In the second half of the 19th century, chess life in Poland was concentrated in cafes. This was the case in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków and Lwów. At the turn of the century, the first clubs began to emerge. In 1899, the Warsaw Chess Supporters Society (WTZGSz) was established in Warsaw, and in 1903, the Łódź Chess Supporters Society (ŁTZGSz) was established.
In both cases, the goal was to create better conditions for the lovers of the royal game for the development of the art of chess. And there was someone to fight for, as Polish chess players - mostly of Jewish origin - played a leading role in the world. The most famous of them was Szymon Winawer, who successfully participating in the strongest tournaments in Europe, did not agree to the plaque with the word "Russia" and replaced it with a plaque with the word "Warsaw". Akiba Rubinstein played in Łódź, who before World War I was considered the most important contender for the world champion title. Next to him, Henryk (Hirsz) Salwe had his triumphs.
Why was chess so popular among Polish (and not only Polish) Jews? It seems that several factors contributed to this. First, old Jews believed that playing chess was an excellent training for their male descendants, because logical thinking prepares them to run a business. Secondly, in Poland, many young Jews really wanted to assimilate, move to Christian districts, visit Christian cafes, theaters, and then cinemas. Chess skills could facilitate this process of assimilation, as well as possessed property. Having both, one could safely pass for a Pole of Jewish origin.
Chess was the religion of an enlightened Jew, the religion that gave Poland medals and prestige in the chess world of that time.
The period of World War I meant a significant reduction of clubs in Poland. After the war, it was not easy either, as the young state had to repel the Bolshevik invasion in 1920. Additionally, Winawer (1919) and Salwe (1920) died. Nevertheless, starting from the 1920s, representatives of the political establishment joined the organizational activities in Polish chess - Józef Piłsudski, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, Aleksander Skrzyński, and Władysław Raczkiewicz. In Sosnkowski's apartment, Akiba Rubinstein, Dawid Przepiórka and Józef Dominik, who died in 1920, met at the chessboard. In turn, Piłsudski was the patron of the first tournament in independent Poland, which took place in 1919. It was unexpectedly won by Zdzisław Belsitzman (who most likely died a few months later as a result of wounds sustained in the war with Soviet Russia), ahead of several famous players of Jewish origin: Alexander Flamberg, Akiba Rubinstein and Dawid Przepiórka.
The first of them was most successful just before the First World War. After its end, he joined the chess life of the capital of the country, and in 1924 he won the prestigious tournament of the Warsaw Chess Supporters Society (TZGSz). It seemed that nothing would prevent his promotion to the Polish national team for the Olympics in 1924. However, a disease forced him to withdraw from active play. Aleksander Flamberg, one of the strongest Polish players in the first two decades of the 20th century, died in 1926. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
In the 1920s, Akiba Rubinstein rarely resembled himself in terms of strength and effectiveness from before the outbreak of World War I. In the middle of the decade, he left Poland for Belgium, but came to the national championship in 1927 in Łódź and achieved a beautiful victory, beating Ksawery Tartakower. It was his last triumph in Poland. After a few good tournament performances in the late 1920s, Rubinstein showed a fantastic form during the Olympic Games in Hamburg, which Poland won in 1930. Unfortunately, soon after, our most famous chess player's mental health deteriorated and he had to give up competing in tournaments.
The monthly "Szachy" wrote in 1957:
"Rubinstein was modest and polite, even his competitors had nothing to complain about; calm and silent, he stayed away from personal games. It was extremely rare to see him talking. At the chessboard, always proper sportsmanship, he never protested, he was always composed, very often he did not know who he was playing against, he always had the most dangerous opponent in front of him - a concept that had to be fought.”
Rubinstein miraculously survived World War II in a Belgian psychiatric clinic. He died in Antwerp on March 15, 1961.
Dawid Przepiórka came from a Jewish family whose male line had lived in Warsaw for generations. His mother was the daughter of Rabbi Fradkin from Lublin. Przepiórka, however, always thought of himself as a Pole. His father was very rich (he had eight houses, among others), but he was most proud of his son's unique abilities. David at the age of seven learned the secrets of chess and remained faithful to them throughout his life. He was nine years old when the Warsaw press hailed him as a "prodigy", and at the age of twelve he won the show game with the champion Jan Taubenhaus.
