The Poles History Forgot – Politics, Glamour & Columbus
In this article, I’ll go over some of the most well-known Political figures of the world and show how they have some roots that can be traced back to Poland.
Want to see the first post in this series? Check it out here.
The 2nd of the series can be found here.
The Israeli Poles?
Before 1 September 1939, that seismic day in world history, Poland was once home to the largest Jewish population in the world – the figure generally agreed upon is around three million. Similarly, Zionism and its political base in all its forms was heavily entrenched in Poland.
Zionism might have been hatched in Vienna but it was from Warsaw it was exported.
It is therefore no surprise that not only a large majority of Israel’s citizens but also founding fathers once heralded from the land known in Jewish lore as Polin.
I could spend all year surveying the Polish mark on Israeli arts, politics and sports. That’s for another article. Besides, it’s getting really dark and cold in this genealogical library. The security guard keeps giving me the mean eye.
Instead, I’ll just focus on a selection of Israeli Prime Ministers with Polish roots. (FYI, there are many more.)
Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister was born Dawid Grün on 16 October 1886 in Płońsk, just up the river from Warsaw. Both of his parents, Avigdor and Sheindel Gruen, were also born in Płońsk and all four of his grandparents were born, raised and laid to rest in Polish soil. He studied at the University of Warsaw.
After being arrested twice during the Russian Revolution of 1905, he emigrated a year later to Ottoman Palestine.
Mystifying and adventure-packed, Begin’s story would not look out of place in one of Joseph Conrad’s novels – as his own memoirs White Nights attest. He spoke and wrote in Polish, though Yiddish was most likely his mother tongue.
He loved to quote Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, recruiting its firebrand message to his own Zionist cause. He is also an alumnus of University of Warsaw, having completed a law degree in 1935.
Israel’s sixth prime minister was born Mieczysław Wolfovitch Biegun on 16 August 1913 in Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus) on the Bug. It was renamed Brześć after WWI and incorporated into the Second Polish Republic.
Begin’s father was a local timber merchant and his mother (née Kosovski) descended from a famous rabbinical family in the region. Though the genealogical record is incomplete, it is highly likely that his family held firm and stable roots to the area.
Begin’s odyssey began at the outbreak of WWII. He fled Warsaw for the sanctuary of Wilno (Vilnius), only to fall into the hands of the NKVD a year later and find himself in a gulag in Siberia.
He was saved by the Sikorski–Mayski Agreement, which allowed Polish nationals to link up with Anders’ Army via the Persian Corridor. In May 1942, Begin reported for duty in Palestine as a corporal officer cadet.
The joint winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and Israel’s ninth prime minister also came from good Polish-Jewish stock. He was born Szymon Perski on 2 August 1923 in Wiszniew, which currently lies in Belarus but was well and truly in the Second Polish Republic at the time of his birth.
His mother’s family (née Melzer) originated from the Wiszniew area, while his timber-merchant father was born in Wołożyn, which was known until the beginning of the 20th century as the ‘privately owned city’ of Count Tyszkiewicz. Other strains of his family came from Wilno.
The Perski household was a melting pot of languages with Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian floating about, although Peres studied in Polish at school. Peres and his family emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1934.
The Glamorous Poles?
For years Hollywood wondered what the secret was to Max Factor’s makeup. Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford couldn’t get enough of his flexible grease-based foundation that never cracked or caked under the bright lights of Hollywood. It turns out the true secret to his makeup was Polish with a good foundation of Łódź.
The cosmetics tsar was born Maksymilian on 15 September 1872 in Zduńska Wola to Abraham and Cecylia Faktorowicz. His mother (née Wrocławska or Tandowska) died when Factor was just two years old, leaving Abraham to support and care for his ten kids in between shifts at the local textile mill.
Young Max was forced to work selling oranges at the age of eight. A year later he was apprenticed to a wig maker and cosmetician in Łódź. By fourteen he was beautifying the well-to-do of Moscow.
