My father, G.R.H.S., left Swinchan, Vilna, and came to London over 70 years ago; and a year or so afterwards, my mother, G.R.H.S., followed, with the four children – two sisters,my brother, and myself.
Michael Philip Davis, the author of the diary and my great grandfather (for convenience I will refer to him as Michael from now on) signs at the end of the diary with the year 1951. Here he writes that his father left 70 years before hand. On that basis it seems that his father, Tuvia, left swinchan around ~ 1880. According to the 1911 UK census (more on that later), Aleck Posimensky was born in Russia on 1888 and Leah Posimensky was born in England on 1892, so that narrows the arrival to England to somewhere between 1888 and 1892.
what he calls “Swinchan” is probably the city that is called Švenčionys today.
Swinchan or Svencionys (I will call it Swinchan like in the diary from now on), in Hebrew שווינציאן and in Yiddish סווינציאן is located in what is today north east Lithuania, near the border with Belarus, a distance of about 85 KM from Vilna.
During the time we are talking about from around 1860 the birth of Michael’s father, Tuvia, to the time the family left for England, the town was part of the pale of settlements and belonged to Russia. Pale of settlements was the term given to a region of Imperial Russia in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed. Beyond that Jewish permanent residency was generally prohibited.
The population of jews in Swinchan peaked around the year 1880 and reached about 4500 people.
Jews of Swinchan
Seems like the Jewish population of Swinchan consisted of the relatively rich intelligentsia. Many important figures in the Jewish history came from Swinchan, like:
- Arkady Kramer – Socialist leader known as the ‘Father of the Bund’.
- Mordecai Kaplan – Rabbi and founder of the Reconstructionist Judaism.
When Rabbi Reines, who was the rabbi of Swinchan described the place he is going to be a rabbi in, he writes:” a city full of scholars and writers”.
Another story that can bring light to the character of the Swinchan Jews can be found in the memories of Nahum Meir Schaikewitz (known as “Shomer”), a famous Yiddish writer.
While learning in the prestigious Volozhin yeshiva known as the “mother of all yeshivas”, “Shomer” describes the special purim rav tradition, in which one of the students is chosen to be the rosh yeshiva during the time of purim. “Shomer” tells a story of one year the students were divided on choosing the rav purim one group was from Swinchan and the other was from Daugavpils (the jewish shtetl דענענבורג) the war between the two groups became ugly. The Swinchan group called their rivals “barefoot band” while they were nick named “mischievous boys” because they were considered spoiled brats
Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines
From 1869 to 1884 (most of the time Michael’s father was in Swinchan) the rabbi of Swinchan was rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines. On 1882 Rabbi Reines founded a yeshiva that was a first of its kind in Lithuania, that revolutionized the world of learning of torah. The yeshiva established a curriculum that included secular subjects. This brought the rabbi many enemies especially among the Chabad chassidim that lived in swinchan (more about them soon) but not only. An informer, who was not happy with the secular learning in the yeshiva, led to the Rabbi being arrested in Petersburg and held in jail. Later on closing the yeshiva.
Rabbi Reines who later on established the “Mizrahi” movement, is considered the father of modern orthodoxy and the father of the national religious movement.
I believe that Michael was influenced a lot from Rabbi Reines
Swinchan and Chabad
Chabbad relates to Swinchan from the establishment of the chassidut. Among the chabad chasidim there are stories of the “baal hatanya” visiting Swinchan and of an enigmatic figure, one of the rebbe’s disciples called R’ Michal Apatzker (ר’ מיכל אפאצקער) who lived in Swinchan in the 18th century.
Most of the shtetl population were not Chabadskers and sometimes disagreements surfaced. I found a very amusing story from the Hebrew newspaper (that probably is not told in Chabad literature):
This article is about how chassidim that drunk on there chag and vandalized some houses in the village, got arrested by the police and (probably after bribery) got released.
On March 1st, 1881, Tsar Alexander II (the guy that sold Alaska to the Americans) , a popular monarch, was assassinated. Although of the six conspirators subsequently rounded up, only one was Jewish (a young woman named Gessia Gelfman), pogroms broke out in many southwestern areas of the Pale of Settlement (the Hebrew press gave the pogroms the name southern storm – סופות בנגב).The pogroms caused a wave of Jewish emigration that would eventually spread to other parts of the Pale that continued for many years. The Jews of Lithuania were initially spared because the Governor of Vilna Province prohibited pogroms. But fires set by arsonists ravaged many Jewish neighborhoods throughout Lithuania.
On the 22nd of June 1887, a great fire killed three-fourths of Swintchan’s population probably as part of the pogroms that started the southwest. Maybe this is what sent the Posimensky family to England.
Tuvia and Mariasha become Davis and Mary.
Census in the United Kingdom
Since 1801 the UK have a census every 10 years. I searched the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census, but found data only in the 1911 census
The 1911 census has 13 people named Posimensky .
Here is a list of the names, their ages and places of birth as appears in the 1911 census:
- Davis Posimensky, 50 , Russia
- Mary Posimensky ,47 , Russia
- Simon Posimensky, 28, Russia (written in a different county: North Manchester)
- Michael Posimensky, 26, Russia
- Ray Posimensky, 26, England
- Aleck Posimensky,23, Russia
- Leah Posimensky, 19, England
- Ray Posimensky, 16 , England
- Nancy Posimensky, 14, England
- Dora Posimensky, 12, England
- Solly Posimensky, 10, England
- Asher Posimensky, 4, England
- Nathan Posimensky, 2, England
- Asher and Nathan are actually Michael’s sons, Michael got married to Rachel on 1905, 6 years before the census (one of the Ray Posimensky’s is probably Michael’s wife Rachel)
- The records have Michael’s parents named Davis and Mary – form Tuvia and Mariasha in Lithuania/Russia to Davis and Mary.
- In my opinion the most interesting point is that Davis here is a private name (!). Can it be that the surname Davis started out as a private name?
Maybe, here is my wild assumption 🙂 , an ashkenazic/Russian/ Lithuanian/ Yiddish pronunciation of Tuvia became Davis, and with time, no one really knew if Davis is a first name or last and became the family name.
- According to the diary 2 girls and 2 boys where born in Russia (“my mother, G.R.H.S., followed, with the four children – two sisters,my brother, and myself”.) So I guess the girls were married and had another surname and maybe the Simon that is mentioned here is Davis’s brother (?)
- That means Davis and Mariasha had 9 kids (!!)
OK so that was the first chapter of me going in the footsteps of Michael Philip Davis, if you think I am terribly wrong, detected I have awful english mistakes, or have any other comment I will be glad to hear, like so if you posses any documentation or picture that can help me please contact me
during my digging in the archives of Swinchan I saw that there are mentions of a family referred to as “POSHUMENSKI” this might be connected to Posimensky.
getting hold of these documents entails a fee, so i didn’t want to invest money for something that might be a wild goose chase, if there will be a group of people that each donate a little money I will dig in to the Swinchan archive, so if you are interested let me know