses, rebbetzin of Kalish, Rabbi Shmuel Chaim Reshevsky of Ozorkow (grandfather of the renowned chess genius Samuel Reshevsky,) and community activist and Warsaw city councilman Yitzchok Engelman.
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