June 22, 2020

Rosa Luxemburg: Searching for Traces

Krzysztof Pilawski, Holger Politt, Evelin Wittich

Documents and testimonies of a Jewish family

Krzyztof Pilawski works as an editor and journalist in Warsaw. Holger Politt is the head of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Regional Office in Warsaw. They spoke with Evelin Wittich, a long-time Rosa Luxemburg scholar. Translated by Wanda Vrasti and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Krzysztof Pilawski (right) searching for traces in Zawiercie. Photo: Holger Politt

Holger Politt, co-author of Rosa Luxemburg: Spurensuche.

Krzysztof Pilawski, co-author of Rosa Luxemburg: Spurensuche.

Memorial stone to the Soviet deportations from Riga. Photo: Holger Politt

Krzysztof Pilawski and Holger Politt are the authors of Rosa Luxemburg: Spurensuche. Dokumente und Zeugnisse einer jüdischen Familie (Hamburg: VSA, 2020), a new volume tracing the roots of Rosa Luxemburg’s family in Poland from the 1830s to the end of World War II. At a time when many Polish politicians denounce Luxemburg as someone who despised her homeland and thus must be banished from public commemoration, Pilawski’s and Politt’s book casts new light on the history of the Luxemburg family in the country, transcending the narrow and often static picture provided in most biographies until now.

For German-speaking readers, the book gives a multi-layered, intimate insight into Rosa Luxemburg’s origins and it is very much hoped that it will also contribute to a better understanding of present day Eastern Europe and its possibilities for enriching Europe. To mark its publication, the authors sat down with Evelin Wittich, herself a long-time scholar of Luxemburg’s life and work, and discussed their motivations behind the project as well as some of the things they found.

EW: Mr. Pilawski, Mr. Politt, you have written a highly interesting book about Rosa Luxemburg’s family and family background. It is generally important for understanding a personality to know their family background. What determined you to undertake such an intensive search for clues in Rosa Luxemburg’s case?

KP: Since 1989–90, there has been an attempt by the dominant tendencies emerging from the Solidarność movement—both liberal and conservative—to champion their own readings of the historical past in order to legitimize their ideological outlooks. According to Orwell, those who control the past are also trying to control the future. In particular, left revolutionary traditions that no longer fit with the dominant narrative were quickly declared enemies and accused of betrayal, so that those who had fought against these traditions could now appear all the more heroic. As a publicist, I have always spoken out in numerous articles and works against abusing history as an arbitrary tool in political struggle. This was one of the decisive reasons for me to start “searching for traces”.

HP: The precise reason, however, was the disturbing process in which the commemorative plaque for Rosa Luxemburg was removed from Zamość on 13 March 2018. The decision came from right at the top, i.e., from Jarosław Kaczyński, who has been exercising a firm grip over the fate of the country since autumn 2015. The memorial plaque has been preserved and should be shown in public again as soon as other political circumstances prevail in Warsaw. Adam Mickiewicz, Rosa Luxemburg’s favourite Polish poet, tells a beautiful parable in his famous Paris lectures. The devil was watching the people sowing seeds. When he thought he was unrecognized, to play a wicked trick, he crept into the field and buried the seeds especially deep into the earth with his long fingers. In a way, Kaczyński and his people pushed us to working on this book.

When it comes to Rosa Luxemburg, she is remembered, above all, for her role in the history of German Social Democracy due to her theoretical and above all political writings and struggles. Her Polish-Jewish origins are generally ignored, although her family socialization is a decisive starting point for her entire life, especially her political life. What particularly struck you in your research?

KP: First of all, the whole search process itself, I mean the search for traces in the literal sense. I often felt like a discoverer of what for me were entirely new connections. I remember that emotional feeling in the archives of being able to hold in my hands Polish or Russian documents no one had seen for more than 100 years. Finding these sources helped us, for instance, to find out the reason for Rosa Luxemburg’s father’s financial difficulties, or to check more carefully into her Warsaw residence at Złota 16, which had been circulating uncritically in the biographies of the last decades.

And of course I was impressed by the various destinations our traces brought us to. Zawiercie—by itself an inconspicuous place on the railway line between Warsaw and Katowice—made a very big impression on me because, first of all, I had never gotten off the train there before, always only travelled through; and second, this completely forgotten place played a formative role in Rosa Luxemburg’s later path into the ranks of the labour movement. Incidentally, many of the issues she was later to include in her dissertation on the industrialization of Poland originated there.