Przepiórka studied in Germany and moved to Switzerland during World War I. He returned to Poland in 1919 and settled in Warsaw at 64 Polna Street. He was a frequent guest at the WTZGSz headquarters at 8 Wierzbowa Street. He took part in national and international tournaments, edited chess columns, and in 1926 became the vice-president of the newly created Polish Chess Association. In 1928, he became the editor of the most famous Polish chess monthly in the interwar period, "Świat Szachowy". In the same year, during the Olympics in The Hague, he won a silver medal and the title of vice-champion of the amateur world. Like Rubinstein, he was the backbone of the winning national team at the Olympic Games in Hamburg. He scored 8 points from 12 games.
After the Olympics, he concentrated on editing the monthly and on chess composition. When in 1933 he failed in the qualifying round for the Olympic team, he said that he was playing badly because he was getting old, and decided to give way to the young. However, this "aging" did not prevent him from playing a key role in the organization of the Chess Olympiad in Warsaw in 1935. After the tournament, he went to Poland to promote chess. After the German attack on Poland in September 1939, Przepiórka first lost his apartment and then the tenement house at the corner of Nowy Świat and Aleje Jerozolimskie. He was arrested by the Germans in the Kwieciński chess cafe. After a short stay in the prison on Daniłowiczowska Street, he was most probably murdered in January 1940 in Palmiry.
Another of the gold medalists from Hamburg, Ksawery Tartakower, came from a Polish-Austrian Jewish family, and was born in 1887 in Rostov-on-Don. He graduated in law in Vienna, but chess was more important to him than his career as a lawyer and he devoted his whole life to them. He was both a player and a chess theorist and journalist, a citizen of the world. He played in five or six tournaments a year, lived in hotels, never started a family. Rated to be a top ten player in the world. In 1926, Tartakower accepted an invitation from the authorities of the Polish Chess Association and decided to represent Poland. He spoke Polish poorly, he never lived in Poland, he spoke German with the other representatives during the "golden" Olympics in Hamburg. During these competition, congratulating his opponent on the victory, he spontaneously said: "Poland is not yet lost" … In 1927 he won the Polish vice-championship in Łódź (second to Rubinstein), and although he played in the national team at subsequent Olympics, he appeared in Poland only in 1935 as a coach of the national team preparing for the Warsaw Chess Olympics. Poles, led by Tartakower, won bronze medals there.
Tartakower came to Poland for the last time in 1938. A year earlier he won the national championship in Jurata, now he took part in the second ŁTZGSz jubilee tournament. He took second place in it. In 1939, he was a playing coach at the Olympics in Buenos Aires. After the tournament ended, faced with war in Europe, he refused friends urging him to stay in Argentina and traveled to France to oppose the "murderers of the Jews." Then he joined the forces of General de Gaulle, and after the war he took French citizenship. He never came to Poland again. He died in Paris in 1956.
In the mid-1930s, Tartakower wrote that:
"not only world champion Alekhin recognized Warsaw as the city of the strongest chess players in Western Europe; not only the specific style of play of young Polish talents (...), but also drawing on this strange cornucopia has become a reservoir of chess genius for other countries”.
One of such talents was Szymon Winawer's nephew, Paulin Frydman, born in 1905. He was less than 20 years old when he qualified for the pre-Olympic qualifications in 1924, and in 1926, in the first Polish championship, he won second place behind Dawid Przepiórka. He was fifth in the following championships, but the first two places were as if "reserved" in advance for Rubinstein and Tartakower. The best chess period in Frydman's life fell in the 1930s. In Warsaw, he could often be found in the Kleszcz cafe at the intersection of Marszałkowska and Nowogrodzka. Here, with their closest friend Mieczysław Najdorf, they used to play ... dominoes, as they both considered playing chess at low stakes to be a waste of time. Paulin Frydman represented Poland at all interwar Olympics, except for the 1924 Paris Olympics. He also went to Buenos Aires in 1939 and then remained in Argentina. In the early 1940s he withdrew from tournament play. He died in Buenos Aires in 1982. Apart from Najdorf, his friend in exile in Argentina was Witold Gombrowicz.
Mosze (Mieczysław) Najdorf was born in 1910. He did not mature in chess before the Hamburg Olympics, but was the foundation of the Olympic team in the second half of the 1930s. He was considered an excellent tactician, the best player in Poland, gifted with great fantasy, not only in chess. The tragic fate of his family during World War II became a symbol of the catastrophe of Polish chess in that period. Najdorf lost not only his whole family but also all his friends in the slaughter of the Warsaw ghetto. No wonder he had nothing to come back to in Poland. He remained in Argentina and continued his chess success as Miguel Najdorf, started a family and became successful in business. The classic "life after life".
In addition to these great chess players, there were players who did not achieve such spectacular successes, but were dangerous in single games. In the first Polish championship in 1926, the bronze medal was won by Dr. Stanisław Kohn, who previously played at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Kohn played sporadically in the 1930s, as he devoted himself to medical work in the provinces. He was murdered together with Przepiórka in Palmiry.