After serving as the official beautician to the Russian royal family, Factor snuck out of the Kremlin with his wife and three children, sailed across the Atlantic and reported on Ellis Island on 25 February 1904 – with a grand total of 500 bucks in his back pocket.
Looking at his background, it’s no surprise that Factor once proclaimed: ‘You are not born glamorous. Glamour is created.’
In 1965 Time Magazine stamped Rubinstein, the cosmetics queen, one of the richest women in the world. She was born on 25 December 1872 in Kraków to the shopkeeper Naftali Hertz and Gitel Shaindel Rubinstein. Her mother’s family (the Silberfelds) were Krakówians through and through, while her father’s family came from Krosno County.
At the age of twenty Helena left Poland for Australia where she would ultimately launch her cosmetic empire. The secret ingredient to her famous skin lotion christened ‘Crème Valaze’ was apparently herbs imported ‘from the Carpathian Mountains’ – that is, the Tatra Mountains shadowing her native Kraków.
The New World Discovering Pole?
Granted, this is the most tenuous claim out of the bunch. And there’s probably only 1 ½ pierogi up for grabs. But there is a small chance that Christopher Columbus could have well been the son of King Władysław III or the grandson of Władysław II Jagiełło of Grunwald fame.
The mystery centres around two extra toes, a missing body in Bulgaria and the sudden appearance of a flaxen-haired knight on the Portuguese Island of Madeira.
As the story goes, King Władysław III of Poland and Hungary was busy defending Christendom from the heathen Ottomans in Eastern Bulgaria when he fell at the Battle of Varna in 1444. For some reason his body was never identified. Strange that. If his gilt armour and grand ostrich plume were not enough, a quick look at the feet of each strewn body would have uncovered the king, no matter how mangled his body might have been.
You see, the king was a freak of nature, that is, he had twelve toes.
This Houdini act has since fuelled the hypothesis that the king had staged his own death so he could shoot off to Madeira for some much-earned R&R on the beach, away from those pesky Ottomans and usurpers in court. There he supposedly took on the name of Henrique Alemao, flogged himself off as a Knight of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai and married into the Portuguese aristocracy.
The product of this reinvention, so Manuel Rosa of Duke University contends in his book Columbus ‒ The Untold Story, was Segismundo Henriques, aka Christopher Columbus, aka the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, aka the Dude who Discovered the New World.
That would mean that Christopher Columbus was not the son of a humble Genoese weaver nor the progeny of a German-cum-Portuguese knight. No, he was none other than a prince of the Jagiellonian dynasty with the keys to Wawel Castle.
Wait, wait, you should at least hear the man out. Rosa draws his bold claim from twenty-five years of research, including DNA analysis and a vast archive of artefacts and sources collected from all around the world.
In his book, Rosa first points out the physical similarities between Columbus and King Władysław III. Columbus was said to be tall with strawberry-blond hair, pale blue or green eyes and a fair complexion. King Władysław III was Polish/Lithuanian. Case closed.
Columbus’ original coat of arms featured gold anchors set against a blue background, which was exactly like Henrique Alemão’s. And guess what, the House of Jagiełło also boasted a coat-of-arms made up of a blue shield embossed with a double golden cross. Coincidence?!
There were a few sightings of Władysław III on Madeira in the years after the Battle of Varna. Two Polish monks were sent to Portugal in 1450 on a reconnaissance mission and they apparently returned to Kraków with confirmation that the king was in fact alive on the island.
The title of Alemão roughly means German in Portuguese, but it was also designated to anyone arriving from north of the Rhine, i.e. Poland. Later in the 17th century, the Royal Spanish Court had officially recorded that the Alemao line had descended from Polish nobility.
Lastly, there are a few discrepancies in Columbus’ official biography that just don’t add up – actually, most of the history is murky. I mean, just how did the son of a Genoese artisan marry a Portuguese noblewoman (Filipa Moniz Perestrelo)?
That just didn’t happen in 15th-century Europe. And where did this commoner get the money, time and connections to learn Spanish, Portuguese and Latin, as well as master cosmography, cartography, theology and navigation? The son of Henrique Alemão, on the other hand, would have had access to all of the above.
