From the Archive: A Wilkes-Barre matron’s thwarted gift to Polish city’s ‘poor Jews’


Like many small cities in the United States, the economically depressed Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is home to a dwindling Jewish community, JTA reported this week.

In the late 1920s, however, when the northeast Pennsylvania city was a coal-mining hub and double the population of today, a prosperous American Jewish resident — Mrs. Leonard Cohen (presumably no relation to the latter-day musician) — bequeathed $100,000 to the Polish city of Bydgosc to administer a fund for its “poor Jews.”

In an unusual turn of events that JTA followed closely, the municipal council  of the northern Poland city in November 1928 rejected the money, saying it had no poor Jews. But soon after, Bydgosc’s chief rabbi countered that within the city’s Jewish population of 20,000 lived many needy Jews, as JTA reported:

Many old men and women cannot find accommodations in the home for the aged, because it is overcrowded. The English consulate has intervened in the matter, the Chief Rabbi stated, and it was ascertained that the refusal to accept the legacy may be ascribed to anti-Semitic bias.

The following February the council, at the Jewish community’s request, revisited the matter, and opened it up to public discussion, even though the city government “again recommended to the city council not to accept the bequest.”

Ultimately, the council voted to accept the gift after all and “agreed that there are ‘poor Jews’ in the city for whose benefit the American fund might be put into operation.”

The remains of the Bydgosc's synagogue, as displayed on Virtual Shtetl. (Marcin Dudek/Virtual Shtetl)

The remains of Bydgosc’s synagogue, as displayed on Virtual Shtetl. (Marcin Dudek/Virtual Shtetl)

What became of Mrs. Cohen’s endowment, which would be worth over $1 million in today’s dollars, when the Nazis invaded Poland a decade later, is not clear. What is clear, is that by 1940, the city had no Jews, whether rich or poor. According the the Virtual Shtetl website, the majority of Bydgosc’s Jews managed to flee before and immediately after the outbreak of World War II, but the few who stayed behind were murdered in the fall of 1939. Soon after, the city’s synagogue and cemeteries were destroyed, and Bydgosc even became the site of a concentration camp.

Interestingly, while the fortunes of Mrs. Cohen’s Wilkes-Barre have plummeted in recent decades, Bydgosc has become, according to Wikipedia, “one of Poland’s most important economic centres,” thanks in part to an “industrial and technology park” established there in 2004.

Perhaps one day one of its residents will bequeath a fund to the “poor Jews” of Wilkes-Barre.


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