The next two places in this championship were taken by Jakub Kolski and Mojżesz Łowcki. The former came from the Łódź chess community. He was most successful in the first half of the 1930s, but he never played in the Olympics. He was called up to the team for the Munich Olympics, but refused to play in Nazi Germany, as did several other Jewish chess players. After the outbreak of the war, he was locked in the Warsaw ghetto, where he died of starvation in 1941.
Mojżesz Łowcki was most successful in the 1920s. In the next decade, he appeared on the tournament arena sporadically. Similarly to Przepiórka and Kohn, he was arrested in Kwieciński's cafe and murdered at the beginning of 1940 in Palmiry.
During the Olympics in The Hague, the Polish team included Abram Blass and Mendel Chwojnik. In the first Polish championship in 1926 in Warsaw, they shared 8th-9th place, scoring 11 points. In the next championships in 1927 in Łódź, Chwojnik overtook Blass by half a point and shared the 5th-7th place with Paulin Frydman and Stanisław Kohn. In 1935, Blass emigrated to Palestine, but he retained his attachment to Poland, as in 1943 he joined the army of General Anders. After the war, as Moshe Aba Blass, he represented Israel. He died in Tel Aviv in 1971. In turn, Chwojnik spent the war in a Soviet labor camp. After returning to Poland, in response to the news of the Kielce pogrom and other anti-Semitic demonstrations, he left for Israel and, as Menachem Oren, represented the colors of the new homeland at the chess Olympiads. He died in Tel Aviv in 1962.
Izaak Schächter, one of the strongest Lwów chess players in the second half of the 1930s, described by Tartakower as "a chess giant full of courage", found himself in Israel with Blass and Chwojnik after the war. After the Soviet troops entered Lwów in 1939, Schächter joined the militia and managed to evacuate eastwards to Kazakhstan after the Germans entered. In 1941 he joined Anders' army, where he was a shooter in the 13th Infantry Regiment. After the war, he stayed in Palestine. He changed his name to Aloni and represented Israel at the Chess Olympics. He died in 1985.
Other chess players who ended up in Lwów in 1939 were less fortunate than Schächter. Born in this city, Edward Gerstenfeld lived in Łódź before the war and was successful in ŁTZGSz tournaments. At that time, "Gazeta Polska” placed him among fourteen international champions. The outbreak of the war found him with his family in Lviv. Gerstenfeld joined the Spartak club after the Soviets entered and won the club championship tournament in 1940 with a score of 100%. Then he even played in the final of the USSR championship, but took a distant place. At the time of the German attack on the USSR, Gerstenfeld was in Rostov-on-Don and it is not known whether he died in the Lviv ghetto or in an extermination camp. All traces of him have been lost, just like those of Isaac Appl, an excellent Łódź chess player, Polish representative at the Olympics in Folkestone and Stockholm. After the outbreak of the war, he escaped from Łódź to his family in Drohobycz and ended up in Lviv. Here he participated in chess life until 1941, but after the Germans entered the city, he disappeared without a trace.
Henryk Friedman was the "full-time" chess champion of Lwów from the mid-1920s. However, he was most successful in the 1930s, and the second place in the Polish championship in Warsaw in 1935 gave him a place in the Olympic team, which won the bronze medal in Warsaw. Friedman did not join the 1936 Munich Olympics boycott, from which he returned with a silver medal won by the team and a great individual score of 15.5 points from 20 games. The war found Friedman in Lwów. Unfortunately, he supported both the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty and wrote thanksgiving addresses to Stalin. After the Germans entered in 1941, he did not have time to evacuate. He was taken to the German Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, where he was murdered in the gas chamber on June 26, 1942.
The tragic fate of the above-mentioned was shared, among others, by Achilles Frydman, the leading Łódź chess player, murdered in Palmiry in 1940; Abram Szpiro, also from Łódź, murdered in a concentration camp; Henryk Pogorieły, medalist from Munich, brutally murdered in the Pawiak prison with his wife and child; or Aron Zabłudowski, the strongest player in Białystok, burned alive by the Germans in 1941 along with several thousand Jews in the Białystok synagogue.
The list of great players of Jewish origin could go on for a long time. Of the ones mentioned above, one could put together a few great Olympic teams, each of them having a chance of a very high position in the competition.
• Gawlikowski S., Arcymistrzowie, Warsaw 2016
• Wolsza T., Słownik biograficzny szachistów polskich, t. 1-5 Warsaw 1995-2007