Whatever you want to believe, it does beg the very real and pressing question whether the Admiral of the Ocean Sea really discovered the New World in a Maluch.
An Honourable Mention to …
Angelique was born in Bremen to Sławomir and Beata Kerber, who are both from the Poznań area. She speaks Polish fluently and holds Polish citizenship. She honed her tennis skills at her grandfather’s tennis centre in Puszczykowo. Apparently, she not only owns a house in Poland but she calls Poland home.
It’s no surprise that Kerber and Wozniacki are best friends on tour. They have almost identical backgrounds. Caroline was born in Denmark to Polish parents. Her father is a former pro footballer and her mother used to play pro volleyball. No doubt all her grandparents are Polish. She also speaks Polish fluently. I wonder what language Caroline and Angelique speak together on the court?
All four grandparents came from Małopolska. She’s also done her fair share of promoting Polish cuisine to the world.
The FIFA World Cup’s top goal scorer of all time was born Mirosław Marian on 9 June 1978 in Opole to Josef Klose and Barbara Jeż. And guess what, his parents were both professional Polish athletes. With only two words of German in his back pocket, Klose moved to Germany in 1986 to live with his father. To this day, he and his Polish wife Sylwia speak Polish at home with their twin sons.
Another German footballing legend born in Poland to athletic parents. The World Cup champion was born Łukasz Józef Podolski on 4 June 1985 in Gliwice. His family promptly emigrated to Germany when he was just a toddler. He speaks Polish fluently and married Monika Puchalski in Kamionna. He’s apparently a fan of KS Górnik Zabrze – but we won’t hold that against him.
Israel’s current prime minister might have gone by the surname of Mileikowsky had his grandfather not changed the name in 1920 after immigrating from Poland to Palestine. Netanyahu’s historian father was born Benzion Mileikowsky in 1910 in Warsaw.
The Harvard historian and former head of the CIA’s Team B was born Ryszard Pipes on 11 July 1923 in Cieszyn to a Jewish family. His father Marek fought as a Polish legionnaire in WWI. At the age of sixteen, Pipes and his family fled Warsaw in October 1939 for the safety of America. Pipes was awarded the medal Bene Merito in 2010 for ‘promoting Poland abroad’.
Red in name and politics, Rosa was also red-and-white in heritage. The ill-fated Marxist theorist, pacifist and revolutionary socialist was born Róża Luksemburg on 5 March 1871 in Zamość. She completed her Matura in Warsaw, but not long after she was on the run to Switzerland with an arrest warrant hanging over her head. Though she’s known for her fiery polemics in German, Polish was her native tongue.
Results and Conclusion
There you have it, the inaugural Pierogi Scale of Polishness.
In the combined pot, we have :
- thirteen Oscars
- two Nobel Peace Prizes
- two Nobel Prizes in Literature
- one Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
- three Tennis Grand Slams
- one FIFA World Cup and
- the discovery of no less than one New World.
Is it a case of what could have been? Probably not.
Fate doesn’t work that way. But it could certainly be a case of what could be.
As demonstrated here, almost all the candidates were just as much Polish as they were American, English, German, Danish or indeed Israeli. And so it would only be fair that Poland should claim at least some of the spoils. It’s just a matter of opening the gates and embracing them.
What does this all mean? Don’t ask me. But if there is anything to be gleaned from this mad exercise, it’s that the definition of a Pole or Polishness is a far more complicated undertaking than it might first appear.
In this instance, I tried to quantify the almost unquantifiable by offering a system based on a continuum or a scale. But does a seven-pierogi Pole deserve more recognition as another falling in around the mid pierogi range? I’ll let you answer that question.
Just keep in mind, if you were born in Poland between 1945 and 1990, the chances are that you would lay claim to seven pierogi, which would put you in the same company as Prof. Andrew Schally, Prof. Casimir Funk, Menachem Begin and Richard Pipes.
Next time, we might look at all the honorary Poles out there, such as Norman Davies and Corporal Wojtek.
So how many pierogi could you throw in your Polish pot?