HP: I would add Riga, the remarkable capital of Latvia. We suddenly found ourselves standing in front of an empty, inconspicuous house on a busy street corner in the centre of the city. It had once been the pharmacy belonging to the Jewish family Rosa Luxemburg’s niece, Romana, married into. She and her husband, together with their two children, were deported to Siberia on 15 June 1941 by the Soviet occupying forces because they supposedly belonged to the parasitic capitalist class. This, however, saved their lives, because a short time later, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German occupiers came to Riga and the entire rest of the family was killed.

Rosa Luxemburg’s parents and grandparents were formidable figures in Polish Jewish society, which shaped Rosa Luxemburg’s childhood. She had a deep bond with her parents as well as with her siblings, Józef, Maxymilian, and Anna. What was it about this family in particular that shaped Rosa Luxemburg? And what does the change in the spelling of her name signify?

KP: Rosa Luxemburg grew up in a family of merchants, where her father had to fight, for financial reasons, for his bourgeois status until the end of his life. A family inheritance for the children was out of the question. However, the role of education and knowledge was valued above all else. Rosa Luxemburg’s family home in Warsaw was materially poorer than it seemed on the surface, but it was extremely wealthy in spiritual terms. Rosa Luxemburg came to Zurich as a young woman who had already developed a deep social awareness, was extremely well-read, and, on top of that, had a command of multiple languages (Polish, Russian, German, French) and alphabets.

HP: All of the Luxemburgs proudly adhered to the letter “x” in their surname. This character does not actually exist in the Polish alphabet but can be replaced with the diphthong “ks”. However, in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russian language, which used to be the official and school language in this part of Poland during Rosa Luxemburg’s time, the surname must have always been written with “ks”, because there is no Cyrillic “x”. Unfortunately, after World War II, it became common in Poland to use the spelling “Róża Luksemburg”. Spelling of the family name alternated, however, between using the letters “m” and “n”.

There is a well-known letter from her sister Anna where she asks in astonishment why Rosa now uses Luxemburg instead of Luxenburg, like all the others in the family. When and for what reason Rosa began consistently writing her surname Luxemburg can only be assumed, but solid evidence has yet to be found. Incidentally, the older brother Maxymilian also wrote his surname with the letter “m”. And among the relatives, with the father’s brothers, there are also the two spellings. Later, in the biographical literature, it became naturalized to refer to all the relatives’ surnames and to Rosa using the letter “m“, but this is not accurate from the point of view of the persons concerned, and only corresponds to our habituation.

Natan Löwenstein, Rosa Luxemburg’s uncle, was an influential entrepreneur and co-initiator of the industrialization of Poland. Rosa Luxemburg wrote her dissertation on the industrialization of Poland. Apparently her uncle provided essential access to this topic for her. Do the documents you found provide information about this?

KP: Rosa Luxemburg herself does not provide any written clues to this. Nowhere is her relationship to the industrial pioneer or to his place of residence Zawiercie explicitly mentioned. Only the reconstruction remains, such as a letter from brother Maxymilian to Rosa Luxemburg after the death of their mother, in which those who had devotedly supported the mother in the last days of her life are explicitly highlighted. Among them is the brother and the aforementioned Natan Löwenstein.

Some of his children were about the same age as Rosa Luxemburg, so that closer contact between cousins can be assumed. Rosa Luxemburg herself confirms this in a letter in which she mentions the cousin who was studying in Zurich at the same time as her. So she knew the world of the Löwensteins in Zawiercie since childhood. This is a very important biographical detail, especially in connection with her famous doctoral thesis.

HP: And there is another thing connected with Natan Löwenstein and Zawiercie. Biographers always note with some surprise that Rosa Luxemburg suddenly developed an interest in geology during her imprisonment in World War I, that is, in the lifeless world of stones, rocks, and primeval materials. She had acquired this interest as a young girl in Zawiercie because experienced geologists frequented her uncle, the mine owner Natan Löwenstein. Furthermore, the town is situated in a geologically very interesting area.

Rosa Luxemburg was well-informed about both czarist-occupied Poland and Russia very well. This enabled her to make accurate assessments about, for instance, the national question during der involvement in the German and Western European social-democratic movements. Can these assessments provide clues for the European Union today?

