akcja Konin
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X. A conversation with an archive manager, part 2: On a suit filed against Infeld


written by: Magdalena Krysińska-Kałużna, March 2023
translation by: Ada Kałużna

 ‘In the second half of 19th century, Konin fell into a civilizational low. One of the reasons behind this fact were limited communication capabilities.’

 I’m continuing my conversation about the town’s history with the manager of the Konin department of the National Archive in Poznan, Mr. Piotr Rybczyński.

 ‘Until 1922, the city did not have any railway connections. Kutno was the closest railway station. The other nearby station was behind the border, in Strzałkowo. So, all goods had to be delivered some other way.

 ‘The problem is well illustrated by the case of Reymond’s factory, launched after the January Uprising. It kept developing well until it became clear that cannot be converted to industrial manufacturing, because the cost of transporting goods and materials from and to Kutno on carts would make the production cost-ineffective.

 ‘Other local workshops would find it even more difficult to make it. Due to security concerns, whole caravans would travel just to get supplies in Lodz. A bit like in the Wild West. So, Konin was a rather expensive town. Some people preferred to shop in Kalisz or Lodz as goods were cheaper and more varied there.’

 I’m listening about Konin’s history and its Jewish community in a place perfectly suited for such talks, that is in a building belonging to the National Archive, located on 3 Maja Street, once known as Długa Street and – even earlier – as Grobla (“grobla” means “dike” in Polish; one of the arms of Warta River used to flow right behind a parish church there and so the street was really just like a dike back then).

 ‘Smuggling played an important role in the economic model developed at the time. Józef Lewandowski writes about it in a fantastic way. We talked about this a lot together, including the topic of differential rent in the realm of contraband. It was an elaborate practice that both Jews and non-Jews engaged in.

 ‘Yet, Jews dominated trade, percent-wise – including this form of it. All of this suddenly changed after 1918. There was even an anecdote about the time when Pyzdry Town Council expressed satisfaction from the restoration of independence, but under the condition that the border would remain in the old place…’

 ‘Did the economic slump affect the relations between Jews and non-Jews in our area?’ I ask.

 ‘There were disagreements due to competition, but no uproar has ever occurred in Konin, neither in the 1920s, nor before then. There is nothing to attest such an event. Both Richmond and Lewandowski wrote about relationships between these two groups and each of them perceived and described them a bit differently. Richmond was from another world. He wasn’t familiar with the complexities of Polish history. He knew the general history from the perspective of a British resident. Writing about Konin, he at times portrayed it as some sort of a wild country, while at other times he would glorify its image excessively. When he wrote about Jewish Konin, he wrote as if it was a separate, adjacent town, which was simply not true. The picture is more nuanced with Lewandowski, it’s not so black and white.

 ‘You need to remember as well that if a minority was harassed by the majority, it would not remain passive. Infeld* describes one of the conflicts which erupted between Jews and non-Jews, or more specifically: a Jew and a non-Jew. He entered into a conflict with Engineer Piestrzyński that eventually ended up in court.

 ‘The fight started when, due to flooding risk, they closed a bridge on the river. Some Jewish merchants didn’t manage to move their goods on time and they demanded that the bridge be opened again. (The river did indeed destroy that bridge not long after, by the way.) Infeld happened to be passing by at that moment and got into an argument with Piestrzyński.

 ‘Infeld told Piestrzyński that he didn’t want to let the merchants through because they are Jewish, accusing the engineer of antisemitism. And so, Piestrzyński sued Infeld for defamation. Eventually, Infeld commented in his memoir that sometimes he was seeing antisemitism where there was none**.

 ‘They played this antisemitism card sometimes. There is one story that made some blood boil. It was all about the Jewish junior high building and the district and town architect, Zygmunt Lindner.’

 ‘The current building on Wodna Street was constructed in place of the old Jewish junior high school, right?’ I interrupt to confirm. ‘And the building in the back was built once the junior high wasn’t operating anymore?’

 ‘Yes. The building in which the junior high operated was a residential-style building. When the shareholders decided to build a new edifice – on a site right next to the river, within the inundation area, that they had purchased – Lindner refused to grant them the construction permit. That’s when they decided to play dirty and declared he was blocking the construction because of antisemitism.

 ‘That’s how they forced him to issue the permit. But some problems arose once they began the construction. And, once again, people started talking that Lindner granted the permit because he wanted the building to collapse on Jews. According to his son, this whole situation nearly drove Lindner to suicide.’

 ‘Is this the same story Richmond shares when he writes about the attempted sabotage during the school’s construction?’

 ‘What the contractor did is a different story. You need to remember that the building was constructed by Jewish companies. There were no embankments back then and the area was at risk of flooding. Not just the construction site, located right next to the river, by the way. It’s not a coincidence that we had a town hall with such a weird wooden superstructure. Konin was no metropolis, but that’s not why they didn’t build a massive brick tower there. The actual reason was possible subsidence’ Rybczyński explains.

 That’s what Infeld had to say about problems with the junior high construction:

 Local black-hundedists*** got the master bricklayer drunk and convinced him to raise one wall without foundations. What a merry day it will be – believed those who came up with this game – when one day the wall collapses, burying Jewish children and their teachers underneath.

 And yet, Jehovah appeared to be watching over these children. Before the wall could collapse, it started leaning. The builder’s deception came to light. He had to straighten up the wall with machines and bolster it with foundations on his own cost.

 Infeld was not a fan of Konin. He felt like an exile here. He complained about how isolated the town was. We’ll never know if he convinced himself about the existence of black-hundredists, because he found life in Konin so miserable, or if the master bricklayer came up with it to explain away his negligence. Or maybe someone actually wanted the building to collapse. A criminal mystery of interwar Konin that will likely forever remain unsolved.

 * A genius physicist, Leopold Infeld, lived in Konin for two years (1922-1924), acting as the head of the local Jewish junior high school.

** “In this time period I sensed antisemitism everywhere. Maybe even in those places, where there was none.” Leopol Infeld, Szkice z przeszłości. Wspomnienia. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1966, p. 49.

 *** Black Hundreds (Russian: Чёрная сотня): “A Russian political movement that took shape in the early 20th century in the Russian Empire during the 1905 revolution. This movement referred to radically nationalist and conservative ideas. The Black Hundreds were supporters of the idea of tsarist autocracy, they opposed any changes in the system of the Russian Empire, advocated the Russification of all nationalities living in the Empire, spreading Orthodoxy and presented xenophobic attitudes. Black Hundreds as a colloquialism is sometimes used as a synonym for extreme right-wing, fascist and anti-Semitic movements and militias in Europe” (Wikipedia)


The bridge over the Warta River

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