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Berek Joselewicz

JOSELEWICZ, BEREK (Berek, son of Yosel; c. 1770–1809), colonel of the Polish armed forces, participant in the *Kosciuszko rising and the Napoleonic Wars. Born in Kretinga, Lithuania, he later became court factor to Bishop Massalski of Vilna. In the course of his assignments abroad on behalf of the bishop, he visited Paris on the eve of the revolution and there came into contact with revolutionary ideas. Later Berek and his wife Rebekah settled in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw. The vociferous debate on the status of the Jews then in progress in the Sejm (1788–92) and the movement toward Jewish *emancipation led some Jews to identify with the Polish struggle against the partition of Poland-Lithuania. At first their number was small, but when the insurrection led by Thaddeus Kosciuszko broke out in 1794, numerous groups of Jews joined in the uprising. During the siege of Warsaw, Jewish inhabitants fought alongside the Polish population of the capital against the Russian army. Berek appealed to the Jewish population to join the struggle and fight "like lions and leopards." On September 17, the official Gazeta Rządowa announced that two Jews, Berek Joselewicz and Jozef Aronowicz, had requested permission to create a separate Jewish light-cavalry regiment. Warmly praising this initiative, Kosciuszko granted the request, and a regiment of 500 Jews was organized, some of them volunteers.

After the defeat of the insurrection, Berek fled to Austria and later reached France, where he established contact with Polish emigrés. Joining the French army, he served in the cavalry of Napoleon's Polish Legion. In 1801 his unit crossed the Alps. He was promoted to the rank of captain of a dragoon regiment in the French army and was awarded the cross of the Légion d'Honneur. After the establishment of the grand duchy of Warsaw (1807), his detachment was incorporated into the regular Polish army; becoming a squadron leader, he received the order Virtuti Militari. Berek's military career was greatly hampered by the antisemitism prevailing in army circles, but he was respected by the Polish liberals of his day and was admitted to the aristocratic Masonic lodge Bracia Polscy Zjednoczeni ("United Polish Brethren"). During the Austrian campaign in 1809, he commanded two squadrons of Prince Jozef Poniatowski's army. After fierce resistance against the numerically superior Austrian forces, Berek was killed at Kock in May 1809. He became a hero and was often cited in apologetics in support of assimilation in Poland.

His son Joseph *Berkowicz was also an army officer.


Mstislavskaya, in: Yevreyskaya Starina, 3 (1910), 61–80, 235–52; E. Luniński, Berek Joselewicz i jego syn (1909); Heroische Gestalten juedischen Stammes (1937), 23–40; E. Ringelblum, Żydzi w powstaniu Kościuszkowskim (1938); Kermish, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… N.M. Gelber (1963), 221–9; N.M. Gelber, Aus zwei Jahrhunderten (1924), 9–13; A. Lewinson, Toledot Yehudei Varsha (1953), 94–95. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Balaban (ed.), Album pamiatkowy ku czci Berka Joselewicza (1934).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.