HP: She of course knew far more about Poland than she did about Russia, where she had never been except for the one famous exception in late summer 1906, which lasted only a few days. However, in German Social Democracy, she was demonstrably one of those who was the most well-informed about the internal conditions of the Russian labour movement, but this was largely due to the immediate, often conflict-ridden proximity of the Polish and Russian labour movements. Still, her take on what was then called the “national question” was complex, much more complex than the views of many of her fellows within the European labour movement. Here she quite simply demonstrated the specificity of her background. Deeply rooted in the German and thus at the same time Western European labour movement, the often foggy, seemingly impenetrable conditions in the Eastern part of the continent were anything but foreign to her.

If we were to judge her today, she could best be considered an exemplary European in this respect. She would stake everything on the interlocking, increasingly merging civil societies of the EU member-states, regardless of nationality! This process—contradictory, challenging, and difficult at the same time—would have been the decisive battlefield for her. Crawling back to the nation-state structure, which she certainly regarded as exhausted, she would have rejected as regressive.

In present-day Poland, Rosa Luxemburg is rejected by the government and by large sections of the population both because of her views on Poland’s national independence at the time and for being a “Communist”. Do you want to help correct this image with your documentation? After all, Rosa Luxemburg is an internationally respected personality of whom broad circles in Polish society could also be proud.

KP: Rosa Luxemburg is one of the victims of the historical revisionism I was mentioning in the beginning. Perhaps the most prominent victim. The process of purifying public space of the remnants of Communism, as it is so nicely called, began in 1989–90, though it reached a completely new stage when the National Conservatives took office in autumn 2015. Even at that point, Rosa Luxemburg Streets had already disappeared in many places. What was left then became a target for those now in power.

This process was based on the tacit assumption that everything “Communist” was bad, anti-Polish, and treacherous from the outset. Anti-Communism became an integral part of the state’s symbolic policy. There are other perspectives but of course they have a hard time making themselves heard. So for the time being, our task is to record things carefully, to find, and secure the existing documents and sources, and finally to use them as prerequisites for further elaborations.

HP: There is a widespread prejudice that Rosa Luxemburg was against Poland’s independence. The ruling national conservatives have turned this into a myth that she was an incorrigible “enemy of Poland”. It is true, however, that Rosa Luxemburg, especially in her Polish writings from the period before World War I, ruled out the possibility of restoring Poland’s state autonomy or independence. She was convinced that only a war between the three partitioning powers of Poland—a war between Russia on the one hand and Germany and Austria on the other—could change this. Such a war, however, would be a world war, the outbreak of which the European labour movement had taken on the task of preventing. She simply did not have the time to adjust to the new situation that arose after the end of the First World War.

The testimonies of Rosa Luxemburg’s family history read like a documentation of Jewish life in Eastern Poland, where the work of Jewish families influenced all of society. In the Luxenburg/Löwenstein family there were rabbis, industrialists, doctors, and lawyers. It was also influential in art and politics. The families were affected by both world wars, the mass murder in Katyn, the Auschwitz and Majdanek extermination camps, labour camps in the Soviet Union, but also by emigration. Do such family stories play a role in Polish public discourse today?

KP: When you look at the Polish book market, it is striking that autobiographical and biographical literature has occupied an outstanding place for 30 years. To a large extent, this also includes memoirs by Polish Jews, biographies of Jewish people. What are less well-received are books that deal with the tradition of the revolutionary workers’ movement, as there are gaps that cannot always filled by reference to the official politics of history. Perhaps many publishers shy away from taking a financial risk that they cannot predict. 

HP: Within this context there is one family biography that should receive a special mention. Stefan and Witold Leder have managed to publish a history of their family both in German and later in Polish. Their father, Zdzisław Leder, was a close comrade of Rosa Luxemburg’s in the struggle, and later fell victim to the repression in the Soviet Union. Henryk Walecki also plays a remarkable role in this prize-winning family biography. Walecki also visited Rosa Luxemburg at the end of November 1918, as he was making his way back to Warsaw from Zurich. Walecki was thus one of the last Polish comrades that Rosa was to meet after her return to Berlin and before she was murdered. Walecki himself was later murdered in the Soviet Union.

Krzysztof Pilawski and Holger Politt (eds.)
Rosa Luxemburg: Spurensuche. Dokumente und Zeugnisse einer jüdischen Familie 
 VSA | 152 pages | hardcover | colour photos | 2020 | €19,80  
 ISBN 978-3-96488-005-5